Monday, January 21, 2008

What Would MLK Do?

Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day!!! Indeed, while most of college America slept in this morning, many African-Americans were getting up to go to their low-wage jobs, including those who work in campus dining halls and in the janitorial business. This, I suspect, is not what Dr. King fought and died for, and so I spent my morning volunteering. What I did is immaterial. It did not change the lives of thousands, nor was it anything really worth writing about. I got out of bed a little early and worked with about 60 other students in the January chill. I didn't do this to ease my white, middle-class conscience because I know that what I did was really nothing in the face of what African-Americans and all minorities face every day of their lives. And besides, most simply donate $10 a month to some charity or other to ease their conscience, and it seems to work out well for them.

I had never really seen a housing project before this morning. I mean, I have seen them passing by in my car. I have read and heard about the terrible conditions. But what I saw this morning, I must admit, wounded any pride I had left in my country, which is, albeit, not much. Gloomy, dirty, depressing are words (inadequate words) I might use to describe what I saw. It certainly was nothing like the brick home in suburbia that I grew up in. How in god's name, I asked myself while sweeping a dark stairwell, do people live in these conditions? More importantly, how do we allow them to live in these conditions? I later learned that the yearly earnings of most people in these housing projects was something like $8,000. $8,000? Surely the wealthiest nation in the world can do better than that. That is not a living wage. I hate to say it, but this is simply a case of wanton negligence on the part of the government and the community. And I am part of that negligence.

It is no wonder that African-Americans have a high drop-out rate. It is no wonder that four generations have been pushed aside by society and into these wretched ghettos. When what you come home to every day is hell (not to mention that 80% of families living in the projects are single-parent ones, the mother being the parent), and your family situation is one of unease and instability, you are not very likely to perform well in an education system that caters to the wealthy and upper-middle class suburbanites. And I know my petty analysis of what I saw this morning is not nearly comprehensive. There are too many factors to consider. Nutrition, education, aesthetics, transportation, and sanitation are only the ripples on the surface of the black sea of social problems which plague this demographic. And the bitch of the thing is that we, the people who can help even if only in small ways, really don't give a shit.

Well, today I learned that I do indeed give a shit. As much as I care about problems overseas and the state of world affairs, the fact that this nation, which professes to be "modern," "progressive," "egalitarian," can sequester a large fraction of its population in such awful ghettos without much of anyone protesting this brings me to the conclusion that my efforts are needed on the home front. This looks like the beginning of a lifetime of service for me. I am fortunate enough to have nothing to lose.

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