“You Don’t Know What It’s Like to be Poor”

PoorLast week, it was the Democratic sound bite heard round the Internet – or at least, my private Facebook feed: “When you’re white, you don’t know what it’s like to be living in a ghetto. You don’t know what it’s like to be poor.” Bernie Sanders’ comment on institutional racism and systemic poverty eviscerated the fantasy enshrouding many of my friends.

“I grew up poor.” “What about my loans?” “I’m still broke!” “That’s racist!” The number of people who felt the need to defend themselves and their privilege, the number of people who tried to wage a contest of suffering was baffling. Yet, I knew that if his comment had this kind of a ripple effect on social media, there was one thing I had to do: talk to my students about it. 

Currently, we’re tackling a Common Core Standard that requires students to analyze the ways in which a variety of texts, genres, and media portray the same historical event. For this unit, we’d tackled the Civil Rights Movement, zeroing in on the race riots in Chicago. Right before the culmination of the unit, we looked at a quotation from Martin Luther King Jr. After calling for riots to be understood, MLK goes on to explain — not justify or condone — looting: It enables the most enraged and deprived Negro to take hold of consumer goods with the ease the white man does by using his purse.”  Then we compared it to Bernie Sanders’ comment.

After some unpacking and some discussion of really compelling graphics from The Atlantic and US News, my students started to get it. I have students from all races, religions, and socio-economic strata in my classes. They were very quick to point about that there are always exceptions to data and graphs. In fact, after one African American student commented about the wealth of her family, one of my white students replied, “Well, you probably expect me to have money but we’re pretty broke and always have been.” Another student mentioned some service work he and his family had done in Appalachia, which prompted the conversation to drive to other impoverished areas. There were, in fact, many examples of poverty impacting all different races and ethnicities. 

But then we returned to the historical perspective and trends over time. One student who immigrated here in elementary school even reminded us of slavery. For the better part of this nation’s history, one race and one gender enjoyed the bulk of the economic influence in this country. That’s not racism. That’s not socialism. That’s reality. Does Sanders really think that no white person has experienced poverty? Hardly. Could he have said it differently? Sure. But we also could work harder to understand the sentiments behind his statement regardless of our political stance.

So Tell Me…Is anyone else a little bit afraid of their social media feeds lately? What was your take on his comment?

“You Don’t Know What It’s Like to be Poor”

12 thoughts on ““You Don’t Know What It’s Like to be Poor”

  1. I wasn’t offended by his comment, and I have tried really hard not to pay too much attention to politics – especially on social media. This year’s antics seem really negative and over-the-top to me, and I don’t like it. The spin room is working overtime to make most candidates seem crazy, and it’s working!

  2. Wow, that’s some heavy conversations for the classroom. Sometimes the tough and uncomfortable conversations are the most important. Adults have a lot to learn from kids sometimes.

    No comment on the mess that is Facebook and election years. I try my best not to open my facebook feed.

  3. I am a moderate conservative (if there truly is such a thing), and it still makes me angry when people take things out of context to support whatever agenda they may have. People say things all the time, with the belief that people will understand their point, and not blow it out of proportion or analyze it to death. These days, however, it has become nearly impossible to make a simple statement without attaching an entire thesis documenting the ifs, ands, or buts. If you leave one thing out, people will flip out – especially in politics. I hate that.

    While I may not support everything Bernie Sanders says, I still try to understand his point of view. I agree that people have blown this thing way out of proportion. I’ve almost deleted my FB numerous times this election season. That being said, I refuse to be the person that blindly listens to the loudest, most rambunctious person.

    I agree with what you say here.

  4. Morgan says:

    Do you remember when Al Gore said:

    “Reports that say something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

    He was uniformly ridiculed but I think it was an incredible thought “What we know, that which we are aware of our lack of knowledge, and a lack of even that awareness.” Its a heck of an idea… too bad both of them sound like goobers.

  5. It’s been pretty heavy this year, maybe because the stakes feel so much higher and the candidates so much worse?, so sometimes I have to tune out at least part of it for a day.

    I’m glad you covered it in the classroom. It often feels like our only chance to turn the tide on the hate and the virulent anger is to help kids learn to think while they still can be openminded and understand that there is more than one way history can and is portrayed.

  6. I’m glad you’re instigating these discussions. Maybe the next generation will be able to have reasonable discourse about this stuff when they grow up.

    I think that he put it poorly, but yeah I don’t think he truly believes that whites can’t be poor/in the ghetto. Tim’s family wasn’t even particularly poor — just things were tight — but growing up in Tacoma, he honestly didn’t think he’d live to 30. He thought he’d get in the middle of something by accident or a drive-by shooting would occur and he’d be caught in the crossfire…

    That said, even when they’re on the same economic level, whites and blacks still have different experiences. Looking at statistics, blacks are still more likely to get arrested. So being poor and white is still (arguably) easier than being poor and black.

  7. I’m actually pretty fond of Bernie as a human being. He’s so different from what we’ve seen recently in politics. Now, will I vote for him? I don’t know… his tax policies make me worry. But when it comes to poverty and unknowns and all that, Colorado legalized pot a few years ago and everyone knew it would affect taxes and population growth and property values, but no one expected it to get to the point where students became homeless. Denver Public Schools students are increasingly becoming homeless due to rising rents. This, to me, seems like a huge issue that will lead to ripples in the future. I mean, people talk about a welfare state now, but if these students can’t even have a home to go to growing up, where will they be in ten to forty years from now? Everyone needs a nurturing environment, especially when growing up.

  8. Hey, Penny. I thought I was the only one who veered into the political realm! I think white privilege is a cop out. Indian, Iranian, Chinese, and Nigerian Americans don’t seem to have any problem doing well in our country. All four of these groups have higher incomes than white Americans. And our duplicitous media doesn’t help either. For instance, they will report that black Americans are suspended more from school than white Americans. What they leave out is that black Americans–and white Americans–are suspended more from school than Asian Americans. Is that the result of Asian privilege? No one is stopping anyone from embracing the traits of upward mobility (study, work hard, obey the law, save, procreate responsibility, etc.). To say otherwise may be good politics (way to demonize white Americans, Bernie!), but it doesn’t help black Americans avoid the behaviors and choices that lead to economic ruin. I curse you, Penny (but in a nice way). Every time a I think I’m done with politics for a while, I get pulled by in. Thanks for such a thought-provoking post.

    1. While I think we may see this a bit differently, I absolutely understand your points. And I think we cannot underscore the impact that the media has on political conversation always, and especially in this cycle. I will also say that when we looked at income charts, many students were upset at how Asian simply isn’t covered. We did find some charts where that demographic was leaps and bounds ahead, and it made for some really enlightening conversation. Lots of discussion about parental (over)involvement and pressures.

  9. Hey, Penny. Thank you for the considerate reply. Yes, America, people can disagree and still remain civil. Funny how you mentioned the missing Asian category on some income charts. I just read a research report on RealClearEducation.com that discusses how black college students have more student loan debt than white college students. Sounds pretty ominous. But towards the end of the report it says that students in the “other” race/ethnic category have debt burdens similar to whites. Who are these “other” students? Are they Hispanic and Asian students? Why were these students left out of the discussion? Would a research report that showed the student loan debt of black students being greater than the student loan debt of white, Asian, AND Hispanic students be less compelling?

    And this is why I distrust academia and journalism. Too many researchers, professors, and journalist are more interested in manipulating our emotions than in stretching the depths of our understanding.

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