By Mark Naison
The problems of America’s poor have been “off the grid” for some time.
Politicians of both parties reserve their concern for the middle class, fearing that any reference to poverty will destroy their electoral appeal. The one mass movement against social inequality we have had, Occupy Wall Street was predominantly white and college educated. But in a society where a majority of people are now likely to find themselves in or on the edge of poverty at some time in their lives, it was only a matter of time where the voices of the economically-and racially-marginalized broke through, and that, I suggest is what is taking place in Ferguson right now. People do not protest this long and angrily against the killing of a youth by police if they do not have many deep and long suppressed grievances, and not just against police. Nor will their protest have this kind of resonance around the nation and the world.
We as a society have pushed the problems of the poor out of sight and out of mind, and have depended on huge, highly militarized police forces to “keep them in their place” in a society increasingly segregated by race and class. That is why the police are the target of protests. They are the surrogate for the economic and political elites whose policies keep so many trapped in poverty.
But if protests remain focused solely on police, we will leave many of the underlying source of people’s suffering largely untouched. People need better jobs, higher wages, housing they can afford, more programs for youth, and schools which serve and uplift their communities as well as an end to the drug war and police forces which are less militarized
If those things all happen, alongside an honest discussion of how race shapes all these issues, perhaps we will save lives and avoid future tragedy.
Mark Naison is a Professor of African American Studies and History at Fordham University.