"The Other America": Still Invisible



Ron Briley reviews books for the History News Network and is a history teacher and an assistant headmaster at Sandia Preparatory School, Albuquerque, New Mexico.

A deserted, dilapidated street in Camden, New Jersey, 2009. Credit: Wikipedia

In 1962, Michael Harrington published The Other America, alerting middle-class Americans during the post-World War II affluent society and move to suburbia that poverty persisted in the inner cities and many rural areas. Responding to the pleas of Harrington and the awakening of the nation’s social conscience inspired by the civil rights movement, President Lyndon Johnson launched the War on Poverty, but these dreams of the Great Society and the programs required to address economic inequality were sacrificed on the altar of the Vietnam War. Since the Reagan era, the economic gap between rich and poor continues to grow, but, unfortunately, our ability to ignore the plight of the poor seems to have also increased fifty years after the publication of Harrington’s book

Current political debate focuses upon the condition of the middle class. Republicans such as Mitt Romney insist that lower taxation on the “job creators” will provide for the expansion of small business hiring and jobs for the middle class. Right-wing pundits such as Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly continue to perpetuate the myth that poverty is not structural but rather a personal failing. Meanwhile, Democrats, bowing to Republican accusations of class warfare, have generally exorcised terms such as poverty and the working class from their political vocabulary. And working-class institutions such as trade unions have been neutralized in Republican state legislative assaults upon collective bargaining rights. The Democrats, however, have sought to limit tax hikes on the middle class, defined as a family earning under $250,000, and passed a health care reform law which is considerably short of universal health care provided by a single-payer system.

Moving beyond the rhetoric of political campaigns, the invisibility of poverty was quite apparent in the violent events of late July 2012. On July 22, an apparently crazed gunman opened fire during a midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises. When the smoke cleared, a dozen lay dead with scores wounded, fighting for their lives. The tragic events in Aurora, Colorado galvanized the attention of the country, sparking an outpouring of national grief and a Presidential visit by Barak Obama to console victims and their families. Those who perished in this senseless violence are profiled by the media, and investigative reporters struggle to provide a profile of the alleged killer’s mental state. Although many Democrats have abandoned the gun control issue, the violence in Aurora ignited new concerns and debate regarding the proliferation of automatic weapons in the nation.

The coverage given to the Aurora shootings is certainly understandable, yet the failure of the media and politicians to pay attention to the slaughter in the streets of Chicago indicates that the other America remains ignored. Since 2001, over 2,000 American soldiers have died during the war in Afghanistan, while during that same time period more than 5,000 people have been gunned down in the streets of Chicago. Why does this staggering amount of violence not draw media and political attention? Of course, the Aurora violence included a large number of victims in a single public setting where most American feel safe and violent images should be relegated to the fantasy world of the movies. But for many residents of Chicago, carnage and violence have become far too commonplace. The crisis in Chicago seemingly fails to resonate with many Americans. Slaughter on the streets of Chicago fails to resurrect the debate regarding limitations on weapons and ammunition sparked by the events in Aurora, Colorado. The reason for this stunning silence seems to be the intersection between race and class alluded to by Harrington. The poverty-stricken inner city black neighborhoods are simply off the radar screen for middle-class white Americans who are afraid to venture into these neighborhoods. The local residents lack the economic opportunity to make such choices as they struggle to find employment. In the words of Harrington, the predominantly black residents of Chicago remain invisible to more affluent white Americans.

This cloak of invisibility also applies to undocumented immigrant workers as was made plain in Texas on the evening of July 22, the same night as the Aurora shootings. Near Goliad, Texas on U. S. Highway 59, the driver of a Ford F-250 pickup truck lost control of the vehicle, striking two trees and killing fifteen passengers and injuring eight others. The occupants of the overcrowded pickup truck were undocumented immigrants, many of whom carried no identification in their elusive search for the mythic American dream. Authorities continue to encounter difficulty in identifying the victims who remain invisible to mainstream America, and no newspapers carry feature stories about their hopes and dreams which were crushed forever along a dark stretch of highway in rural southern Texas.

Not much has changed since 1948 when Woody Guthrie penned the song “Deportee,” which his son Arlo often performs in concert today. Guthrie was incensed when he read of a plane crash in Los Gatos Canyon, California in January 1948 in which undocumented Mexican workers were being returned to their native land. Newspaper coverage included the names of the four crew members who perished in the crash, while the twenty-eight Mexican laborers who died were simply referred to as deportees. In his song, Guthrie sought to provide these workers with dignity by assigning them names and acknowledging the importance of their labor. Crucial to the nation’s economy, the undocumented workers remain invisible to most middle-class white Americans, whether it is 1948, 1962, or 2012.

Michael Harrington concluded The Other America with an appeal to the conscience of the nation. Documenting the extensive poverty amidst affluence in the United States, Harrington proclaimed, “For until these factors shame us, until they stir us to action, the other America will continue to exist, a monstrous example of needless suffering in the most advanced society in the world.” Despite Harrington’s plea, the other America of Chicago’s black residents and immigrant laborers from Mexico and Central America remains invisible. The violence in Aurora should draw shock and calls for reforms in mental health facilities and gun policies, but it is also a tragedy that as a society we continue to ignore the poverty and suffering in our midst. The ongoing economic decline along with the deaths in Aurora, Chicago, and Texas should encourage us as a society to fight for the alleviation of poverty and despair in the United States which Michael Harrington called for fifty years ago. Now more than ever we need to reach out to one another.

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