Last 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?