This photo inspired a lot of reaction when it ran in the New Orleans Times-Picayune:
The piece was actually on the potential environmental impact of the demolition of a building near the project; however, a lot of the reaction came from readers who decried the fact that a boy in public housing would have an iPad. Times-Picayune columnist Jarvis DeBerry wrote about the controversy and the idea that there are certain things that are thought to be appropriate for those seen as poor (particularly those benefiting from government programming) to have and certain things like an iPad that are seen as inappropriate.
DeBerry lists a range of items judged to be expensive or otherwise inappropriate for the poor:
“Fancy rims have been known to set me off. Maybe for you it’s gold teeth, Air Jordans, the latest mobile phone. City Councilwoman Stacy Head used her taxpayer-funded phone to send an outraged email when she saw a woman using food stamps to buy Rice Krispies treats.”
He then goes on to look at the vindictive, unkind tone of many of the responses to the photo and take the writers to task. However, the larger question remains, what right do observers particularly taxpayers have to criticize? I could look at the photo and say that the iPod shows the availability of hundreds of dollars that should have gone toward rent thus perhaps enabling the family to move out of the projects. But that would be a huge stretch based on a large basket of assumptions. Who can get out of the projects for the cost of an iPad? Where did the iPad come from? Was it a gift? The questions can go on and they are really none of my business. Who am I to invent a hypothetical family situation and then use that hypothetical situation as a launching point for ill-informed opinions?
I know it is easy to project value judgments and assumptions, I think this photo and the subsequent discussion show the virtue of knowing what one does not know and thus knowing when not to judge.
This controversy has erupted recently. It is a problematic evocation of a food based stereotype associating a particular group with a particular food. Think if it had said African Americans and the food was fried chicken or watermelon. On the other hand, it is a re-tweet, a quick bit of supposedly biting humor. Still, people in politics should know better than to use such tasty but potentially unhealthy shorthand when talking of a group of people to whom they are trying to appeal.
Struggles of White Folks? Read These Short Stories
I just read “The Decline of White Workers,” a provocative opinion piece by Nicolas Kristof reprinted in my Sunday Cleveland Plain Dealer. He makes a number of points showing that white workers without a high school education “seem to be replicating the pathologies that have devastated many African-American families over the last generation or two.” Then he goes on to agree with the Moynihan report saying, “Moynihan was right to sound the alarms.”
He may be an opinion writer trying to stir up controversy, but “pathologies”? According to the Oxford English Dictionary pathology means “the study or investigation of abnormality or malfunction in the moral, social, linguistic, or other sphere; a moral, social, etc., abnormality or malfunction.” For Moynihan in the past to thus label on African-American families “abnormal” displayed a lack of both perspective and sensitivity, and for Kristoff to evoke that label again brings up the same issues.
More importantly, Kristoff sets up a false duality by creating an oversimplified comparison limited to white vs. black by showing how negative statistics for whites are approaching the negative statistics for blacks. Given the multiplicity of identities in American culture, this reduction does not reflect reality. Also, I question the political message. Is Krisoff saying that now that the white working class has drug, employment and other issues equal to black members of the same class, it is time to pay attention. In other words, it is time to pay attention because white people are hurting. I do not think he is quite going that far, but he comes close.
Lastly, I am interested in his support of the idea that one way to get men to behave is to have them marry women they care about. Kristof asserts that this is a “commonplace of modern criminology” a claim I would like to fact check. I thought the idea of women as civilizing influences who make men behave was a rather retrograde notion, but I could be wrong.