U.S.A. Tomorrow. . . . U.S.A. Tomorrow
Before every new country we visit, the Deans call a “Cultural Preport” meeting, during which we learn about the port and country, especially in terms of an overview of their economic and political condition and in terms of what we need to know in order not to offend. (The students haven’t always heeded this advice, as in several Asian ports when many of the young women went off the ship in shorts and tank tops: they got stares and scowls and sometimes even hisses or verbal dressing downs. After that, they paid closer attention!)
And every cultural preport meeting started with Dean Stuart saying something like “Ghana tomorrow. Ghana tomorrow. Ghana tomorrow” and the students cheering and clapping with delight. Well, we’ve just had a cultural preport meeting about the U.S.A., one the faculty began to plan when some students kept saying things like “I would love to help out at an orphanage, but we don’t have any orphanages in the U.S.” or “Our schools in the U.S. are so superior to these we are seeing,” or “Poverty just isn’t a problem in the U.S.”
So the cultural preport: U.S.A. tomorrow. U.S.A. tomorrow. U.S.A. tomorrow. Alex Nalbach, the Global Studies prof, kicked off with a guiding question, as he has done all semester with questions like “Why is West Africa so poor?” Today his guiding question was “Why is the U.S. so profoundly marked by inequality.” In opening, he pointed out that our GDP is not as high as that of Singapore or Japan and that among the 21 countries who are members of the Organization of Economic and Commercial Development; we are in the bottom 5 for poverty, income inequality, child poverty, and overall social justice rating. Quoting Martin Luther King in 1960, Alex said “one hundred years after abolition, we see a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast sea of prosperity.” (I’m not quoting exactly…sorry.) Noting that since 1970, we have seen more inequality and a slower growth rate, a deadly combination.
Next came Ridge Schuyler, who challenged the students to look around a little more closely in their own hometowns. Ridge lives in Charlottesville, VA, and he provided us with a case study of that city, deemed one of the most affluent in the east. With a population of 44,000, Charlottesville boasts a median income of $60,000. Not bad. Until, Ridge points, out, you “break it down.” Then you can see that the University of Virginia neighborhood has an average family income of $102,000—and the neighborhood just adjacent to it has an income of only $21,000. That’s just below the poverty line for a family of four, but when Ridge studied the area’s prices to see how much it would actually take to live, he came up with $25,379—NOT including money for child care or transportation to work. “I am sure you have a neighborhood like that where you live,” Ridge said: “Now go home and find it—and then do something about it.”
Heather Paxton talked to us about “food insecurity,” the term that has replaced “hunger” in government documents. As of 2010, 15.4% of U.S. households suffer from such insecurity—and that’s 48.8 million people, including 16.2 million children. Most troubling of all, these Census Bureau figures don’t include the homeless, so the percentage of those going hungry in our society is actually higher than the figures suggest. Next, John Downing spoke about the “American Dream,” the notion that anyone who works hard will eventually get ahead.” John showed us the underside of this notion: that anyone who doesn’t make it simply isn’t working hard: their poverty is their own fault. This John calls the “culture of poverty,” which is endemic in the U.S. right now, especially among right wingers who lump together terms like “welfare,” “crime,” “drugs,” “single mothers,” “ghetto,” “violence,” and “immigration” to condemn those who aren’t managing to keep up. As John pointed out, from 1930 to 1970 wages rose every single decade in constant dollars, but since 1970 they have fallen by 12%. This change has meant both parents working, just to stay off welfare. When we consider that 9 million families have been foreclosed since July, 2007, we see more and more families falling below the poverty line. To the students, John said, “take it from me: today, most of you will be very lucky to stay at the level of your parents’ income. Very lucky indeed.” Quoting George Carlin, he summed up by saying “It’s called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.”
By this time the students were looking at least a little stunned, but there was more to come. Stefan Helmreich traced the notion of citizenship in the U.S., revealing the exclusionary basis on which it was founded—largely along racial lines. Along the way, he told us where the word “Caucasian” comes from: the work of an 18th century fellow who thought he had discovered the Garden of Eden in the Caucuses because the skeletons there revealed “the most perfect skulls.” Since they were “most perfect,” he called them Caucasians, and the term came to refer to white people. Go figure.
Margaret Bass put to rest the idea that we have no orphanages in the United States. In fact, over 175,000 children are in orphanages today, the great majority of whom are not white and many of these labeled “unadoptable.” Among children living in poverty, 12% are white, 38% African American, 35% Latino; 13% Asian. Not that there aren’t plenty of poor white folks as well, she said. In her college town in upstate New York, where 93% of the residents are white, 18% are living below the poverty line.
Donna LeFevre then gave us some figures on incarceration in the U.S. Here, for once, we are clearly #1: we have the highest number of people per 100,000 incarcerated of any country in the world. We jail 962 per 100,000; Australia jails only 129; Japan only 55. And not to put too fine a point on it, Donna noted, black men are 6.5 times more likely to be incarcerated than white men. In fact, as of 2005, an African American male had a 1 in 3 risk of going to jail during his lifetime.
If we thought things couldn’t get much more bleak, we were wrong. Rob Thomas centered our attention on San Diego, our next port. “Do you remember all that trash in the streets in India, “he asked? Nodding heads all around. “So what do you think we’ll find in San Diego?” the students said “clean streets,” “no trash in the streets,” and so on. “Wrong,” said Rob: “San Diego is a mess an environmental disaster,” he said, “you just can’t see it.” He went on to say that societies can be divided into two groups, Lumpers and Spreaders. India is a perfect example of a “spreader” society, and that’s why we saw trash strewn everywhere we looked. America, on the other hand, is a perfect example of a “lumper” society: we lump our trash all together and then remove it from sight: out of sight, out of mind; that’s the American way.” He then offered some truly alarming statistics, from the fact that we are number 1 in the world in organic water pollution as well as in CO2 emissions and in the production of solid waste. In short, we are huge producers of garbage and of forms of pollution. That’s one reason people around the world take a dim view of Americans: they know that we are using up and indeed throwing away goods that would help keep them alive. Rob went on to connect environmental degradation to poverty, focusing on “Cancer Alley” in Louisiana, an area with 18 huge petrochemical plants in a 7.5 square mile area and a total of 125 companies discharging hazardous waste. This alley is, of course, in the poorest area of the state, and what does Louisiana do to protect its citizens: you got it: give tax breaks to companies who locate their plants here the poorest people live.
I was the last speaker on this panel, assigned to speak to the topic of literacy. But I felt so hopeless after hearing my colleagues that I could hardly rise to speak. Most important to me was the fact that these colleagues, all expert scholars in the area they were discussing, were trying as hard as they could to tell it like it is, to give a loud and long wakeup call to the students on this voyage, many of whom have never encountered, in their own home country, any of the problems being presented to them.
Could I offer any lessons that might give students ways to think productively about how to go forward? Well, I could point out that literacy rates in the U.S., while not as high as those in some places (like the state of Kerala in India, or in Japan), are relatively strong, with 87% high school graduation rates. The good news is that the more education you have, the better off you will be in the U.S.: the correlation between years of schooling and level of income is extremely high and has been so for a long time. The bad news is that there’s a big fat Catch 22 at work here. Earning is highly correlated to education—unless you are a woman or a person of color. Women continue to earn consistently less than men, even when they have the same or greater levels of education; the same holds true for Black and Latino workers. So, I was able to say, education is necessary for access and equality and success in the U.S.A., but it is not sufficient for access, equality, and success.
What holds true, however, is that education (and literacy, its byproduct) still offers possibilities, and today, during the biggest literacy revolution the world has ever seen, the young are reading and writing more than ever before, developing new and multiple literacies. And the internet is making education available in new and powerful ways—perhaps to those who have heretofore lacked access. This year, for example, a Stanford professor (Nobel prize winner) offered a course online for free—and something like 60,000 people signed up for it. What might happen if access to education truly were opened up to those on the lonely islands of poverty MLK spoke about half a century ago?
I concluded my remarks with some examples of people who had been kept down by an educational system rife with racism and destructive hyperindividualism—but who managed to break out of those constraints and claim education and literacy as powerful tools for themselves. They didn’t do so alone (that’s the false dream of hyperindividualism) but by building on and with the efforts of others. So I challenged the students not just to complete their Bachelor’s degrees but to continue with their education (taking a leaf from the book of the large group of Lifelong Learners on board) but also be aware of their own privileges and to form coalitions and collectives to spread those privileges to others. Education, I said, is the key: not sufficient, still, but necessary.
We’re not sure how effective our attempt at a cultural preport meeting was, though students have been writing and reflecting on what they heard and the ship has been abuzz with discussion. I must say that while I tried to conclude our session with some hope, I felt pretty overwhelmed with everything I had learned from my colleagues. In another day, I will arrive in San Diego and then travel on home to Stanford. Will I be able to act on what I have learned? I hope so. But even more, I hope the students will be able to do so. We all need to get home and take a good, new look at our own neighborhoods, at whom they include and exclude, and especially at what is so cleverly hidden from our view.