Redneck Central

You know I love antique malls and flea markets. I love browsing through rusty, dusty piles of cool stuff from earlier eras. Wash it down, call it vintage, and make your house feel more like home. Sometimes the stuff isn’t actually old; it is someone’s art or craft, made from found whatevers, but likewise hoping to barge into my heart and home. I tend to wander past this stuff. No judgment; it just isn’t usually what I’m looking for. Lately, I’ve noticed the escalating assault of crafts bearing the name ‘redneck.” Redneck windchime made of beer cans; redneck wineglasses made of mason jars; you get the idea. An entire industry is developing around the use of toothpicks, shotgun cartridges, peanut shells and hub caps.

Maybe it’s just me, and maybe I’m being overly sensitive, but this makes me really uncomfortable.

It isn’t just about arts and crafts. A pastor I was in conversation with recently referred to a place as “redneck central.” He wasn’t talking about a flea market or craft shop; he was talking about a neighborhood. Redneck Central. You can even substitute the word “hillbilly” for “redneck.” How short a leap is it after that to the term “white trash”? Sadly, I still hear that phrase as well, white trash, used to describe actual people, generally people living in poverty, people whose choices and opportunities don’t align with ours, people who are nonetheless our brothers and sisters.

Folks who could not imagine hurling racist slurs, who long ago quit saying “queer,” are still okay calling someone “redneck.” Why is that? Am I wrong to think the intent is pretty much the same? What are we really saying?

At UrbanSpirit, we begin every program week talking about the power of language. It matters how we talk to or about people living in poverty, living in the aftermath of conviction and incarceration, living on the fringes of what we call “normal,” “acceptable,” “honorable.” Words are codes sometimes forcing our hearers to draw conclusions, to ride the undercurrent of our meaning. And if they disagree, we say we didn’t mean it, we were kidding, they took it wrong, whatever.

I know there are people who describe themselves as “redneck.” Like black rappers who use the n-word and gay activists who use “dyke” or “queer” to identify themselves, they siphon honor from painful historical realities. Each of us has the privilege of describing ourselves in whatever way we choose. The problem rises when we assign words to others, words that bear our own unnamed ignorance, fear and disdain. I did not get the impression that the pastor who called the place “redneck central” was hoping to move there.

So, why didn’t I say something?

Coal to Newcastle

A five-hundred–year-old punchline jabs the pointlessness of sending coal to Newcastle, because Newcastle, in England, actually produced coal and had enough. Sending coal to Newcastle is about pointless gestures.

According to this morning’s Associated Press report, gifts are pouring into Newtown, CT, from around the world. Money, toys, food, whatever. Two-point-eight million so far – that is $2,800,000. “On Saturday, all the town’s children were invited to the Edmond Town Hall in Newtown to choose from among hundreds of toys donated by individuals, organizations and toy stores.”

But Newtown’s median household income is $110,000, 220 percent of the national median. Commuters to Manhattan and elsewhere. Doctors, executives, white collar folks. According to its own website’s economic development fact sheet, Newtown has a total population of 27,000, a poverty rate of 2.2 percent, and ZERO children under age 6 living in poverty. Its housing is 94 percent owner occupied. This is a devastated community, absolutely, but it is not a deprived one. I’m guessing the children had enough toys.

At the risk of seeming heartless and cynical, let me be clear: their heartache wasn’t caused by lack of money. And won’t be fixed by contributions. Money – even large amounts of money – can’t make up for the loss of children.

Meanwhile, in Chicago on Saturday, two children died in a fire. Firefighters tried hard to save them. Two others escaped. The fire was started by a hotplate used to heat the house. Two children dead and Child Protective Services took the other two away. Mom wasn’t home at the time of the fire. But she wasn’t known for leaving the kids alone, neighbors said. Maybe she was working? The babysitter bailed, and Mom left the 7-year-old in charge, maybe taking on an extra shift so she could afford toys for Christmas? At UrbanSpirit, we regularly have groups solve their simulated budgeting and childcare issues by leaving it in the hands of the 8-year-old. Maybe rank-and-file newswatchers are already assuming the worst, ready to blame this mother. Prosecutors are thinking of felony child endangerment charges, according to the CBS affiliate in Chicago.

It is possible that we’ll charge the Chicago mother with neglect. And maybe she is at fault. Or maybe not. Sadly, poverty is a crime in America. When you choose among bad choices, you end up with a bad choice. But we’ll blame her. Then, we’ll put the surviving kids in foster care and pay the foster parents a stipend to care for them. We will NOT send large amounts of cash to her, and maybe we’ll continue to resent the roughly $103 per taxpayer per year (based on the $50,000 median income) that we contribute to things we call “welfare.”

We feel powerless; I get it. And sending money to Newtown is a nice gesture, I guess; makes us feel better. But there are more effective things we could be doing.

We’ll probably have some kind of show of a “national conversation” about gun laws. But we’ve never shown the kind of political will it would take actually to change the laws.

While we’re at it, though, while we’re on the topic of alleviating human misery inflicted by others, let’s have a conversation about regressive taxes, unlivable wages, inaccessible childcare. In Illinois, the average annual cost of infant care is $12,199. The median income for a single mother is $24,833. Illinois has a childcare support program, but does it work? We know that applications and processes can be overwhelming, and changes in work hours or address or income can wreak havoc, and social services are generally the first to get cut when times are tough — indeed draped over the altar of bipartisanship in Washington today. What went wrong here?

Maybe we can also have a national conversation about the state of low-income housing. The building owner in Chicago was “crushed” by the news. “Wind back the tape and a parent could have been in the house, get everyone evacuated and then everyone would be fine,” he said. But, despite his skillful deflection, it is worth asking what shape the rental was in. How was the wiring? The electricity apparently wasn’t shut off (appliances were working), so why were the hotplate and space heater needed? Is the building owner negligent? complicit? Are prosecutors considering charges against him?

One could argue that Newtown doesn’t need the money. Maybe they’ll use it to build a monument, dedicate a park in memory of the children. Maybe they’ll hire more police officers, though they’ve recently been #10 on a “Top 101 Cities” list for numbers of police per 1000 residents. Maybe they’ll establish an anti-gun lobby.

Meanwhile a mom in Chicago cannot afford to bury her dead children, and won’t be trusted to care for the living ones.

There are a lot of conversations to have. But we just keep sending coal to Newcastle.