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Sunday, November 15, 2009

dress codes and missionaries

I haven't been posting lately. I've been busy and nothing has captured my attention. I read two different articles today that really got me thinking...and so I am sharing.

In the Camden Courier Post today, I read a feature story about a group called Urban Promise. They are a christian-based organization who's mission is to help urban, poor kids in Camden and other cities around the world. They have two private schools, after school programs, summer camp, internships, and lots of ways to reach out to urban kids for education, guidance, and spirituality. I don't care that they have a religious agenda. If it works for some kids, great. What took me by surprise was the literal "missionary" approach they take to fundraising from suburban white people. For just $2500 a year, you can "sponsor" a child. Just like on the late night infomercials, your dollars will go to "your child" who will write to you at least 3 times a year. You can write back because children prefer hand written notes. Huh? You cannot see them, email them, or otherwise be in contact. You cannot give gifts (except to the entire school class of your child), money, or see them outside of the classroom. I understand that a charity has liability limitations and is not wanting well-intentioned white folks to be played for cash. But think about how this positions these kids in the minds of those "sponsors." That's the crux of my issue with their approach. We instill in the minds of white people that their dollars will "save" these kids and that to have any real contact is dangerous. I believe this does more harm than good because it keeps a fixed and probably incorrect image of these kids in the white donor's mind. But then the Urban Promise people need that image so the dollars will continue to roll in. It's a strategy, but one that I think hurts the kids in the long run by perpetuating the stereotype in the donor's mind.

The second article I read was about Kansas City's Power and Light District, the downtown entertainment district built by a corporate developer with public money. Cordish Company has been criticized everywhere they build (I posted on this months ago because Philly has been considering building with this company). They install a dress code that enables them to discriminate overtly and covertly against blacks. They outlaw "thug" wear - any sports jersey's, bandanas, low slung pants, long shorts, long white t-shirts. This is a male oriented dress code to keep out gang bangers, urban roughians, and anyone who wears a fashion that says urban. They would probably outlaw tats, but too many white guys have them too.

The city Human Relations office did a black/white test of the dress code, sending in identically dressed blacks and whites to see if discrimination existed. Surprise! Not. More blacks than whites were denied entrance. The black community in KC has been claiming this for some time, and now it is documented. Several prominent black ministers have spoken out and they led a picket line downtown yesterday to protest the "discretion" used in applying the dress code. I think they have every right to expend their political and social capital any way they choose and if this issue is important, then go for it.

What I am concerned about is the avalanche of white privildege that is on parade in the comment section of the article. The general tone consists of - if you don't like it, don't try to patronize the establishment (my country, love it or leave it comes to mind...).

The criticisms include -
  • dress like a thug, get treated like a thug (which just oozes the priviledge of my dress is correct and yours is not)
  • statistics prove that blacks shoot up nightclubs, so why would a bar owner let them in...just asking for trouble (statistics prove anything don't they? Let's look at the homicide rate at biker bars and redneck taverns...)
  • I want to be able to keep my family safe and the minute I see potential trouble, I won't go back (the quinticential my dollars are more valuable than yours position, so don't piss me off)
And then the comments start getting to the heart of the matter -
  • blacks always claim "racism" when something happens they don't like. This isn't racism, it's a dress code (that says white people's clothes are ok and black urban clothes are not).
  • black preachers always "protest" - where are Rev. Jessie and Rev. Al - and then they will demand money! Where do the reparations end (considering there have never been any reparations paid...)
  • why do blacks always feel "entitled" to something (because they are discriminated against?)

When whites feel threatened, they play the race card by belittleing the protests and demands made by people of color who feel discrimination. Dress codes set up a white environment. Conform and we don't have a problem. Don't conform and we won't let you play with us. When the nonconformists, or rather those who have a different identity, protest that they pay taxes too and should be allowed into this publicly funded area, their identity is scoffed at, their demands are refused, and the white people play the superior victim role of safety. Do we not understand that the continual playing of the white race card serves only to deepen the wedge between races and encourage everyone to play their "role"?????

I was on a local train in south Jersey last night and it has an honor system for tickets. Now and again a security officer gets on the train and asks to see tickets. If you don't have a valid ticket you can be fined or usually, put off at the next station. So three young men (junior high age) were on the train as we sat at the station, got poached for having no tickets, and were told by the security guard to go buy tickets - they did, and got back on the train. All three had baggy pants and/or hoodies, 2 were black and one latino. The security cop was black. I've seen it go down in a much uglier fashion when the security cop is white. The kids tried to get away with something. They got caught and made a decision to pay and ride or not. As the train ride went along they bantered with each other, n***** this and that, cursing, and lots of other testosterone laden bravado. When their stop came, they got off. I'm thinking my observation and interpretation is quite different than most white people's - thug kids trying to get away without paying - typical hoodrats and their language is so threatening. I was afraid I would get mugged.

This is why the missionary approach of Urban Promise is so detrimental. It allows white people to maintain their stereotypes about poor urban kids while feeling good about how they are "helping." The problem is that it means that nothing changes in perception and as long as you look and act like me, we don't have a problem. People of color will continue to "rebel" because of this. We each get backed into our respective corners and harden our positions.

If whites were constantly told that their dress was inappropriate, that they were nothing but suburb-rats, that they were threatening because they are different, then white people would resent it, withdraw, be isolated, and be violent. If you were told you needed to be "saved" and you wanted to preserve some dignity, wouldn't you do what you have to, to make cash and be an outlaw? I guess the original white gangsters are just romantic anti-heroes...