Innocence for some

The op-ed “Let Black Kids Just be Kids” appearing in today’s New York Times addresses the racialized notions of innocence and corruption and children that have dominated American culture since the mid-19th century:

According to the author, White children have been associated with purity and innocence whereas Black children are portrayed as more sexualized, violent, and adult-like. One result, according to Robin Bernstein, is that the appearance and behaviors of Black children are judged through a harsher lens in our society. That’s one of the reasons why a Black child wearing a hoodie is perceived as dangerous, while a White child in the same attire might not attract much attention at all.

Bernstein’s essay is solid and provides ample historical context to prove her point. I also think that (too) many African American children, like the little girls who regularly congregate in Edwina’s apartment, have a look of weariness and distrust in their eyes. They have felt racism, both direct and indirect, in their short life. Survivorship in such a setting requires donning an extra layer of guardedness.



The real problem behind food stamps

Too often in society, we point a finger at solutions that just don’t work rather than examining more closely the underlying problems that led us there in the first place.

In an editorial in today’s New York Times, readers are encouraged to stop fixating on the weaknesses of the current food stamp system–a program devised of good intentions and legitimate need. Rather, we might take to task those employers who fail to pay workers a sufficient wage leading many of these employees in search of a way to afford food for their families:

One of the components of critical thinking that I emphasize in my courses is problem-solving, specifically the process of “unpacking” a situation until it can’t be unpacked further. The goal of this exercise is to encourage students to keep digging until they discover the root problem that underlies a host of solutions (some promising and others not so much). I ask them to define the problem and its scope, the constituencies affected by the problem, potential benefits and drawbacks of addressing the problem from certain angles, the criteria by which a solution should be measured.

“If you expend all of your energy on a ‘problem’ that is borne of other, more central problems,” I tell my students, “you’ll often discover you’ve wasted a good amount of time without making any headway.”

A special lunch

This morning, my 15-year-old daughter, Helena, and I headed to Grace Episcopal Church in the neighborhood of Woodlawn to serve lunch to people from the area. Woodlawn is one of the poorer parts of Birmingham, and the majority of people who walked through the door were either homeless or living in substandard conditions. Surrounding the church are dilapidated buildings, many like the houses in Edwina’s previous neighborhood. They are the kinds of homes and abandoned buildings that likely provide a bit of shelter at the same time they threaten the lives of those dwelling within. Many are standing in mid-crumble.

My cousin Tim, who grew up just a few miles from me and also lives in Birmingham, had invited Helena and me to join him and others for cooking and serving. His church had committed to help out and he wanted to make sure there were enough hands on deck to feed the 100+ people who showed up.

While I’ve volunteered many times with people in Birmingham who are homeless, the experience was a new one for Helena. During the past several years, Helena and Celia have gotten to know Edwina and have visited Church of the Reconciler where homeless folks from across the city come to worship, get warm (or cool, during the summer months), and fill their empty stomachs. But they’ve not interacted with people in quite the way we did today–greeting people, mostly men, when they walked into the church hall; seating them at tables and serving them restaurant-style; and most importantly, engaging in conversation.

Before the doors opened, Tim reminded all of us volunteering that our job was “not to make ourselves feel good about helping out the less fortunate,” but rather to “make our guests feel welcome and cared about.”

So often, those who live on the streets are made to feel invisible. Unseen. Uncared for. Unimportant. All of the “un’s” imaginable. Today was about making people know that they do matter. They are seen.

Helena benefited from the experience and thought that some of the people she talked with enjoyed themselves. She knows they liked the food. I hope she’ll want to go back again one of these days.

One hope I have for both of my girls is that they will seek out opportunities to see all people as they deserve to be seen.




Alabama in the news, again

During the past week, Alabama has been front and center in the news. Again.

The majority of media attention has focused on the refusal of far too many judges in the state to issue marriage licenses to gay couples, despite a federal judge’s decision that a ban on same-sex marriage in Alabama (along with bans in other states) is unconstitutional. Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore disagreed with the federal judge’s decision and advised judges throughout the state not to go along with it.

Once again, Alabama goes its own way. It’s an embarrassment and a message to the world that “we don’t do things like the rest of y’all.”

I came across another story this morning that made me even sadder:

In a bedroom community of Huntsville, Alabama, a city which is known for being progressive, especially in the spheres of science and technology, an elderly Indian man was stopped and abused by police. The reason? He looked different and didn’t speak English.

I promise that not all of us in Alabama are so narrow-minded.

Race and Health Disparities

U.S. News and World Report addresses the vast differences in health outcomes between white and black Americans:

The report is far from surprising. People from varying socioeconomic groups, which oftentimes parallel color lines, experience life differently. Family traditions, cultural assumptions and expectations, and hereditary predispositions affect how people live and the diseases from which they suffer.

I see many of the patterns mentioned in the article during my visits to Edwina’s apartment and in contrast to my own family’s lifestyle choices.

Edwina struggles with obesity and smoking, trying but never quite achieving the kinds of dietary changes that would enable her to lose weight and get the exercise she needs to make smoking an inconvenient pastime. Bruce and the girls and I wake up and have our running shoes on before we finish eating breakfast, making sure to leave enough time to hit the trail near our house before the work of the day begins.

The difference between Edwina’s world and mine, I believe, has little to do with personal motivations.

As noted in the article, many layers contribute to health disparities: education, lifestyle, environment, genes. The complexity is yet one more reason to quit pointing fingers and assigning blame when people get sick. It makes far more sense to begin peeling back the layers to understand what lies beneath.

Doctor’s orders

Edwina called me late yesterday afternoon to tell me that she’s in the hospital at Princeton, a facility just a couple of blocks from her apartment. On Saturday, she said, she got “to coughing real bad” and “couldn’t catch [her] breath.” The ER folks clocked her oxygen level at 80%. The docs also discovered blood clots in her legs, so Edwina’s been receiving blood thinners along with oxygen and steroids for her COPD.

I made my way to Room 5117 this morning, bearing gifts of red grapes (Edwina’s favorite!) and a word search book focusing on the scriptures. Edwina’s face lit up when I handed them over.

We talked for more than an hour. Edwina told me that she was ready to go home, since she has an oxygen machine and her CPAP machine there to use.

“The doctor says I got to use both of my machines all the time,” Edwina told me, looking weary at the very thought.

Plus, she said, “I kicked Tyrone out. He make my blood pressure go up. And Joe-Joe [Edwina’s brother] says he ain’t gonna smoke in my apartment anymore or let in anybody who do.”

Edwina told me she was worried about how to get all the prescriptions she was probably going to need when she was released from the hospital.

“I already get four medicines,” she said, listing them off on her fingers. “And Medicaid only lets you get five prescriptions every month.”

I requested a visit from one of Princeton’s social workers, who arrived within ten minutes to talk over the problem with Edwina. Mandy told Edwina that she’d send the pharmacist from the hospital up, telling Edwina that this woman is particularly effective at finding the cheapest routes possible to filling prescriptions. Through coupons and special delivery plans, Mandy thinks Edwina might be able to manage.

The doctor’s visit interrupted our conversation, as a tall man in a white coat strode in with a team of doctors in training.

After a brief check on Edwina’s breathing, the doctor told her that she’d be going home either later today or tomorrow.

“You’ve got the oxygen machine and the CPAP at home and I want you to use them,” he said sternly.

“And,” he continued, “either you quit smoking or you’ll die. It’s that simple.”

I chimed in with a question about how to make the nicotine patches more afforable for Edwina. Her last attempt to use them cost her $85 at Wal-Mart, and she wasn’t able to buy more than one box.

“How much do cigarettes cost?” he replied.

“‘Bout $4 a pack,” Edwina said.

“So what’s a better deal, cigarettes that are gonna kill you or patches that are going to help you stop and save your life?”

“Yes, sir, I know I got to quit,” Edwina responded, lowering her head–a sign that I’ve come to recognize as Edwina’s response when she’s embarrassed about being scolded.

All I could think as I walked down the hospital hallway at the end of my visit was how hard the doctor’s reasoning would be to implement. I’m certainly not in favor of Edwina resuming her smoking habit, but the fact is that she can afford $4 many days to pick up a pack of cigarettes. But her lack of money management skills makes reserving $85 for a box of nicotine patches close to impossible.

In situations like this, I’m reminded of the need for medical professionals to educate themselves about the circumstances of many patients’ lives that make following doctor’s orders a lot more complicated than it might seem on the surface.

Poor doors

An article from addresses the different treatment New York residents are receiving based on the rent they pay:

Apparently, those who pay a lower rate, thanks to programs meant to make housing more affordable for individuals with lower incomes, lose out on various perks: access to on-site fitness centers or front door entrances. While some are just fine with these disparate arrangements, others are comparing it to a caste system.