The Middle Shall Inherit the Earth: America’s Sin of Omission

My first job after college was as a teacher in Cotulla, Texas, in a small Mexican-American school. Few of them could speak English and I couldn’t speak much Spanish. My students were poor and they often came to class without breakfast, hungry. And they knew even in their youth the pain of prejudice. They never seemed to know why people disliked them, but they knew it was so. Because I saw it in their eyes. […] And somehow you never forget what poverty and hatred can do when you see its scars on the hopeful face of a young child. I never thought, then in 1928, that I’d be standing here in 1965. It never even occurred to me in my fondest dreams that I might have the chance to help the sons and daughters of those students, and to help people like them all over this country. But now I do have that chance. And I’ll let you in on a secret… I mean to use it.

Lyndon Johnson (1965), calling for passage of the Voting Rights Act

It wasn’t always this way. When Lyndon Johnson spoke about “all Americans,” he made it crystal clear that he was talking about the poor and people of color. Check out his 1964 election ad and compare it to one of Barack Obama’s most popular ads. Obama talks about everyone but the poor—calling for more taxes on the rich and tax cuts for the middle class. Even Clinton’s much-heralded convention speech discussed how to “empower middle class families and help poor kids.” Notice that the specter of poverty among adults was kept offstage.

Listening to the presidential debates last week, you’d be blown away to discover that one in four black Americans is living in poverty. Or that one in four Hispanic Americans is living in poverty. Or that the national poverty rate for individuals is 15 percent. Mitt Romney mentioned the poor three times, and twice only to say how the federal government should stop trying to help them—first by letting states weaken Medicaid standards, and second by letting states voucherize public education. The final time, Romney argued that “one out of six people [living] in poverty” is proof of Obama’s failing economic policy. Shortsighted as that may be, at least he mentioned the poor. Obama didn’t mention the poor once, aside from a brief nod to those “striving to get in the middle class.” How’s that for #euphemismofthenight?

 I want to hit those numbers again. One in four black Americans is living in poverty. One in four Hispanic Americans is living in poverty. These numbers should be burnt into our collective conscience until we muster the political courage to do something about it. How many presidents? 44. How many states? 50. How many black and Hispanic Americans are living in poverty? One in four.

 And yet, all we hear about is the middle class—a term so vague as to be deceptive. Those “middle class” tax cuts Obama likes to discuss actually reach individuals making up to $250,000. (A quarter of a million, by the way, puts a family in the top 3% of households—decisively not “middle” in any rational sense.) And despite now-infamous 47% comments, Romney hilariously described his upbringing at the GOP convention by saying, “I was born in the middle of the century in the middle of the country.” Middle, no doubt, is in.

This is just a month after the U.S. Census Bureau released income and poverty figures for 2011. On September 12, the agency revealed the staggering 15% poverty rate, with 46.2 million Americans in poverty. Keep in mind this is according to the OMB’s threshold for poverty, which for a family of four in 2011 was a mere $23,021. Next time a probably-rich HLS student tells you they “need” to make $160,000 defending the wealthy, powerful, and corrupt (and white), try suggesting that (perhaps) they have no idea what “need” means.

More shocking than the general poverty rates is how poverty affects children—especially children of color. Nationally, more than 1 in 5 children lives in poverty. These 16.1 million children are disproportionately black and Hispanic. According to one prominent study, 39 percent of black children and 34 percent of Hispanic children live in poverty. In many states (like Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Ohio, and Wisconsin), roughly half of all black children live below the poverty level. That’s right: Half.

Such staggering rates explain why, in a recent UNICEF study of 35 wealthy countries, the US came in 34th—between Latvia and Romania. But at least we won the Olympics, right?

You might expect these figures to cause an outcry in a nation that considers itself the best country (company?) in the world. You might expect these figures, which have remained stagnant after three consecutive years of increases, to factor in to the media’s coverage of the presidential race. After all, last year’s figures were just as unconscionable.

Yet a recent study by Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) confirmed what we already know: the candidates don’t discuss poverty, and the media aren’t helping. The study analyzed six months of campaign coverage by eight prominent news outlets. The results say a lot about our political and “journalistic” culture: only 17 of the 10,489 campaign stories studied (0.2 percent) addressed poverty in a substantive (their word) way, and not a single one of the eight outlets published a substantive discussion of poverty in even 1 percent of its campaign stories.

You might ask, why’s talking about poverty such a big deal? Preach to the middle class, win the election, and then make changes that benefit everyone—including the poor. But talking about poverty is such a big deal because it changes what’s politically possible in America. The more we say “we’re all in this together” but only talk about the middle class, the easier it becomes to believe that “we” doesn’t include the poor. Furthermore, you don’t always win elections (see, e.g., the eighties and the aughts). And if you fail to defend the dignity and humanity of all Americans—especially the poor—when you’re in office, it’s going to be incredibly easy for the right to undercut education, healthcare, and employment programs when they’re in office. No wonder these programs are constantly under attack—even their supposed proponents don’t like to acknowledge the people they’re designed to empower.

It makes sense why politicians and the media focus on appeasing the middle class. First, they’re the bulk of the electorate. Second, in our corporate media market, poverty doesn’t sell. And third, studies reveal that we all like to think of ourselves as middle class—in other countries, too—although more and more Americans now identify themselves as lower class.

These aren’t justifications. And they’re not excuses. They’re obstacles. Recognizing them as such means that we need to be louder and more courageous when it comes to speaking about poverty in America. We need to speak with more conviction and more honesty as we develop a shared vocabulary to discuss the racial gap in economic opportunity. Healing poverty is a moral obligation, and it’s one we’re failing horribly. It’s time to call upon our politicians, journalists, and friends to articulate the “we” in “we’re all in this together.” Otherwise, it will be the middle who inherit the earth—all because we were too meek to tell it like it is.

Super Mario New World Order

The videogame press has been buzzing lately about Nintendo’s upcoming system, the Wii U. Normally, a new videogame or system would be nothing to get excited about because most entries in the genre endorse the worst kinds of Social Darwinism and stratification. The “heroes” of these games are in some way predestined as individuals for greatness—and this is celebrated—and the mechanics of these games are such that the heroes are more powerful than their enemies because they are inherently better and/or have established private ownership over weapons and armor inaccessible to others. Nintendo’s flagship protagonist, however, is different. The Wii U will feature a hero of the people: Super Mario.

To eyes accustomed to seeing the world through the veil of a bourgeois value-system, the name “Super Mario” seems inappropriate. Mario is an ordinary worker. He wears work boots and denim overalls, he is a simple plumber, and his dark hair, mustache, and name mark him as an ethnic-Catholic immigrant of the sort that has composed a substantial and iconic part of America’s working class from the Ellis-Island era to present day. Finally, Mario is not inherently especially powerful; he is killed by a single blow like his enemies (though some enemies are less vulnerable), and his only abilities are moving laterally, jumping, and his trade. Mario is decidedly proletarian, but we are to recognize him as a laudable hero capable of saving the Mushroom Kingdom.

The plight of the Mushroom Kingdom and Mario’s struggles through it similarly represent the struggles the oppressor has imposed on the oppressed through private ownership of property. Bowser has seized the land for himself and claimed an elevated status over the common people by calling himself “King of the Koopas.” Bowser dispatches his lieutenants in castles and various goombas and koopa troopas elsewhere to waste their labor ensuring that the land remains under private ownership so others cannot take according to their need. The system’s waste is demonstrated by the valuable, unused resources, like fireflowers, left to languish in question-marked boxes throughout the land. When the worker, Mario, rises up and seizes the means of fireball production from private ownership, he puts them to beneficial use and becomes recognizably “Super.”

The Koopitalist regime also creates reprehensible working conditions for Mario. Mario dies from preventable workplace injuries like being burned by lava, struck by loose koopa shells, falling into bottomless pits, and being crushed by heavy, angry stones. Like most entrapped in wage slavery, Mario subjects himself to these unconscionable dangers in a desperate attempt to collect enough coins to make a life. The dangers of exploitation through private ownership are punctuated by Mario’s encounters with the ghosts (boos) of dead workers; they pursue Mario and will harm him unless he looks at them, thus demanding that Mario (and the player) see and recognize the horrors wrought by wage slavery.

The Mario series personifies the latest innovation in oppression, the so-called New American Dream, in Princess Toadstool. Although she is a member of the upper class, being a Princess, she offers to make Mario a cake or invites him to a party before being “kidnapped” by Bowser at the beginning of each installment. The implication is clear; if Mario sacrifices enough of himself into the privately-owned machinery of production, for long enough, then he will not only earn a living but is also promised entry into the bourgeois party by joining the Princess. However, Mario is never really with the Princess—the promise is illusory, a manipulative form of oppression. Mario completes his work in each castle but repeatedly finds his fellow workers, Toads, instead of his Princess. The goalposts move throughout the game, causing Mario to work harder and suffer more dangers.

Even the state at the end of each game, where Mario is “reunited” with his Princess, is transitory. By the next game she is gone again, and instead of freeing Mario from his condition of labor and exploitation, the promise of the Princess works to trap him in that condition—just as the New American Dream of becoming rich manipulates the American worker into advocating against his own interests and for the entrenchment of the ownership class. Perhaps someday Mario (and the his non-digital comrades in the working class) will internalize the message that his princess is truly in another castle: the castle of socioeconomic revolution.

Cultural Literacy and the Law is a humor column written by an anonymous Harvard Law student. The column runs every other Monday.

The views in opinion editorials, columns, and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of The Harvard Law Record.

Must Louis Die?

As we trudge back to campus and into our regularly scheduled programming after a summer of either hazy debauchery and soul-sucking selling out or of getting a pre-graduation look at one’s impending impoverishment from a high horse, I have a few things to say in response to a certain Record piece and in general about the attitude pervading America this election season.

What is so wrong with being rich? I’m sure by writing this column, I will be inviting ad hominem accusations that my article-cum-viewpoint is worth less (or worthless) because I’m clearly biased and just another poor little rich girl living large on Papa Wang’s dollar and how could I possibly know what it’s like to be anything but upper-middle class. Well, the majority of the poor in the United States don’t know anything about what it’s like to be poverty-stricken in a developing country either, but no one goes around yelling at them about it. (As an example, the little boy I sponsor in the Philippines sleeps on a mat in his one-room aluminum shack and has to borrow water from his neighbor.) This isn’t to say that the poor should not be rightfully concerned about the current distribution of wealth in this country or that they should not be rightfully concerned with getting more assistance and a better standard of living. But doesn’t anyone else think that a column title of “Class Denial at HLS: Poor People Defending Poor People” would seem ridiculous?

As everyone seems to acknowledge, and our hallowed institution is insistent on drilling into us, people are self-interested. Those who are near the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder wish they had more. Those who are near the top also wish they had more. I don’t see the benefit or even the point of blaming one group for feeling the way that everyone does. There are some ridiculous characters among the super-wealthy who squander and flaunt their riches, but there are also plenty of crummy poor people. To make a judgment about someone based on what is in their bank account is prejudice, regardless if you think it’s too much or too little. Let’s dislike Ann Romney because she’s a vicious, bird-shirt wearing, horse-riding idiot, not because her husband happens to make it rain. This disdain for rich people that is now so easy and popular is probably one of the reasons for what Mr. Hamidi interprets as class denial. Apparently, a certain amount of scorn will be directed at you if you admit to coming from a wealthy background or if you are presumed to be unable to feel the pain of those in the lower class.

Class warfare is one of those talking points this year, but let’s not assume that it’s only about rich people grinding poor people under their diamond-studded boots.  There’s also a palpable hostility against those with means that is dangerous and divisive. Let’s go back to a time where we hated people because they were short or Asian or Lou Dobbs instead of because they were rich.

Unrelated to this column, I would also like to take the space to remember those who fell on 9/11, and those who have fallen the decade after it.

Lisa Wang is a 3L. Her column runs every other Thursday.

The views in opinion editorials, columns, and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of The Record.

Class Denial at HLS: Rich People Defending Rich People

It’s not the speeches or the blunders or the hilarious rewriting of the Reagan era. No, my favorite part about election season is how easy it becomes to recognize class denial in America. The routine has become so commonplace that we hardly bat an eye: poor whites protest anything and everything that would raise their minimum standard of living, from healthcare to housing assistance; meanwhile, wealthy whites (and the wealthy are overwhelmingly white) think anything more than a 35% tax rate for the rich (half of the 70 percent rate when Reagan took office) would be a Stalin-esque slide into class warfare. Poor whites deny the magnitude of their own poverty, and rich whites pretend they’re scraping by like the rest of us.

It’s a good thing we attend such a thoughtful institution, where similar delusions of hardship would never survive a minute of peer-on-peer Socratic, right? Yet it’s that same idea that plagues the wealthy—that they’re “scraping by” like the rest of us—that I find strikingly present at HLS. And it’s that same idea that promotes an even calmer, more insidious class denial among HLS students than the one we witness on a national scale.

It’s easy to mock Romney for coming from heinous amounts of money. I mean, how hard can it be to stay rich when your folks are auto magnates? But the demographics at HLS show that you don’t have to be the scion of a government-backed industry to have it easier than most Americans.

Let’s start with the numbers. Did you know that nearly 60 percent of students receive zero need-based grants to cover the $225,000 price tag of an HLS degree? We all know that the cost of law school is outrageous and that the standardized metrics to calculate family contribution are broken and outdated. But three in five? Really? One can only imagine what this statistic says about the average, or even median, family income at HLS. After all, most “middle class” families—defined as the middle three quintiles, whose incomes range from $20,000 to $100,000—would clearly qualify for need-based grants. This likely means that well over 60 percent of HLS students are “upper class,” like it or not.

There are, of course, a number of students who overcame incredible socioeconomic adversity to attend HLS. But these students are the inspiring exception to the broken rule. The truth is, with only 40 percent of students receiving need-based grants to pay for $225,000 of school, we’re looking at a lot of class privilege at HLS. How do HLS students recognize and respond to that privilege? It’s, well… complicated.

HLS students certainly don’t like to think of themselves as rich. You can hear the class denial in the awkward dialogues students so frequently have with one another. One minute, a student will say he “needs” to work in corporate defense to pay off his loans. The next, he’ll say he “needs” to start making $160,000 to support a family. Talk about out of touch — I highly doubt it takes being in the top 10 percent of earners (not counting bonuses) to support your family.

Many students join socially conscious clinics and student organizations, like Harvard Defenders and Harvard Legal Aid Bureau. Yet how many of our friends went on to work for firms that undermine the very principles of those organizations? A number of HLAB graduates go on to defend the same corrupt financial institutions and practices that forced their former clients into foreclosure. As for those that defend poor clients through Harvard Defenders? Given HLS’s employment statistics, these students are most likely to take their best-in-class criminal defense training and use it to defend wealthy, white-collar (and white) criminals and their corporations.

To be fair, many of these organizations and clinics offer much-needed relief from the overwhelming number of students who fail to even ask themselves this most basic of questions: What does it mean to use my social privilege to further the practices of the world’s most powerful, often corrupt, and politically manipulative institutions?

Perhaps it seems natural. Perhaps it seems silly to even question. Of course rich students—again, those with families that make more than $100,000 (in 2010)—would use their privilege to defend other rich people. It’s as natural as under-funded schools in poor neighborhoods, or windfall profits for polluting oil companies. We’re told this is the world we live in, where the rich have each other’s backs and the poor have nothing. Where nobody deserves a bailout, but only the rich get them. To question that paradigm is naïve at best and treasonous at worst.

So what can we do about it? I am not proposing a school-wide vow of poverty, nor am I proposing a Gandhi-style march into unemployment (though the fear of unemployment is as overstated as the “need” to pay off loans). Instead, I am proposing an ethic of fairness, honor, and honesty.

By fairness, I mean striving for a “do unto others” professional philosophy. Your privilege has likely opened a lot of doors—private schools, LSAT courses, and ultimately HLS. If you didn’t have these opportunities but someone else did, how would you want them to use that opportunity? To further enrich themselves, or to rise to the occasion of their own privilege?

By honor, I mean pursuing work you’d want to tell your grandkids about. Work you can be proud of. Surely you swelled with pride when you got the call to get into HLS—was it really pride about shuffling papers for JP Morgan? Or shoving elephantine Exxon profits into tax loopholes? Or was it pride that you would have even more opportunities—even more incredible, diverse, and exciting paths to choose from?

Lastly, by honesty, I mean being honest with yourself and your peers when it comes to the reasoning behind your professional choices. Enough with the “training” spiel or the supposed “need” to make more than 98 percent of Americans by the time you’re thirty. Pretty soon you’ll start believing the stories you tell to smooth over rough conversations. Pretty soon, the stories will change you. They will turn you into the kind of rich person who genuinely believes he’s “scraping by” with his two houses and three cars—like the rest of us.

Next time one of your declared “progressive” friends makes a crack at Romney or Ryan, ask them what they’ll be up to this summer: Will you spend your career defending the Bain Capitals or the Lilly Ledbetters of the world? And if you were Ms. Ledbetter, working in a rubber factory in Gadsden, Alabama for twenty years, what would you hope the HLS grads of the world would do with their prestigious degrees—and their class privilege?

Or don’t. After all, you won the pre-birth lottery and made it big-time. You did it all on your own, just like the tax-cutting job creators. You’re scraping by like the rest of us. Right?

Sean Hamidi is a 2L. His column runs every other Tuesday.

The views in opinion editorials, columns, and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of The Record.