Back in the fall of 2010, I was in Izmir, Turkey, walking down a busy street during rush hour. Through the shoulder-to-shoulder foot traffic I saw a woman sitting against a building, cradling her child and begging for money. She had a little cup to hold the currency but I didn’t see anyone put any money in it. What I did see was person after person kicking over her cup. I also saw just as many people kicking her. They kicked this mother casually, as though she were a stone in the road or a piece of trash, as though kicking her was natural, almost the polite thing to do. It was the most heartbreaking thing I’d ever seen.
It’s been a long time since we’ve had that kind of poverty in this country. We have poverty that defies our sense of national identity, and it is horrifying, but we don’t live in a country that tolerates or encourages casual public violence against the poor. Not yet, anyway. Though, as a black person, I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t fearful that we’re headed down that road.
Like a lot of people, when I think about the stress in my life, I realize that, in one way or another, almost all of it comes down to money. In fact, almost every decision I make has to do with money. It limits my social movement as well as my physical movement. It limits practically everything I do: what time I get up, what time I go to bed, what I wear, what I eat, where I can eat, where I can go, who I can meet, what I drive, if I drive, where I live, if I can live. On and on.
Now imagine that your life is not like this. Imagine all those stresses were gone. Imagine you were not limited by money. Imagine you never lost all that time chasing down basic necessities. Imagine you never even saw another bill for the rest of your life because someone else was paid to take care of that for you. Imagine you could do whatever you wanted wherever you wanted whenever you wanted.
Can you imagine that? I can’t. Seriously, I cannot imagine a life in which almost all of my choices are not being dictated in some way by money. I have no ability to relate to that kind of life. I don’t even know anybody who does.
This failure of imagination also affects the very wealthy. It’s a core structural problem in our country that’s becoming more clear every day.
For example, Sen. Susan Collins is worth millions of dollars. She could quit her job tomorrow, never make another cent, and she’d still be able to do whatever she wanted, wherever she wanted, whenever she wanted, for the rest of her life. Because of that, she will never face the devastating impacts of the decisions she makes in Congress. She cannot truly understand them, and it’s hard to care about something you don’t understand.
These days, national economic decisions are made by people who do not have the ability to truly appreciate, much less care about, their terrible consequences. Under the new regime in D.C., the systemic apathy of the white wealth gap is coming for white people.
If you’re wondering why I said “white wealth gap,” it’s because there is also a much less talked-about wealth gap between races. Did you know that for every dollar of wealth the average white family has, the average black family only has a nickel? That’s right, just five black cents for every white dollar, and it only gets scarier when you look at the particulars. For example, in 2015, the household median net worth of white people in Boston was $247,500. For American black people, it was $8. That’s it. Not $8,000 or $800 or even $80. No. Just $8. And that’s $8 more than Dominicans, who came in at $0.
When I think about those figures and the rise in public racism and the racists in the White House and the Justice Department and Congress and police forces … well, I don’t see a concerted effort to close the racial wealth gap. So I’m left to wonder how bad it has to get for white people in this country before anything is done about it.
And I think about that mother in Izmir.
Samuel James is an internationally renowned bluesman and storyteller, as well as a locally known filmmaker. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.