You who turn justice into bitterness
and cast righteousness to the ground ...
... you hate the one who reproves in court
and despise him who tells the truth.
You trample on the poor
and force him to give you grain.
Therefore, though you have built stone mansions,
you will not live in them;
though you have planted lush vineyards,
you will not drink their wine.
For I know how many are your offenses
and how great your sins.
You oppress the righteous and take bribes
and you deprive the poor of justice in the courts.
Therefore the prudent man keeps quiet in such times,
for the times are evil.
Seek good, not evil,
that you may live.
Then the LORD God Almighty will be with you,
just as you say he is. (Amos 5:7; 10-14 NIV)
Mott Haven was described in 1991 by the New York Times as "one of the city's most forlorn neighborhoods." An epidemic of drug trafficking, drug addiction, murder, assault, robbery, and HIV/AIDS had so ravaged the neighborhood that New York City officials tagged the area around Beekman Avenue as "the deadliest blocks in the deadliest district" of the city. Police officers only drove around the outskirts of the neighborhood. Social workers handed out clean hypodermic needles and free condoms in an effort to stop the spread of HIV. In 1991 there were 84 murders in Mott Haven, one every four days.
Writer Jonathan Kozol visited the neighborhood in 1993 and 1994, and soon after published his interviews and observations in his powerful memoir Amazing Grace. Kozol chronicled the hopelessness that suffocates the neighborhood's residents. Most of the families living in Mott Haven's housing projects were headed by single mothers or single grandmothers (if the mothers were in prison) and the suffering endured by these women is heartbreaking. The combination of depression induced by the gloom of their environment, anxiety from the constant gunfire and killings, asthma fueled by anxiety and the vermin and insects that infest their apartments, and AIDS contracted from using contaminated needles or from sexual partners, had utterly devastated their lives.
"You have to struggle to get through the afternoon. You have to drink a lot of coffee and you smoke too much to keep from crying or exploding at somebody. You feel nervous all the time and can't calm down."
"Nothin' works here in my neighborhood ... Everything breaks down in a place like this. The pipes break down. The phone breaks down. The electricity and heat break down. The spirit breaks down. The body breaks down. The immune agents of the heart also breaks down. Why wouldn't the family break down also?
"If we saw the people in these neighborhoods as part of the same human family to which we belong, we'd never put them in such places to begin with. But we do not think of them that way. That's one area of 'family breakdown' that the experts and newspapers seldom speak of."
"... Keepin' a man is not the biggest problem. Keepin' from being killed is bigger. Keepin' your kids alive is bigger. If nothin' else works, why should a marriage work? I'd rather have a peaceful little life just with my kids than live with somebody who knows that he's a failure. Men like that make everyone feel rotten." (Kozol, Amazing Grace, pp. 180-181)
The only sign of optimism witnessed by Kozol in the Mott Haven projects was in the eyes of its children, who nonchalantly spoke of murder and drug dealing and prison in the same manner that a suburban child might speak of pizza or cheerleading or Thomas The Tank Engine. The concepts of good and evil strongly resonated in the minds of these kids, along with the deep conviction that their circumstances were clearly the result of the evils done to their people by the wealthy elites who lived on the other side of the island. Their belief in God, deeply instilled in them by mothers and grandmothers, was also strong, particularly their hope in the promise of Heaven. Sadly, these children had little else to hope for.
"What do you do with some of these realities? ... Here is a city in which nine out of ten children born with AIDS are black kids or Latinos, many of their mothers or fathers IV users. You have 14-year-old girls who are crack users. If you don't believe in God and don't believe in family or society , and don't believe you'll ever have a job, what do you have? Even when a good political leader speaks to them, his rhetoric has no effect. It's like walking into an intensive-care ward in a hospital and saying, 'Rise!'" (ibid, p. 174)
In the years since Amazing Grace was written, things have improved somewhat in Mott Haven. Crime has fallen considerably, as it has throughout all of New York City, and the police regularly patrol the neighborhood in an effort to curb prostitution and drug trafficking. Rezoning has created new retail and housing opportunities in the area's run -down industrial district. The influx of real estate bargain hunters, shop owners, and restaurateurs has, thankfully, eased much of the feeling of isolation and abandonment that once blanketed the neighborhood. Yet there is still much suffering. Tracy McVicar, an investment banker who spent the summer of 2001 as a volunteer in Mott Haven, wrote:
It's hard to describe and even harder to believe in the year 2001, but the people of Mott Haven are isolated in many ways. There are no major banks, virtually no Internet access, few good jobs and few role models to show the way. Many families can't afford a phone. People from outside the neighbourhood avoid it. Subway fare is out of reach for many residents, so the confines and politics of the neighbourhood become their whole world. I went to Mott Haven with the belief that any young person who really wanted to "get out" could make it, given all the government programs and scholarships available to help. I quickly came to realize that wasn’t the case. For many of Mott Haven's young adults, the outside world is so foreign, and the prospect of leaving so daunting, it stops them in their tracks, even though it's virtually the only way to make a better life.
The drugs and the murders make good news headlines and generate exciting images for television news. But the deadliest injustice suffered by the residents of Mott Haven and other poor urban neighborhoods is a silent killer -- racism. It is easier to plan "fixes" for neighborhoods like Mott Haven that involve "weeding out" the dope pushers and prostitutes and homeless than it is to address the isolation and segregation that keeps terrified and hopeless residents prisoners in their own apartment buildings. That we live in probably the most politically correct and race-conscious culture in the world, but still punish poor minorities by segregating them into ghettos and deteriorated inner city hospitals and overcrowded schools, is truly one of today's most profound ironies. Why does such institutionalized hatred still exist in the first place? The Civil Rights era was decades ago. And we are talking about New York City, not the deep south.
I'm going to make an observation. And of you are a Democrat, I am going to warn you that what you read will not be complimentary at all, but it will be the truth.
Democratic politicos love to vilify the Republican party as the modern epicenter of racism in America. Republicans, they say, hate brown and black people. "George W. Bush hates black people." Ronald Reagan spread AIDS throughout the ghettos. George H. W. Bush introduced crack cocaine. The Republican party's idea of equal rights is "the American flag and the Confederate swastika flying side by side." "When you don't vote, you let another church explode. When you don't vote, you allow another cross to burn. When you don't vote, you let another assault wound a brother or sister. When you don't vote, you let the Republicans continue to cut school lunches and Head Start." And so on.
But fifty three percent of New Yorkers are registered Democrats. New York is the center of the American liberal cultural elite. New York is home to some of the most wealthy and influential liberals in America. The New York Times is arguably the most liberally-influenced newspaper in America. Democrats ran City Hall in New York from 1973 to 1994. The mayor of New York during the time that Amazing Grace was written was David Dinkins, the first African-American mayor of New York City, and a Democrat.
Here is the ugly truth: despite their forty year coupling with the Civil Rights establishment, Democrats as a whole have utterly failed to bring about any real change in the lives of poor African Americans, in New York City as well as numerous other American cities. The slums, the ghettos, the drugs, the poverty, and the hopelessness that began to take root in blighted neighborhoods during the 1960's have never been effectively dealt with. Even Jonathan Kozol comes down harshly on newly-elected Republican mayor Rudolph Giuliani's plans to cut city tax rates and pare down city services. But he barely mentions any of the drastic measures enacted by David Dinkins in order to rectify the city's $1.8 billion dollar budget deficit -- unprecedented cuts in public services, $1 billion in tax increases, $579 million in education cuts, and the elimination of 27,000 jobs.
Please don't misunderstand me. I am not suggesting that conservatism or the Republican party will be the true saviors of the poor in this country. But what I am saying is that it is high time we stopped giving Democrats a free pass simply because of who they say they are. As Jesus Christ famously taught, "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?" Visionary rhetoric and promises will always fail -- no matter who makes them -- as long as the root problems of racism among our citizens, and elitism among our power brokers, still remain unaddressed.
This simple fact is painfully illustrated by the fact that the residents of Mott Haven have clearly identified the true principalities and powers that are holding them down. All you have to do is pick up a copy of Amazing Grace and read what Alice Washington, a single mother too sick to work due to the HIV that was given to her by an unfaithful and abusive ex-husband, has to say about the power brokers of her city (p. 44):
"Some of them have parties around Christmas to raise something for the poor. If we wasn't poor, maybe they'd have no reason to have parties."
"You don't see kindness in these acts?"
"I wish I could. But if they want to help the poor, they don't need to have a party first. They could skip the party and just send the money up to feed the children who are hungry." After a moment, with more energy, she adds, "Come on, Jonathan! They do this once a year. What's going to happen on December 26? Who is this charity for? In a way it's for themselves, so they won't feel ashamed goin' to church to pray on Christmas Eve. Maybe they think this way they won't end up in hell."
I ask if she believes in heaven and hell.
"We have our hell right here on earth. They'll get theirs after their last breath."
The second half of this piece was modified on 11/24 in order to clarify some of the thoughts pertaining to racism.