Poverty and Impoverishment in the Bay Area of California
 
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Poverty and Impoverishment in the Bay Area of California
Zeus Leonardo

University of California Berkeley 


Interview with Zeus Leonardo  (Audio Only)               Print Friendly and PDF

AERA’s 2013 theme is centered on the issue of “poverty.”  It is spurred by President Bill Tierney’s provocation that despite education’s ability to lift students out of poverty, schooling is often mired in economic relations surrounded by the debilitating effects of poverty.  There are at least two senses of “poverty” invoked here, to which I would like to respond.  First, there is the common understanding of poverty as having to do with material deprivation.  Dilapidated mages of inner city schools or urban centers come to mind.  Second, poverty also signifies a deficit perspective, often associated with cultural mindsets and psychological dispositions.  This latter connotation is broader and includes “impoverishment,” such as one finds in David Berliner’s use of the term in a Teachers College Record article on educators’ impoverished views of school reform.  This latter sense of impoverishment includes ideologies that have recently been called into question, such as the poverty of whiteness, which, in David Roediger’s view, is empty of substance and exists plainly to reinforce racial hierarchy.  For these two reasons, President Tierney’s conference theme provokes educators and scholars to consider the role of poverty in both its material as well as ideological dimensions. 

Poverty is a structured phenomenon in capitalist economies.  Because a capitalist economy is built on a relationship between owners of production and the workers - writ broadly to include the middle class - economic inequality is a “natural” outcome of this arrangement.  Its system requires uneven development between rural and urban or among differently desired “urbans,” such as the gap between South Central Los Angeles and South Beach Miami.  It requires unemployment, otherwise known as a surplus army of laborers.  Finally, material deprivation is not an aberration in capitalism and it is a well-known secret that the last ten to fifteen years have produced a wider wealth gap between the top 1% and the 99%, causing widespread indigence, home foreclosures, and unprecedented job insecurity.  In short, schooling in capitalist America run amuck produces poverty as a logical outcome.  That said, it is not a completely closed system and includes opportunities for mobility, which represents its allure, as many immigrant testimonies would likely confirm.  If it were entirely closed, Bowles and Gintis’ correspondence theory would be all that is needed to explain it, as capitalism goes on its merry way to reproduce the workforce through schools. 

But capitalism, as Gramsci’s intervention shows us, is complicated, especially within a developed Western context where a civil society develops full blown.  The United States is comprised of social and cultural institutions that both secure the economy’s hold on the nation as well as providing interstices for alternative ways of reorganizing economic relations.  This is ultimately why President Tierney’s provocation is interesting in light of AERA’s location in San Francisco for 2013.  In the general Bay Area of California, literally hundreds of organizations, both formally and loosely defined, struggle to redefine economic exchange, whether through the “grow local, buy local” ethos or the strong presence of teachers’ and other unions.  This forging of what Fraser calls “counter-publics” takes form in arguably one of the centers of advanced late capitalism, which boasts the high tech industry of Silicon Valley and houses aggressive entrepreneurs inventing markets after the dot.com revolution.  In general, spotlighting poverty inevitably highlights the myriad moments when otherwise “normal” citizens intervene on their own behalf to curtail the strident march of capitalism as it attempts to plow over resistance to fulfill its desires.  This tradition is alive and well in the Bay Area.

The Bay is not just an economic area, but a racialized one as well.  San Francisco and the East Bay just across the bridge are some of the most racially diverse zip codes one finds in the country.  This fact complicates our understanding of poverty when race confounds class relations.  It is another well-known secret that people of color disproportionately represent families living in poverty.  In Oakland, California alone the wealth disparity is enough to call it a tale of two cities, one Black, the other White.  Oakland Unified School District’s Superintendent, Tony Smith, faces an educational crisis unlike others.  The huge swathe of poverty concentrated in the “flatland” schools sandwiched between the 580 and 880 freeways, means that the students experience a normal school day that is everything but “normal.”  Deprived of safe surroundings, stable conditions where teachers are not on constant crisis watch, and resources that could enrich their education, many students of color suffer an impoverished education in a state that has rolled back its support of public education, including the universities.  In colloquial terms, it is one “hot mess.”  Of course, these trends were set in motion decades before, when the political economy of cities of which Anyon speaks were concretized.  Therefore, nothing short of a concerted, multi-pronged effort decades later would right the vessel, a task whose difficulty should not be underestimated.  Fortunately, with despairing times come a wave of resistance and the city of Oakland is home to a tradition of protest from the Panthers to everyday parents.

There are other challenges and the Bay Area’s predicament is part of a national condition.  Currently, with affirmative action already illegal within California and threatens to follow suit across the nation, the colorblind, or post-Civil Rights, era follows an impoverished view of what causes these disparities.  As civil rights accomplishments are rolled back in a time when they are arguably most needed, discourses of personal responsibility and individual decision-making become nothing short of panacea.  Although marginalized groups do not necessarily reject these virtues, they are an impoverished way to explain their plight as entire groups.  Under the sway of whiteness as an ideology, anti-affirmative action trends represent a lack of political will and commitment to race-conscious social policy.  For whiteness, affirmative action represents the end of individualism, when it is arguably only the beginning.  Outlawing it is a return to a default White affirmative action in effect since the Dred Scott decision.  Flanked on one side by racial triumphalism in the election of its first Black president, Barack Obama, and racial justice fatigue on the other, colorblindness leads even White Americans to forget their own material deprivations in exchange for the honor of being perceived as White.  For as the late Derrick Bell reminds us, although whiteness certainly comes with advantages, adopting it as a social perspective, even an explanatory framework, prevents Whites from recognizing how they also suffer from it as they cope with their actual economic injuries.  Fortunately, just as late capitalism pushes its contradictions to their maturity as it grasps for new markets, so does late whiteness expose its impoverishment as a racial ideology. 

Zeus Leonardo is Associate Professor of Literacy, Society and Culture in the Graduate School of Education at the University of California Berkeley. He is the author of Ideology, Discourse, and School Reform (Praeger) and he is editor of Critical Pedagogy and Race (Blackwell), and co-editor (with Tejeda and Martinez) of Charting New Terrains of Chicano(a)/Latino(a) Education (Hampton).

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