By Dr. Merelyn Bates-Mims,
Don’t panic. If you are like me, you have probably not run across the word immiserate. And until I began online reading of Johnathon Kozol’s 2012 novel, Fire in the Ashes: Twenty-Five Years among the Poorest Children in America, I probably would have missed the occasion to look it up. Webster’s definition of immiserate implies causation, to cause impoverishment and severe hardship and misery. Economics, the production, distribution and consumption of goods and services, plays an essential role in the political actions causative of impoverishment among populations of humans. Fire in the Ashes concerns such a population, a Manhattan neighborhood of American children and their families living in “third world” settings located less than five (5) blocks from Fifth Avenue. Some years before, I also read a 1991 novel by Alex Kotlowitz about the lives of children in cities like Chicago, Baltimore, and Washington DC, urban places where young children yet speak in “If” language. “If I grow up, I’d like to be a bus driver…
Immiseration terminology quickly draws attention to the “misery” core of the word—an immediate connection between immiseration and Victor Hugo’s fictional tales of Les Misérables, the dramatic story of 19th century France in rebellion, featuring the peasant ex-convict, Jean Valjean, imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving children. At the end of his prison service for bread-theft, Valjean was consigned to perpetual carrying of le ticket jaune, the yellow passport that forever branded him as a criminal. Today, four million USA ex-felons are denied the right to vote.
Translated, les misérables means the miserable ones, the wretched, the poor, the victims—so that the English transitive verb immiserate closely resembles the spelling of the English adjective miserable. Les Misérables then, speaks to the moral philosophy of 19th century France, the rise of antimonarchism and the moral voice role of religion, justice for the poor and the love of family existing among the poor. US Census 2007-2011 reports indicate 42.7 million (14.3 %) as the number of Americans living below the poverty line; 27.0 % of Native Americans and 25.8% of African-Americans. “If I grow up…” Eleven year old Lafeyette (his name spelled with an ‘e’), powerfully summarizes the soulful hazards that many school children continue to face today—life-threatening accidents and televised incidents commonplace in 21st century American society—Lafeyette’s “If” language echoing the immiseration plight of early 19th century French children and their families.
Deliberative impoverishment rests among the backdrops of the 2013 Bishop’s Task Force racial profiling research. Will such language show up in the stories told by respondents to the Bishop’s survey? Similar to the novel, There are No Children Here, one purpose of the “Tell Us Your Story” section of the survey is to humanize the victims, spotlight immiseration patterns and practices, and expose the racially disparate treatment that propels the continued existence of profiling.
Are children like Lafeyette and Pharoah worthy beings? The experiences of young black boys include “stop and search” suspicion. “There are no children here,” says the mother of Lafeyette and Pharoah, “they’ve seen too much to be children.” Research studies on racial profiling are plentiful. None, however, predict the variety in the descriptions of those ensnared by racial profiling treatment—urban dropouts to highly accomplished professionals—so that the question arises: “Is good citizenship an effective hedge against being profiled?”
Jonathan Kozol’s 1991 Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools continues the story of the “Other America.” Annually, American education unleashes statistics affirming the gap between the academic achievements of black and white students. No Child Left Behind analyses ignore what scholars call the “disjunction between the law and morality” wherein millions of children are effectively excluded from opportunities for intellectual development as public policy nearly always equates family impoverishment with “lower” intellect; lowered morality. Yet, what does poverty have to do with innate talent, innate intellect? And what does the physical assessment of singing contestant Susan Boyle, “you don’t look like you can sing” —off-the-mark profiling — have to do with the ability to sing?
Urban schools advertise drug-free zones. Doors are locked and guarded. Police patrol the halls. And because of politically aggressive gun advocacy, poorer urban and wealthier suburban schools alike are not happy places today. No Child Left Behind ignores the disparate impact of inequality in funding, staffing, and equipment on the learning process in American schools. These disparities destine certain populations of children to lifelong immiseration, engendered by little children’s failing of 3rd grade “standardized” testing.
Environmental inequalities also exist. East St. Louis lies in the heart of the Mississippi river floodplain, in the heart of the American Bottoms. To the east, the Illinois bluffs. Bluffs and Bottoms live in two different worlds. Drainage from the Bluffs annually floods the lowlands of the Bottoms. “Though dirt and water flow downhill, money and services do not,” says Kozol. Local physicians speculate that hair loss in the lowlands may be caused by raw sewage overspill. “Wealth and status [exist] on a foundation of extreme poverty and human despair.” Louisiana, my home state, produced 9.4 million pounds of waste in 2000. Seven of the ten plants emitting the highest rates of carcinogens are located in “cancer alley” stretching from Baton Rouge to New Orleans. Industrial “accidents” are commonplace, as are leukemia, brain tumors and mesothelioma, terminal cancer caused by asbestos exposure. Despite the presence of 136 industrial facilities, unemployment is high and most residents do not have a college education. The population of cancer alley is primarily “African-American and low-income.” Who are the victims of industrial immiseration? Infants and children. Men and women. The elderly. Humans.
Then there are the children’s dialogues, innocently spontaneous—firsthand utterances unscripted, non-political and devoid of “correctness,” as shown by Kozol in the excerpt below from Savage Inequalities and related by him in the standard language of the children:
None of the children can tell the approximate time that school begins. One says five o’clock. One says six. Another says that school begins at noon.
When asked what song they sing after the flag pledge, one says “Jingle Bells.”
Smokey cannot decide if he is in the second or third grade. Seven-year-old Mickey sucks his thumb.
Smokey then announced that his sister was raped and murdered and then dumped behind the school.
Smokey’s sister was 11 years old.
…Without warning, Smokey says, “My sister has got killed.”
“She was my best friend,” Serena says. “She was hollering out loud,” says Little Sister.
When did it happen? Smokey says “Last year.” Serena then corrects him and she says, “Last week.”
“When a little child dies, my momma say a star go straight to heaven…”
“I love my friends,” Serena says…”I don’t care if they no kin to me. I care for them.”
“I have a cat with three legs,” Smokey says.
“Snakes hate rabbits,” Mickey says, again for no reason. “Cats hate fishes,” Little Sister says.
“It’s a lot of hate,” says Smokey.
Many children face everyday learning in places unequipped for the delivery of effective teaching and learning. “To those who want to point fingers at the parents [or the children themselves as responsible for their own plight] read There Are No Children Here: the Story of Two Boys Growing up in the Other America,” says critic Tiffany Pearson. And from Victor Hugo comes these 19th century words: “I don’t know whether [Les Misérables] will be read by everyone, but it is meant for everyone…Social problems go beyond frontiers. Humankind’s wounds, those huge sores that litter the world, do not stop at the blue and red lines drawn on maps. Wherever men go in ignorance or despair, wherever women sell themselves for bread, wherever children lack a book to learn from or a warm hearth, Les Misérables knocks at the door and says: “Open up, I am here for you.”
Now a new book emerges, Enough Is Enough: Building a Sustainable Economy in a World of Finite Resources. Economists argue that it’s time to “abandon the pursuit of growth in wealthy nations and consider a new strategy…for improving quality of life without expanding consumption.”
Immiseration. Has enough is enough finally arrived?
Dr. Merelyn Bates-Mims is a Fulbright Scholar and special Investigator for a research project on racial profiling conducted by the Kirwan Institute in partnership with the Episcopal Diocese of Southern Ohio.