Making A Wave When You Can

Alan Jenkins

Over the weekend, I found myself listening to the theme song from the 1970s TV show “Good Times,” because, yes, I have that kind of time on my hands. The show depicted the struggles, triumphs and heartache of the Evans family, a low-income African-American family living in a Chicago housing project. In case the lyrics have slipped your mind, here’s how they went:

Good Times!
Any time you make a payment.
Good Times!
Any time you need a friend.
Good times!
Any time you’re out from under.
Not getting hassled, not getting hustled.
Keepin’ your head above water.
Makin’ a wave when you can.
Temporary lay offs.
Good Times.
Easy credit rip offs.
Good Times.
Scratchin’ and surviving.
Good Times.
Hangin’ in a chow line.
Good Times.
Ain’t we lucky we got ‘em.
Good Times.

I’ve probably heard the song a hundred times since the show first aired in 1974. But this time, I was struck by the parallels to today’s reality for so many Americans: struggling to make payments for gasoline, health care, and groceries; dealing with layoffs from downsizing and a weak economy; and feeling preyed upon by unscrupulous lenders and other corporate hustlers.

Thinking back on the show itself, there were other similarities, particularly for low-income African-American families: the concentrated poverty and segregation of so many inner city neighborhoods, the failure of too many elected officials to serve those communities effectively (remember the self-serving Alderman Davis character?), under-resourced public schools, and the abandoned commitment to affordable and public housing (personified on the show by building custodian Nathan Bookman). In these and other ways, “Good Times” America might look sadly familiar to many of today’s low-income Americans.

What is even more striking, though, is a major difference in the public and political discourse between then and now. A central premise of “Good Times,” was that the Evans family—and, by extension, America’s low-income and Black communities—were honest people of good faith struggling, “scratching and surviving” for opportunity and the American Dream against very tough obstacles. Older son J.J. shucked and jived, but he worked all manner of low-wage jobs, as did most of the main characters. Younger son Michael, the mini Black militant, protested injustice—particularly police brutality and what we now call racial profiling—but he worked hard in school and aspired to become an attorney.

Contrast that with how our current public and political discourse depict low-income people and, particularly, poor African Americans. The TV news, as well as countless movies and crime dramas, paint a picture of near universal violence, drug dealing and dysfunction. While Bill Cosby’s book, “Come On, People,” speaks both to the structural barriers facing low-income Black folks, and to the changes that we must make in our own communities, only the latter message has received any real attention, including from the author in his own media appearances.

In the modern political context, there is so often an implicit or explicit charge that inequality and hardship boil down to a lack of “personal responsibility”—that 1 million home foreclosures and 47 million people without insurance are simply the result of millions of individual bad decisions.

In March of this year, for example, as more and more Americans, disproportionately African-American and Latino, lost their homes to foreclosure, John McCain warned [http://www.usatoday.com/news/politics/election2008/2008-08-07-flip-flop_N.htm] that the nation should not “bail out and reward” irresponsible borrowers. He backtracked later, as it became obvious that the crisis swept far beyond just poor and inner-city communities. Barack Obama has explained with clarity that poor people face obstacles, and that contemporary racial bias and the legacy of past discrimination still pose barriers in our country. But he consistently pairs those observations with an admonition that Black people must become more responsible parents, students and breadwinners.

It is unquestionably true that low-income and African-American parents, families, and young people must practice greater responsibility towards themselves as well as others. But that is true of all Americans, whatever their socioeconomic or racial status. To consistently tie that admonition only to poor people or Black folks is troubling and inaccurate.

Imagine a political candidate telling suburban soccer moms that it’s their irresponsible SUV-driving, urban-sprawl-loving lifestyle that’s making the gasoline price crunch so painful. Imagine McCain or Obama warning Virginia NASCAR dads that domestic violence is unacceptable and it’s time for them to take responsibility and change their ways. Think of the backlash when Obama was overheard talking about “bitter” small town Americans clinging to their guns and their church, or the fallout when Phil Gramm was heard to say “we have sort of become a nation of whiners.”

The solution to this trend, in my view, is not for the candidates to stop talking with voters about mutual responsibility, commitment and sacrifice. Rather, it’s time to issue that legitimate call to all of us, in a way that recognizes that all of our communities are working hard and struggling, yet capable of rising together. Contrary to the contemporary narrative, poor people of all races face steep barriers to opportunity that they work hard every day to overcome. Income, race and ethnicity have never been accurate predictors of how responsible a person, family, community, or nation is towards itself or its neighbors, and that is just as true today.

Let’s acknowledge that reality, and talk about how shared and mutual responsibility—including through public structures like education, health care, and support for affordable housing—can keep the doors of opportunity open. It will always be the responsibility of individual Americans, rich and poor, to step through those doors. Today as in 1974, they are willing, waiting to do so. And when that happens, as Good Times’ J.J. used to say, it’s dy-no-mite!

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