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OPPORTUNITY, RACE & LUCK: Grappling with the Enigma of Perpetual Under-Resourcing of Americans

JAMES PAIGE

Class of 1963

My siblings and I didn’t grow up wealthy, and I don’t remember wanting for anything. However, in retrospect, I became interested those who are “under-resourced.” These are terms I didn’t use in the 1960s. Then, we talked in terms of “the poor” and “poverty.” Over my “careers,” I began to see the link between race and the lack of opportunity for the under-resourced. For the third phase of my career, I returned to my first one that focused on enhancing educational and economic outcomes for all. Now, just as in the 1960s, there are no simplistic solutions “to overcoming poverty.” It’s more than just getting a job and overcoming racism, and it’s more than just changing the law. It requires a societal commitment that America, yet, has been unwilling to make.

 

 

Racial Integration Without Racial Interactions

I graduated from Germantown High School (GHS) in Philadelphia, PA, in 1963. After high school, I went to work. College would come later.

Looking back, as I was entering the labor market, opportunities were opening for Black people in Philadelphia and across the nation. The jobs I took provided me with my first real association and interaction with white people. In retrospect, during the years I attended GHS, the school was “integrated.” “Integration happened” because it was the period of black arrival and white flight from neighborhoods where GHS students lived.

While integration was happening, and mostly without conflict, I didn’t develop any friendships with white students. And, I don’t remember any strained interactions with white coworkers. “Distanced” is what I remember most about my relationships with them. There were efforts at social interactions (occasional lunches, work socials, etc.), but none of these interactions led to friendships.

My first job out of high school was with Sonoco. At that time, Sonoco was a major refiner of gasoline, and there were Sonoco gas stations everywhere.  I took a clerical position. My first work assignment was in a department where I was the only person of color. Within the entire 16 floor building, there were only a handful of Black people. 

On one occasion, a white coworker invited me to dinner with his wife and kids. The dinner started pleasantly enough, but I remember feeling that his two small children saw me more as a curiosity than a person. During the after-dinner conversation, I remember inquiring if there were any Black people in the neighborhood. The answer was no, which was not unexpected. When I asked my coworker if he would be okay if Black people moved into his block, he became non-committal. When I further inquired and asked if he would sell his house to a Black person, he said he would have to think about it.

A few days later, at work, I asked him if he had given any thought to selling his house to a Black person; he said he would sell but move out in the middle of the night before his neighbors realized what he had done.

I don’t remember my exact response, but any chance for friendship went out the window since I was clear that he was not willing to live next door to me. I don’t recall the coworker’s name or politics, but I remember feeling that he had no clue that his words were racist if we use today’s terminology. Everyone that worked in the department lived in the suburbs, and I  would never become their neighbor. 

Ironically, in 2014 I lived in Doylestown, a suburb of Philadelphia,  for about 18 months.  With one exception, my neighbors were white. I got along with everyone, but I never developed any friendships. The two-hour commute to Philadelphia became too much, and I missed the city life.

Avoiding the Draft

Not long after that experience, I received a letter from the U.S. Army to report to complete my pre-draft physical. I reported and followed the instructions. I stripped down to my t-shirt and shorts, moved from station to station, got an eye exam, completed a rectal exam, had my blood pressure checked, had my blood drawn, and had a chest x-ray. Getting to the last station, I had my X-rays under one arm and vial of my blood in my hand. The person at the final station asked for x-rays and blood and then stamped the file attesting that I was physically fit. 

If the physical had led to immediate deployment, I would have been in the Army.

However, they sent me home and told me I would receive a letter instructing me on when and where to report.

The Army drafted me just as I was trying to figure out how I felt about the war, and all that was surrounding the civil rights movement. Going off to war to fight for a country that did not recognize me as a full citizen did seem attractive. At the same time, three of my close running buddies had enlisted in the Army and one in the Marines. I had even gone with one of them to the recruitment office, and I remember the Sargent there asking me if I was also enlisting. I told him, no, and at that moment decided not to join the military. 

Picture of photos of area Black men killed in the Vietnam War appeared the local Black newspapers. On one occasion, the paper had pictures of two former high school classmates. I did not know either of them very well, but I remember having a strong reaction, feeling how unnecessary it was for them to have died. It was also the first time I confronted questions about my mortality. I am sure that those pictures played a significant role in my decision not to report for duty. 

I received two notices to report for duty. I chose to ignore them. I did not do anything heroic, such as fleeing Canada or petitioning as a conscientious objector. I simply ignored the notices and was fortunate and did not receive any reprisal for not reporting.

 

Educational Opportunity & Activism At Temple University

Temple University in Philadelphia, PA, became state-affiliated in 1965. Before that, it was a private college. Once Temple became state-affiliated, tuition dropped to $450 per year. I had spent several years bouncing from job to job, and, with the news of low tuition, I decided to give college a try.

When I enrolled at Temple in 1966, roughly one hundred Black full-time students lived on campus.  The rest of us Black folks were commuter students. Most of the commuting Black students were older, worked, and lived independently. 

My first political activism occurred at Temple. A white fraternity had put on a black-faced minstrel show, which created an uproar. After meeting in the cafeteria, we decided to protest, which we did, and it led to sanctions against the fraternity. What followed was the formation of the Student African American Society (SAAS). My association with SAAS gave me a broader understanding of American politics and race relations and became a foundation of my political and social views. 

 

Educational Opportunity & Activism Again At Temple

The combination of being a full-time student, working full-time, and student activism became too much, and I withdrew from Temple in 1968. I would return in 1971 and completed my undergraduate studies.

I returned to Temple through the Teacher Corps, established in 1965 as part of The Higher Education Act of 1965. Teacher Crops paid my tuition and provided a stipend. It was much easier being a full-time student and not having to work. 

Although Teacher Corps was part of Temple University, the program was predominately African American. The program support staff (six) had only one Caucasian and only two Caucasians as part of the student body. 

I revisited my activism through Teacher Corps. I became the Chairman of the National Teacher Corps Student Organization, which was my first entree into any national initiative. I attended budget hearings and policy meetings.

Through Teacher Corps, the student-teacher group received a $25,000 grant to create a community-based social program. As a condition of the grant, we held a community meeting and got input from the neighbors on allocating the funds.  Being naive and thinking that $25,000 was a lot of money, we convened the community meeting,

The meeting started, and the room was full. Group after group stood up, making their case for the funds. The request ranged from buying a bus for prison visits, establishing a tutorial program, assistance for the elderly, and so on.

Standing in front of the room and moderating the discussion, I quickly realized that I was out of my element and that $25,000 was a drop in the bucket since the community’s needs were so great.

We closed the meeting, thanking the attendees for their input, and convened to decide on what we fund. During the community meeting debrief, we had a chance to review what happened and the effect on us of what we had experienced. We turned to the student coordinator to ask for direction to help us sort out what we should do and respond to the meeting attendees. The coordinator turned to us,  shared her many years of experience as a social worker.  The social worker, who was African American, told us we should do the very best we can, where we are. She then left the room. 

Her words stick with me today.

We decided to use a portion of the funds to set up a tutorial program since we were in a school and studying to be educators. We could apply the skills we were learning. The remainder of the funds went to the prison visitation program. We met with prison visitation advocates and shared that we did not have enough money to purchase or support a van. The advocates could buy tickets on the various vans and buses that offered transportation for prison visitors.

 

Becoming Aware Of Poverty & Discrimination

My siblings and I didn’t grow up wealthy, but I don’t remember wanting for anything.

At the Teacher Corps community meeting, I became more aware of the struggles associated with poverty and discrimination. The social and familial problems related to incarceration became real to me. Mothers shared the challenges of child-rearing on their own and maintaining a connection between the child(ren) and the incarcerated fathers. The problems of the elderly also came front and center. Aging without resources is a very tricky proposition.

Teacher Corps required that I “teach.” However, I received a waiver of teaching commitment, which allowed me to accept an offer as assistant director of the Upward Bound program at Temple. According to Temple’s website, that program is still operating. Through Upward Bound, I learned even more about the challenges of escaping poverty, overcoming a defiant education, and the role of parental support in the lives of children. This experience would significantly affect how I would approach service delivery design when I reentered the social service arena many years later. 

There were successes and failures, but I became disillusioned. Even in the 60s, if we use today’s terminology again, the needs of the “under-resourced” outstrips the available funding. Today I use the term “under-resourced” rather than words like “poor” or “poverty” because it encompasses the struggles of the working poor. It’s nothing inherently wrong with them. They just don’t have enough money.

 

From Educational & Social Services to Self-Employment

I left Temple after five years to engage in entrepreneurial pursuits. From 1979 to 1998, I engaged in several self-employment endeavors, such as retail store ownership, home inspection business, and home remolding services.

 

Back to My Educational and Social Support Roots

I would later return to educational and social support roots and completed a twenty-year run in social and mental health services.

During my second social services career, I was always an advocate for the clients, which I attribute to my Teacher Corps and Upward Bound experience. 

During my second social services career, I became even more aware of the struggles of those experiencing “lack.” I got to see first-hand how the intersectionality of race, income disparities, and public policy keeps people in the generational cycle of poverty.

During my Teacher Corps and Upward bound involvement, we serviced those designated as “disadvantaged.” However, using terms like “poverty” and “disadvantaged” does not encompass the struggles of those engaged in a day-to-day grind to eke out an existence. Locked in a “cycle of deficiency” means that our clients didn’t have the resources to break the cycle that entraps them.

I’ve only worked with African American agencies. These agencies also have predominately African American staffs serving predominately African American clients. However, being part of the affinity group did not change the narrative that services providers had about the poor being lazy and unmotivated and suffering from making bad decisions.  With “the colorization of poverty,” far too many service providers had internalized stereotypes of “Negros” being shiftless, criminal, and immoral.

I was fortunate enough to work for an agency, Community Council Health Systems (CCHS), that allowed me to work with staff to explore the biases we have about the people we served and how our biases affected the way we deliver services. Within the CCHS environment, we also explored raising our expectations of the agency and our client expectations.

I fully embraced the idea of improving service delivery based on realistic expectations of the needs of clients. But I was shocked. During my first job upon reentry social services, I had attempted to promote staff and service excellence. Surprisingly, the heads of service delivery told me to “dummy things down.”

But we persevered, and CCHS and I received recognition for our service approach and innovations that grew out of developing “a customer service approach” to serving our clientele.

As a result, CCHS became the first community-based mental health agency in Philadelphia to implement electronic records, which enhanced our ability to be more responsive to client needs. Although the Affordable Care Act (ACA) mandated electronic health records for medical providers, sister organizations didn’t have the needed financial, staff resources, and orientation to rapidly implement the changes. As a result, implementation slowed down across the system, as CCHS moved forward rather quickly.

We also implemented a web-based client record system. This improved service delivery significantly. For instance, if a client presented at hospitals while in crisis, the on-call staff could access client information and share client status and medication information with hospital personnel in real-time.

We explored how poverty was a Social Determination of Health (SDOH), which enabled us to cut through the noise of stereotypes and examine ways of improving the client experience. 

We were able to shift the paradigm. We got staff and others to see that people living an “under-resourced” existence lacked money, resources, and time. Sounds obvious. But it wasn’t. We had been busy, “blaming the victim.” With that shift, we were able to create a service delivery approach that better supported our clients.

We all came to understand that managing meager finances and scarce resources is very time-consuming. As we shifted our thinking, the idea that the poor were lazy, lacked motivation and made decisions faded.

We recognized and honored the amount of effort our clients needed to manage their lives because they just didn’t “enough.” Being “broke” is one thing, being “under-resourced,” another. Broke goes away when the check comes in. Being under-resourced does not because when “the check” comes in,” the amount of money is always insufficient.

As African Americans serving African Americans, it was challenging for us to think that we had race-based biases toward our clients. In retrospect, in the words of Ibram X. Kendi, we were “racist.” We had to become “anti-racists.”

Fortunately, we recognized the grip of the “racist narrative” on the national service delivery model and us. And we were able to loosen the grip the racist narrative had on us. To release the hold, we had to come to grips with the idea that we had adopted the oppressor’s mindset as members of an oppressed group.

Once we changed our perspective, once we became “anti-racists,” our clients’ attitudes also changed. We gave respect, and we received it. 

 

What Am I Doing Now?

Reflecting on the 1960s conjures up a variety of emotions and memories. Those were tumultuous times. America was in the midst of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. The 60s was also a period of hope, frustration, and disillusionment. Today, just as it was in the 60s, there are no simplistic solutions. Overcoming poverty is more than just getting a job. And overcoming racism is more than just changing the law. 

I started “easing into retirement” in 2019 by reducing my full-time commitments. I’m still associated with several groups engaged in social support services, providing operational supports on a consulting basis.

In the wake of the killing of George Floyd, I reflected on the race in America, my life, and how racism had affected me. I sensed and was now able to articulate that laws exist in the United States don’t necessarily “guarantee” equal opportunity and equal justice for all. Despite their stated purposes, economic and social disparities along racial lines continue to persist. George Floyd was a threat, not because of his actions, but because of his skin color.

In combination with the Floyd incident, discussions abounded regarding the health disparities between Black and white Americans were making people of color more susceptible to the coronavirus. For me, this susceptibility results from discriminatory practices that have caused a significant portion of the African American population to have underly health issues such as high blood pressure, obesity, hypertension, and diabetes.

My reflections, combined with my writings and work on race and poverty, led me to write Law of Racism; The Legalization of Enslavement, Segregation and Discrimination. In my book, I review the formal and informal legal structures that have systematically denied the formerly enslaved opportunities for social and economic self-sufficiency. I also examine the events that have supported the racist structure of America.

Trump has nominated a conservative for the Supreme Court, and there is angst about the ACA’s rollback and denying women reproductive rights. As highlighted in the Law of Racism, the Supreme Court (SCOTUS) historically has not supported African Americans’ social justice. It was the SCOTUS that:

  • Ruled ownership of another human constitutional
  • Denied legal resource for those that escaped enslavement
  • Refused to hear arguments of the legality of Vagrancy Laws
  • Ruled segregation legal
  • Rolled back affirmative action initiatives
  • Ruled in favor of voter suppression

2020 has been a chaotic year, and the racist underbelly of America has been laid bare. Just as we had to do in the 60s: We must

  • Vote like our lives depends on the outcome because it does.
  • Encourage everyone to vote because every vote is critical.
  • Support congressional races across the country because without a progressive, we won’t be able to break “the cycles of deficiency” and release the grip of racist policies and practices.

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