How a Lowly paid worker tickled my compassion bone and taught me a lesson—My door was ajar for some reason and as often happens in ours and many neighborhoods, a man whose dark skin and features told me his ancestors were Indians from South America, was distributing restaurant ads and take out menus. Upon seeing me at my computer, he said, “Aqua, aqua.” “Do you want water?” I asked in English, not quite sure I ought to answer. There are many such workers, and never before had anyone asked for water. Why was he? “Si,” he answered. It was a small thing. I went to the refrigerator to get him a tall glass of water. As I handed it to him, he tried to hand me a folded bill, presumably a dollar. I told him no of course all the while feeling less than the proverbial two cents. Something about his action, about seeing that he didn’t even expect a glass of water for nothing, about his generosity, his honesty, brought me back to a more realistic perspective. He drank his water avidly, all in a gulp almost, and handed me the glass back while I realized how small minded I had been.
Big city living with all its risks and dangers makes us forget simple human impulses, of asking, giving, sharing. I had been suspicious first, instead of being open-hearted first. The other lesson was an equal tug at my conscience, how quick I was to forget how hard the lives of some workers are. Walking door to door delivering ads, at best being paid minimum wage, is a merciless, difficult work. And when I think of the thousands of such men and women whose work is just as merciless in whatever way, then I am truly humbled.
The number of students and families who have taken out education loans has spiked over the last few years. The number of loans taken out from private institutions has spiked even more. Student loans are serious business not only in terms of how many there are (even Sallie Mae has been one of the nation’s largest student lender) but also in other ways. Student loans are usually not written off under bankruptcy laws, the way credit card debts can be, for example. They are very difficult to shake, and in most cases aren’t at all. A reader might say a student loan is a debt like any other an ought to be repaid, and that is true. An yet in light of emerging evidence it seems very harsh. Student loans can eat up an undue share of a working person’s salary. They can go on for years and years making it difficult for an individual to buy a home, take vacations, or buy a better car. Because monthly payments can be large in relations to salaries, repayment has turned out to be difficult for most, and for whatever reason they have kept quiet. Alan Collinge has stopped being quiet, for years he has run a website StudentLoanJustice.org to describe his struggles and what he’s trying to do about it. In 2007 he founded a political action committee with the same name in order to better fight for a change in bankruptcy laws. He advocates limits on how and for how long lenders can pursue debtors. It is a change obviously opposed by institutions like Sallie Mae and others who are able to profit from these loans.
Congress is often asked to intervene and pass new laws that will be fairer to students. Other efforts revolve around making it easier to borrow money. But is that the right approach?
When one considers that the students who need loans to either obtain or pursue their education come from either the lower or middle class, the issue of equality does factor in. Is the focus on loans the right emphasis? Oughtn’t it to be on affordable education? Not that long ago, the percentage of those borrowing for an education was quite small. Over the decades it has steadily increased in order to keep up with the increase in the costs of colleges and universities. While the institutions have made a case for their increases, the consequences of such high costs are not confronted. If we seriously tackled these consequences, if we resolved to ease them, to lessen the disparity they create, then we might be able to see more clearly about what to do with or about student loans. For one thing they wouldn’t be as numerous, and while that may not suit the short term interest of certain private firms, it may strengthen the educational framework and make us a stronger nation in the long run.
August 23rd is an anniversary. In 1791 riots took place in Saint Domingue, today’s Haiti, which are said to have launched the abolitionist movement against slavery. While slavery as a legal institution no longer exists, it is not dead and 217 years later it thrives under the practices of human trafficking and smuggling. There is general consensus that trafficking is evil, smuggling is seen as being less so. To an observer like me, there isn’t much difference between the two, yet what does distinguish them is creating a snag in legislating further measures, in knowing what laws to apply when arresting suspects or when taking action against alleged perpetrators. The U.S.has been very active in the fight against human trafficking. For the past 8 years it has been mandated by law to engage in a many fronted struggle at home an abroad. While there are some in Washington who believe efforts should escalate, there inevitably are those who disagree. But the greater problem comes from the Council of Europe convention on trafficking. It went into force this year and 17 countries ratified it, yet it has now stalled because not everyone can agree on the difference between trafficking and smuggling. Smuggling implies consent in some cases, although how informed that consent is is moot, and some say it may not be given were the conditions awaiting the individuals really known. Some smuggled people have their passports taken aways, are paid much lower wages than promised and are forced to work under harsh conditions. Meanwhile, as the war of semantics continues, laws and enforcement are not as strong as they need to be. And yet, one must recognize that as long as trafficking and smuggling are understood as problems, then progress is possible.
The issue of race underlies this presidential campaign. Periodically it surfaces, and will continue to. There has been much talk usually revolving around what seems two axis, is Obama not black enough, that is mainly for African Americans who want to make sure that issues affecting the African American community will be dealt with, and its counterpart, is he too black, that is mainly for whites who fear that his allegiance to the African Community will color (no pun intended) his presidential decisions, a concern shared by other minorities who want to make sure their priorities will be included.
When we think along those lines we place the burden on Obama, not ourselves. It’s as if we denied the fact that we live in a society that is still racist– Colin Powell and Condi Rice notwithstanding. We may have opened the doors to accept African Americans in positions of power including president, but that doesn’t mean we’re no longer racist. If we were capable of living up to Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of judging people by the content of their character, then Obama’s color wouldn’t even matter. Certainly it wouldn’t be talked about. He wouldn’t have had to give a speech on race, and he wouldn’t be in the position of having to address or defend race in the future. The questions stem from the kind of society we now live in, a society where race still matters. Barak Obama is bi-racial with an African father and a white American mother. By that standard he’s also bi-cultural. We tend to accept that fact and glide over it. It’s easy to because we understand bi-cultural far more than bi-racial. If he’s both black and white, why should he automatically be classified as black? Where is his right to be white? I know his skin looks dark, but the fact is his mother, half of his gene pool, was white. Oughtn’t he to be able to choose what he is, the way people do about their cultural heritage. My niece who has an Italian father is certain to be Italian in an Italian restaurant. The rest of the time it depends on the situation or on what’s going on in her life. She isn’t labeled, isn’t forced to choose, she retains her freedom to be both or either given the circumstance. Not so with bi-racial people, they have to be black. August Wilson, the late Pulitzer prize winning playwright, himself bi-racial, understood and made a conscious choice. He chose to be black. It may have been only the appearance of a choice, since he really didn’t have one in our society, but it was an important message. Barak Obama, as any bi-racial person, should be what he is, what he wants, what he chooses, not what we label him as. When we give him that right, racism will be dealt a fatal blow.