The XX Factor

Poor Women of Color Played to the Left Again

New York City has announced a massive initiative to connect the “thousands of young black and Latino men [who] are cut off from New York’s civic, educational and economic life, [and] plans to spend nearly $130 million on far-reaching measures to improve their circumstances.” Mayor Bloomberg himself pledged $30 million, then peer-pressured fellow billionaire-philanthropist George Soros into doing the same. Bloomberg describes his plan as “the nation’s boldest and most comprehensive effort to tackle the broad disparities slowing the advancement of black and Latino young men.”  God help the urban poor if it fails; America’s unlikely to see many more such attempts if it does. There are only just so many billionaire mayors who give a damn and know how to get things done lying around.

The plan looks pretty sensible on paper (except for panderings like “disparities” but not “self-inflicted wounds”). For instance, there’s computer training and anger-managing yoga, there’s placing probation officers and job counselors in the communities where their charges actually live, and there’s help acquiring driver’s licenses and social security cards. So far, the plan seems lousy with the kind of pragmatism and grass-roots experience so often missing from such endeavors; hard to get a job without a SSN, or a bank account without a license, but only those who truly understand this community would be nonplussed by how, and why, many lack them, or that a grownup couldn’t manage such tasks without support (among other things, there’s a hesitance to voluntarily present oneself to bureaucracies indistinguishable from the ones that jail them or take their children). 

The Young Men’s Initiative is, indeed, impressive. Right down to its chutzpah in explicitly discriminating against black and Latina women fighting the same uphill battles. THEY PUT IT RIGHT IN THE NAME!

There’s no way the planners didn’t see this critique coming, but I didn’t find even an acknowledgement of women’s exclusion, let alone a justification, in the mayor’s announcement or subsequent articles (but see the comments for plenty of pissed off chicas … taking exception with their exclusion). That wouldn’t have shut me up, but it was the least they should have done. 

Who but these women – the single moms, the aunties, “play sisters,” and grannies who’ll never be able to retire – hold these chaotic communities together while the men (and apparently only the men) are busy confronting those nasty “disparities”?  Played to the left again, even as they’re being summarily required to make their men’s access to these goodies possible.  They will still be catching two buses to their McDonald’s jobs,  then home through a war zone to care for the children whose long lost dad is mastering downward facing dog and getting paid for hanging with the brothers in a cushy program that specifically excludes her.  (Men who participate will earn $7.24/hr because planners found that “many … are unable or unwilling to enroll in time-consuming education and training programs unless they are compensated.”) Struggling urban women are once more punished for being competent.

But at least they’ll get to enjoy, while manhandling overstuffed Hefty bags to the laundromat, a fatherless brood  underfoot,  newly cleaned parks, whitewashed graffiti, and freshly painted neighborhood centers–all the sort of community service planners intend to “promote” among participants.  The goal, explained the probation commissioner, is for “New Yorkers [to] see these young men not as the scary guy in a North Face jacket hanging at the corner, but as men who can have a positive impact in their neighborhoods.”  Hear, hear.  What’s left out, though, is that these men need to learn to see themselves that way, too. That’s why I’d feel more confident if “promote” was upgraded to “lovingly but firmly require.”  As Rousseau said, sometimes you have to force folks to be free.

But in the end?  Poor black and Latina women will likely just sigh, peruse the program’s offerings wistfully, then figure out how to fit yet more sacrifice into lives filled with little else. It’s not like they have much choice and the hope of more males learning to be actual men is one to be nourished; if it works, everyone’s life improves. Subsidized, of course, by the invisible burdens of equally beleaguered women.  But what else is new?