Thursday, Apr 24, 2014
Opinion

Do we want to segregate the poor from society?

Florida Voices
Published:   |   Updated: March 12, 2013 at 05:01 PM

People keep saying the United States is being torn apart by angry words and escalating divisions that will destroy the nation.

I'm undecided.

On the one hand, remember 1861-65, the Civil War, bloodshed and killing galore?

We're not there yet, although this time the target may be poor people and folks who can't get jobs, and the weapons may be laws and politically inspired bureaucracy. The rich have always been demonized by some, but the current bashing of the poor and unemployed seems to be gaining steam among people looking for someone — anyone — to blame.

Still, we're not as divided as we were only 60 years ago, when segregation was mandatory in 17 states and the District of Columbia.

It didn't have to be that way, of course. After the Civil War, blacks in the South played significant parts in the economy and politics for a while.

But by 1890 whites had established Jim Crow laws that subjugated blacks to separate and unequal lives. It wasn't just a "Southern thing," either. Jim Crow laws started in the North in the 1840s, when politicians ordered the railroads segregated, as historian C. Vann Woodward pointed out in "The Strange Career of Jim Crow."

But Jim Crow prospered especially in the South, where race was a great tool for the ruling class. It would "keep the Southern masses divided and Southern labor cheapest in the land," as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. noted.

Meanwhile, many Southern blacks fled to the North, where they formed potent voting blocs after World War II and got some respect. As Woodward notes, there also was a sea change in public opinion beginning about 1960, with public attitudes on race gradually changing nationwide.

Florida was one of the last eight states to desegregate, just a few behind Mississippi.

Some things endure. The South still has the cheapest labor in the land — also the least educated and most unhealthy, according to many studies.

The South keeps clinging to "conservative values" against minorities, women, immigrants and gays, to name a few scapegoats.

But if we can't pick on minorities, women, immigrants and gays, who can we pick on? The poor. After all, they're poor because they want to be poor. Everyone knows that.

To people with this mindset, poverty is a moral failing, and pay no attention to circumstances like families, schools, public safety, the increasingly costly "War on Drugs" and an economic recovery that has been much better for some than for most.

It's not just the poor. The middle class is shrinking; many of us are holding on by our fingertips as property values stagnate and wages drop. No new cars, no vacations, maybe even no health insurance.

Many Baby Boomers are overqualified and unwanted for the mediocre jobs to be found in this state, where tourism rules. In my hometown, the school board is advertising a job as a teacher's assistant for less than $9 an hour. It spells out lots of qualifications required for the job, and rightfully so. But it even requires the successful applicant to pay the $55 cost of a criminal background check.

And the Republican "solution" is to cut some more, on the misguided concept that less government spending and fewer services will make life better for the majority. Oh, it will make life better, but only for a few.

Meanwhile, the middle class and the low-income crowds can fight each other for the scraps. Welcome to "The New South."

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