Sunday, December 30, 2012

If I was a Poor White Woman

A fifteen-year-old conversation with my grandmother recently nudged itself to the front of my consciousness.  We had been in her car, and the man on the radio was discussing the lack of funding for a midnight basketball program.  

"They need the funding," I said, after we got out of the car. "A lot of teens and young men could use somewhere to go.  Somewhere safe.  This could reduce crime." 

"Isn't that blackmail?" she replied. "If this isn't provided, they're going to commit crimes?"

I'd been sixteen or seventeen and didn't have a nuanced perspective or good response to her rhetorical questions.  All I thought was that it made more sense to have the program than to not have it.  That as a society, we should do what we can to help people succeed.

That memory bubbled up this morning when I was thinking about an argument I had with a friend last night about a woman from Idaho who'd illegally taken an abortion drug and was arrested and prosecuted.  As described in the latest issue of The New Republic, Jennie Linn McCormack was fourteen when she had her first baby in 1993 ("The Rise of DIY Abortions").  She and her mom had gone to an adoption agency, but McCormack decided she wanted to keep the baby.  She got pregnant again to a different man whom she had married at the age of eighteen; the two divorced a few years later.  In 2009, she had a son by a man who was "not a long-term relationship," and three months after that baby was born, she got pregnant again by a different man.

As a single mother of three--including a seventeen-year-old boy with college aspirations--and only a couple hundred dollars of income each month from child support, McCormack sought an abortion.  The would-be father took her to the nearest clinic, over 140 miles away in Salt Lake City, Utah, and paid for the abortion.  When she discovered she was pregnant by him again, he was in jail.  She couldn't afford the abortion nor the 72 hour waiting period that was mandatory in Utah.  

McCormack's sister researched and ordered abortion pills online; they were much cheaper and easier to get than anything legal in Idaho.  By the time McCormack took the pills (it took about two months to get them), she had thought she was about  fourteen weeks along.  But the fetus that came out "was much bigger than she had expected.  It was about a foot long, clearly female, with identifiable features and hair." Not knowing what else to do, McCormack put it in a bag and then a box under her bed.  When the smell got to be too bad, she moved the remains to her back porch.  McCormack told a friend, who told his sister, who called the police.

McCormack was charged "under 1973's Idaho Code 18-606, which makes it a felony for a woman to have an abortion in a manner not sanctioned by the state and carries a possible prison sentence of up to five years."

McCormack obtained a lawyer, and in September 2012 was vindicated, as a ninth circuit judge ruled that "the difficulty poor women experience in obtaining an abortion in Idaho....essentially outlawed the procedure for them."  In other words, "since it was so hard for McCormack to obtain a legal abortion, it was unjust to charge her for having an illegal one."

The rest of the article describes the widespread availability of these powerful and potentially dangerous abortion drugs on the internet, a consequence of restricting access to safe and affordable abortions.  Pro choice groups had largely stayed away from McCormack's case, because she is not a sympathetic figure.  She appears careless and irresponsible, not the kind of woman you want as the face of a movement.  

Which brings me back to the argument I had with my friend.  I read this article and was horrified by what this woman went through.  Pregnant as a young teen by a boy who said she couldn't get pregnant her first time.  Pregnant again and again by men who disappeared from her life.  What must this woman have gone through, I thought, and what can we do, as a society, to help?

My friend agrees that abortion should be safe and accessible and that we need to increase educational resources.  He also argues that again and again, McCormack refused to take responsibility for herself.  As someone with limited resources, McCormack should have been extra careful.  It's hard for me to disagree with this.  But it also calls to mind something Forbes contributor Gene Marks wrote last December:
If I was a poor black kid I would first and most importantly work to make sure I got the best grades possible. I would make it my #1 priority to be able to read sufficiently. I wouldn't care if I was a student at the worst public middle school in the worst inner city. Even the worst have their best. And the very best students, even at the worst schools, have more opportunities. Getting good grades is the key to having more options. With good grades you can choose different, better paths. If you do poorly in school, particularly in a lousy school, you're severely limiting the limited opportunities you have.
Marks is a middle-aged white guy who grew up firmly in the middle class, and his arguments do have some logic.  One of my favorite writer/bloggers, Ta-Nahesi Coates, responds by talking about his days as a student taking courses on slavery at Howard University:
Whenever we discussed the back-breaking conditions, the labor, the sale of family members, etc., there was always someone who asserted, roughly, "I couldn't been no slave. They'd a had to kill me!" I occasionally see a similar response here where someone will assert, with less ego, "Why didn't the slaves rebel?" More commonly you get people presiding from on high insisting that if they had lived in the antebellum South, they would have freed all of their slaves.
What all these responses have in common is a benevolent, and surely unintentional, self-aggrandizement. These are not bad people (much as I am sure Mr. Marks isn't a bad person), but they are people speaking from a gut feeling, a kind of revulsion at a situation that offends our modern morals. In the case of the observer of slavery, it is the chaining and marketing of human flesh. In the case of Mr. Marks, it's the astonishingly high levels of black poverty.
It is comforting to believe that we, through our sheer will, could transcend these bindings -- to believe that if we were slaves, our indomitable courage would have made us Frederick Douglass, or if we were slave masters, our keen morality would have made us Bobby Carter. We flatter ourselves, not out of malice, but out of instinct. 
Still, we are, in the main, ordinary people living in plush times. We are smart enough to get by, responsible enough to raise a couple of kids, thrifty to sock away for a vacation, and industrious enough to keep the lights on. We like our cars. We love a good cheeseburger. We'd die without air-conditioning. In the great mass of humanity that's ever lived, we are distinguished only by our creature comforts, and we are, on the whole, mediocre.  
That mediocrity is oft-exemplified by the claim that though we are unremarkable in this easy world, something about enslavement, degradation and poverty would make us exemplary. We can barely throw a left hook--but surely we would have beaten Mike Tyson.
It would not be enough to consider slavery, for instance, when claiming "If I was a slave I'd rebel." One would have to consider, for instance, family left behind to bear the wrath of those one would seek to rebel against. In other words, one would have to assume that for the vast majority of slaves rebellion made no sense. And then instead of declaration ("I would do..."), one would be forced into a question ("Why wouldn't I?"). 
This basic extension of empathy is one of the great barriers in understanding race in this country. I do not mean a soft, flattering, hand-holding empathy. I mean a muscular empathy rooted in curiosity. If you really want to understand slaves, slave masters, poor black kids, poor white kids, rich people of colors, whoever, it is essential that you first come to grips with the disturbing facts of your own mediocrity. The first rule is this--You are not extraordinary. It's all fine and good to declare that you would have freed your slaves. But it's much more interesting to assume that you wouldn't have and then ask, "Why?" 

I'd add poor white women, as Jennie Linn McCormack is, to Coates' list.  It's easy for me to think, were I in McCormack's position, I would have made different choices.  I wouldn't have gotten pregnant at 14 and 19, and I wouldn't have gotten pregnant three more times by two different men.  But it's harder and more interesting for me to imagine the alternative.  What circumstances might have existed that would lead me down that path?  


Tonja said...

Wonderful post!

August said...

Thanks! Happy new year :)