Saturday, June 03, 2006

Electricity

I feel at a loss for words right now, I just moved (thankfully) after a long search for somewhere in Oxford to stay. I wish that I could have had a few real days off before being hurdled into MTC chaos. I am starting to get things done, say for example, blogging. But I finally found something I want to address. First of all, let me state to any readers (far and few between, I know) I have always felt strange about blogging-- I write as if it is a journal entry that I will look back at and laugh, or be to bored by my own writing.

But the truth is, I miss academic writing. I have a number of topics that I want to write about and sometimes I just do not have the energy to do so-- to truly formulate some of the arguments that are in my head. The following may seem like an inane discussion but it is something that is bothering me.

I want to talk about electricity. In Clarksdale, they do not have a corporate electric company (such as Atmos energy). "Clarksdale Public Utilities" (names have not been changed) is probably one of the crudest and most inhumane energy companies in the continental United States. I have lived in a lot of cities and have seen the variety of co-op electricity companies owned by town members, big and small corporate electric companies. I have never heard of people paying around $300 a month for electricity. In Clarksdale, the rates are high—okay it is annoying but I paid the bill. But can others? You cannot, of course pay your bill online, so every month you take a trip into the vacant downtown to pay your bill. After seeing the same clerk for nearly ten months—you start small talking. The clerk, Sarah told me that at least 50-100 people every day have their electricity cut-off in Clarksdale, MS. I knew already that many of my students did not have electricity/water, etc. But 50-100 people everyday! Sarah also told me that many people become so behind in their bill that they aren’t able to ever get utilities anywhere in Clarksdale. Did I mention that the utility company also handles water and sewage, and trash pick-up? So not only do homes not have electricity—they don’t have water or sewage or trash pick-up. I grew-up in the country and sure there were times when my family couldn’t scrap together enough money for electricity or we had a slum landlord who wouldn’t fix the water-well—and yes, it sucked. BUT, eventually my mother would scrap enough money together to pay off the bills. In Clarksdale, there is no room for error—you pay your bill late—ten dollars and ONE DAY later they cut-off your lights and you have to pay a 35 dollar fee to have them turn them back on. In order to even get electricity you have to pay a 175 dollar deposit. They do not change policies, or make exceptions. And this is just one aspect of daily life.

The point I am trying to make is that it is hard to be poor—of course, but in Mississippi it is the (over-the-top) institutional racism inherent in everyday life that continues to make you poor—over and over again. It is NOT generational poverty that is the problem, but racist systems designed intentionally to ensure that African Americans continue to be poor or working class.

4 Comments:

Blogger R. Pollack said...

I follow your suggestion that institutionalized racism perpetuates poverty (such that the humans don't even need to be openly or overtly racist anymore for the same or a similar effect to be generated).

But "[i]t is NOT generational poverty that is the problem"? Maybe not THE problem. There are others. But are you really meaning to suggest that generational poverty is not a problem -- that policies at institutions like the power company, taken in aggregate, are SUFFICIENT to explain poverty?

The intentionality part of this claim: "racist systems designed intentionally to ensure that African Americans continue to be poor [. . .]" also seems problematic to me (if you're feeling sentimental about academic writing, as I am). The power company (and whatever else it represents here) may well have bad policies, malevolent policies, sinister policies. Their motives may be selfish, inhumane motives. But they DELIBERATELY design policies with the aim of keeping African Americans down? That's the point for them?

(The power company, which, incidentally, unlike the plantation, has no clear economic incentive -- actually an economic disincentive -- to create or maintain a poverty class.)

12:41 AM  
Blogger BAMN!!! By Any Means Necessary said...

Robbie,

I am not suggesting that generational poverty is not a "problem" nor I am suggesting that one electric company's policies in any way approximate an explanation of poverty. As I stated, "This is just one aspect of daily life."

However, perhaps there are larger debates that stem from this one-- questions that you raise in your response. Those debates center on the intersections between capitalism, class, and race. So when you ask-- "Are the policies deliberately racist?" In my mind yes they are. "That's the point of them?" Yes. Are the policies designed so that African Americans in Clarksdale, MS will not have access to electricity and water? Absolutely. In Clarksdale and other places in Delta-- there is little or no real agency. For me the problem does not lie in apathy (an attribute many link to generational poverty), but no agency. Power structures have been designed entirely and solely on racist tenets. In this case-- a literal power company. I guess what I am trying to explain is that this is just one example where I see a white-owned business making life harder or impossible for African Americans. Do I think they sat in a room trying to devise this institutionally racist plot? No, I think their racism is far more dangerous-- and it is unconscious. In the South, everything carries a very significant historical weight. I mean when I look at the way governmental systems work, a road, and everyday occurrences I see the impacts of slavery and racism.

In any case, I cannot simply follow an economic or class argument about the way the Clarksdale electrical company handles business. I am not suggesting that economic profit isn't their first motivation, however it is not their last. For example, if I have a client who pays me 100 dollars a month for services and they are late and I charge fees that make it impossible for them to continue paying me or pay the balance-- am I not losing money in the process? I am not a business minded person, but their policy makes no sense to me.

Perhaps it was a bad example to make a good argument for institutional racism. But in all honesty—I do feel that racism is evident in this particular example.

2:36 PM  
Blogger R. Pollack said...

Okay. I'm not really disagreeing. I'm open to the possibility. But I'm not convinced, is all I mean to say. You say that you are trying to "explain" something, and I only chimed in because it seemed to me it's being asserted, not really explained.

Answering questions with "yes" doesn't make them true, of course. I will not deny that their policies are motivated by racism, but neither am I sure that they are. You are sure; so I wonder why.

Of course the history of racism still affects the present in many pervasive and intangible ways. I see the effects of slavery and racism all over this state, too. We are all affected by our histories. But when you say that these particular policies are intentionally designed to be racist, that racism is their point, that they are intentionally designed to deny African Americans access to utilities, I think you are effectively asserting that people sat in the room to devise this plot (my original question centered on your use of "intentionality" -- which is not, so far as I understand that word, a function of the subconscious).

11:58 PM  
Blogger R. Pollack said...

Also, I don't think apathy needs to have anything to do with generational poverty. It sounds like you're rejecting (or being reluctant about) generational poverty, thinking that it blames the victims, and favor institutionalized racism, thinking that it blames society.

I don't think generational poverty necessarily places blame on the victims; and it may certainly be tied to, or even be a form of, institutionalized racism.

12:01 AM  

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