Humorist P.J. O’Rourke once referred to those who exploit or make a living off the misery of the poor as “poverty pests.” As of this writing, Ferguson, Missouri, has been overwhelmed by poverty pests trying to capitalize on tragedy.
For a number of reasons, I have long been a fan of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. While many think of him only as one of the greatest basketball players of all time, he is much more. Abdul-Jabbar is a deep thinker who has always felt tremendous empathy for those in despair and he continually steps up to make a positive difference.
He is a voice of reason, common sense and fairness.
For instance, with regard to racist remarks made by former L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling and the demands that his team be taken away from him, Abdul-Jabbar — who knows Sterling well — voiced a contrarian view at the height of the controversy. “There’s no excuse for what he said,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “There’s no excuse for anybody to support racism. There is no place for it in the league, but there’s a very, very, very slippery slope. If it’s all about racism and we’re ready to kick people out of the league, OK. Then what about homophobia? What about someone who doesn’t like a particular religion? … What about a xenophobe? In this country, people are allowed to be morons … . Shouldn’t we be equally angered by the fact that his private, intimate conservation was taped and then leaked to the media?”
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Regarding the news that millennials (born after 1981) seem to be self-identifying as Democrats at a much higher rate than Republicans, Abdul-Jabbar said: “While liberals may think that is good news, I don’t. Our country is better off having intelligent, compassionate and articulate people who disagree in order to keep each other in check and force us to come up with better ideas.”
So when this voice of reason spoke about the turmoil in Ferguson, I felt it important to pay attention.
At this early stage, Abdul-Jabbar does see racism at play, and he lays a large portion of the blame on police, but he zeroes in on the much larger problem: poverty.
In an essay in Time Magazine, he said, “This fist-shaking of everyone’s racial agenda distracts America from the larger issue that the targets of police overreaction are based less on skin color and more on an even worse Ebola-level affliction: being poor. Of course, to many in America being a person of color is synonymous with being poor, and being poor is synonymous with being a criminal.”
As a white male who grew up in poverty, I was homeless from time to time and often lived in poor African-American neighborhoods. And I would second Abdul-Jabbar’s thoughts.
Now, even though I did have this shared experience of some of the worst life has to offer, I have been told by some that I am not allowed to write about the “black experience of being poor.”
I don’t. I just write about the experience. Period.
As I have said, during that time in my life, my few friends (who happened to be African-American) and myself did not think of ourselves as black or white. We thought of ourselves as the same, fighting the common enemies of dysfunction and poverty.
Be it in Ferguson, Missouri, or Tampa, Florida, there are tens of thousands of people who are desperately poor and who truly feel that no one cares about them. Unless you have been there, it’s hard to tell them they are wrong.
As the investigation in Ferguson continues, I hope the truth will come out and cooler heads will prevail. Sadly, the poverty pests will move on like locusts to exploit the next tragedy for their own gain.
In the meantime, Abdul-Jabbar is mostly correct. It’s really about poverty and a sense of abandonment. Society does have a responsibility to look after those suffering in poverty through no fault of their own. And the poor have a shared responsibility. They must be accountable, do the best they can and obey the law.