The Ghettoside Response to David Brooks

Last week, David Brooks scribbled something very silly about values and poverty–Noah Smith points out the straightforward rebuttal, so I’ll leave that bit up to him. But Matt Taibbi also makes a very good point in “For David Brooks, the Rich Are People, the Poor Are Numbers” (boldface mine):

David Brooks, who with this week’s “The Cost of Relativism” column has written roughly his 10 thousandth odious article about how rich people are better parents than the poor, each one apparently written without the benefit of actually talking to any poor people….

Brooks is far from the first conservative to articulate blame-the-poor theories in print. He’s also far from the first pundit to suggest we stop taking the easy way out by whining about income inequality and white-collar greed, when we should be facing an “uncomfortable” truth about lax morals in the lower classes.

So there’s no particular reason to pick on him here, except that his writing style provides such a perfect window into how these blame-the-poor narratives come into being in the first place.

When David Brooks writes about rich people, he’s basing his observations on personal experience, describing the wonders of modern bourgeois culture he’s seen with his own eyes.

But when he writes about the poor, he’s pretty much always citing some scary academic study. The rich are people to him, while the poor are numbers….

You never see Brooks hanging out with a single mom working two jobs, in any attempt to see the world through her eyes, to understand the challenges of raising a child alone….

It’s impossible to have empathy without contact. It’s easy to blame someone you’ve never met. Not one of us is perfect in this area, but you have to at least try, and it doesn’t seem like David tries.

I’ve been working my way through Ghettoside by Jill Leovy, about the crime in poor LA neighborhoods, and in light of NYT columnist and leading counter-indicator David Brooks’ moral condescension to the poor, this description of Jessica Midkiff, a witness to a murder,
seemed relevant (pp. 181–183; boldface mine):

Jessica Midkiff had been born at Queen of Angels Hospital in Los Angeles, but her family roots were in Texas and Alabama. She was biracial, half black and half white. Her father had been one of those rare poor whites still living in South Central L.A. in the late 1980s. But like most people of mixed race in her milieu, Midkiff considered herself black.

Her parents had split while Jessica was young, and she said an abusive stepfather had raped her repeatedly. By the time she was eleven, she was performing oral sex for cash, food, and clothes. She was turning tricks in cars by fourteen.

Prostitutes such as Midkiff are effectively slaves. But they tend to spin a narrative about their own lives that suggests more agency. Midkiff referred to various pimps over the years as “boyfriends.” Some were pimpier than others. In her mind, there existed the possibility of a man being “kind of like a pimp.” She had straight pimps who kept her a stable of other prostitutes and appropriated all her earnings. She also had boyfriends like Derrick Starks, with whom she was paired as a couple but who also asked to turn tricks now and then.

Her daughter’s father, who had gotten Jessica pregnant while she was a student at Washington High, had been one of the few men in her life who was not abusive and didn’t try to pimp her. But after his brother was murdered, he joined a gang and ended up in prison, she said.

While still an adolescent, Midkiff traveled as a prostitute. She worked in Los Angeles, Riverside, Las Vegas, and parts of Arizona. She worked Sunset Boulevard, peddling ten-minute intervals in cars: oral sex for $50, intercourse for $100, both for $150. She was hired by a professional football player and for pricey all-night parties, once earning $850 for a single trick. She’d also worked Figueroa Street–that dangerous bargain basement for prostitutes. You were down-and-out when you found yourself working the long murderous stretch that plunged southward along the Harbor Freeway. Years later, the thought of it still caused her to shudder. “I hate Figueroa,” she said.

In between, she returned home from time to time. Her grandparents still lived stable, homebound lives. Her mother was raising her little girl. At one point, she enrolled in continuation school and was proud to be elected class secretary. But men always found Midkiff. There had been so many boyfriends-cum-pimps, so many beatings, girl fights, and rapes at gunpoint, so many misdemeanor arrests, that her prostitution years had a kaleidoscopic quality….

By the time she was twenty-one, she had never held a job, could barely read, and had no ability to conduct relationships with any maturity or control. She was brittle and constantly flew into rages. She had frequent fights with other women. And she suffered severe post-traumatic stress disorder that prompted anxiety attacks. Memories would sweep over her at unexpected moments, as real as if happening anew, the pain rivaling that of childbirth, she said….

She was at the end. She asked a shopkeeper for change to use a pay phone. Instead, the man gave her sixty or seventy bucks and a ride. For once she received help from someone who asked for nothing in return. With his help she reunited with her mother, who took her in. A short while later she enrolled in the Mary Magdalene Project in the San Fernando Valley, a residential charity focused on treated prostitution like an addiction. Midkiff loved the program. But she fought with another woman and was ejected.

That ultimately led to her hanging out with a murderer and becoming a material witness.

You can go Full Metal Murphy Brown 2.0 all you want, but somehow the problems here seem to run a little deeper. Being raped as a child, followed by a life veering between full-out prostitution and other sex work and ‘man-dependency’, with a nice layering of a complete lack of job skills or even basic emotional control skills.

Talking about values in this situation is utterly irrelevant–exhortations to adopt upper middle and gentry class expectations aren’t going to fix this (or even ameliorate the problems) of the Unlovely Poor.

Ultimately, she did turn her life around: she found and kept a decent job, and stayed away from abusive men.

In other words, employment and feminism saved her, not David Brooks-style pontification.

Oddly enough, Brooks just doesn’t want to talk about those things. Or maybe he just doesn’t know about them.

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1 Response to The Ghettoside Response to David Brooks

  1. anthrosciguy says:

    To talk about them you need empathy at least, and Brooks shows no sign of that. Gaining that empathy would probably require hanging around with people like Jessica, and you just know the wine she serves isn’t going to be up to the standard you get hanging around financial execs and real estate moguls. So that’s obviously out. /snark off

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