Leonard Pitts: ‘True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar’
Published 12:00 am Sunday, November 28, 2021
By Leonard Pitts
Abraham could have asked for anything.
The Make-A-Wish folks stood ready to make a dream come true for the 13-year-old boy, who has aplastic anemia, a life-threatening blood disorder. But Adeola “Abraham” Olagbegi didn’t ask for a PS5 or a day with LeBron James. No, he just wanted to feed indigent people in his hometown of Jackson, Mississippi. Thus was born Abraham’s Table, which will serve meals once a month for the next year.
The story, recently told by WBLT, a local TV station, is emblematic of the kind of news that media love to report during the holidays, stories of warm and fuzzy, of generosity above and beyond, stories that make us feel good.
Maybe too good.
Not to question Abraham’s — or anyone else’s — sincerity. No, the point is only that sometimes, what warms the heart sedates the conscience. It ameliorates an immediate need — a hungry person is fed — but doesn’t interrogate, much less solve, the larger problem: Why is this person hungry to begin with? And how do we ensure that he is fed not just today but every day?
“True compassion,” Martin Luther King once wrote, “is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it understands that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
Celine-Marie Pascale would agree. “This isn’t about personal generosity,” she said in a recent telephone interview. “It’s not trying to stimulate a moral sensibility toward being generous, but a moral sensibility toward justice, and that’s quite different.”
The “it” she refers to is her new book, “Living On The Edge.” There, Pascale, a sociology professor at American University, deconstructs popular myths about what it means to be poor in America. Perhaps the most damaging is that poverty is a choice, that anyone who wants to rise can do it, provided they work hard enough.
As if anybody works harder than the poor. “Perhaps as a kid,” Pascale explained, “you played musical chairs where you had 10 children and nine chairs. Well, the child that is the slowest or least able is going to be the one left out. But from the beginning that game is rigged so there’s not enough for everyone. We haven’t really come to terms with that as a country, to recognize [that our system] depends upon people not having enough, produces poverty in order to create tremendous wealth for others.”
To read Pascale’s book, to tour the lives of those she calls “the struggling class” — a hotel deskman in Appalachia, a factory worker in Tennessee, a nonprofit employee in Oakland — is to come away convinced we live in a rigged game where corporations buy politicians who subsidize those corporations with public money, but let someone suggest subsidizing the public with that same money, and there is a hue and cry about “socialism,” a word that somehow maintains its power to shock and repel, nine decades after it was used to attack a new program called Social Security.
The rich get richer, the poor get poorer and the middle class — where a factory worker with no high school diploma could once buy a modest home and put a kid through college — shrinks to nothingness.
Giving is good, and every person who is able to do so, should. But it would be even better to restructure the edifice that produces a need for giving — to realize, as Pascale puts it, that what America really needs is not a “seasonal moment of generosity” but “a reckoning for justice.”
Meaning, not a nation where a child feeds hungry people, but one where hungry people can feed themselves.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 3511 NW 91st Ave., Miami, Fla., 33172. Readers may contact him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.