Generosity or Gullibility: Blaming The Victim

My Dear Readers,

Americans are criticized for many things, but what is not appreciated about our culture is the instant and overwhelming response of Americans when it comes to the plight and suffering of others. The following story is one in which Americans, in hearing a story of desperation and survival, collectively reach out to help.

Dear Visible Man,

So much for the saying “crime doesn’t pay.”  I wondered whether you heard about the black woman in Phoenix who was arrested for leaving her two children in the car unattended while she went on to a job interview. Now I hear that she has received $100,000 in donations from around the country!  What type of message is that?

Sure, she is homeless, but she broke the law and placed her children at risk.  Now she is going to financially profit from her criminal act.  One can only guess what she is going to do with all that money, considering the media reports that she has a history of arrests for theft and drug use.

There are hard working folks struggling out there to make ends meet.  How are they going to react when they learn that a person can break the law and become wealthy without breaking a sweat?

I don’t know about her situation and I have never been homeless, but there is something wrong with this picture.  What is this country coming to?  We are being taken as suckers.  No wonder we have so many problems with people like her taking advantage of the system.

A Puzzled Taxpayer, Bellevue WA

Dear Puzzled,

I appreciate the opportunity to respond to your writing. There are a variety of comments from across the nation either condemning this woman or sympathizing with the circumstances that led to the incident.

I think it would be a broad stroke to dismiss your writing as another gripe from the affluent middle class.  You ask some provoking questions regarding a situation which is clearly heart (not thought) provoking.  However, I think you are falling into the trap of “blaming the victim” for her circumstances.

In this situation, there is a single parent who is homeless with two minor age children.  She is alone and desperate, living in survival mode, seeking to support her children. She goes on a job interview, taking a chance that her children will be okay by leaving them alone and unattended in the car.

It may be that she did what she felt she had to do.  She may have acted out of desperation.  Did she make the best decision for her children?  She knew that leaving them unattended in a vehicle was both a criminal act and placed the children at risk.  Yet she did it anyway.

Victim blaming allows many of us to sit in judgment of others.  This woman had a terrible choice, but she felt that she had to do this in order to provide for her children.  Is Blaming the Victim racist? Answer: It can be.  However, race does not have to be a factor.  Does one actually intend to focus blame on the victim?  Answer: Actually no.

So what exactly is victim blaming?  According to William Ryan, victim blaming is “a set of ideas and concepts that are unintended distortions of reality”.  These distortions consist of the following components:

  • There is a belief system, or a way in looking at the world. The belief system includes a set of ideas and concepts.· There is a systemic distortion of reality being reflected in those ideas.·      The distortion is not a conscious intentional process and,·      The beliefs i.e. ideas and concepts serve a specific function of maintaining the status quo of a specific group.

There is generalized belief system in this country that anyone can ascertain the levels of working or middle class simply by working hard, or “pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps.”  This phrase, created by in the early 20th century by the writer James Joyce, states:

“There were others who had forced their way to the top from the lowest rung by the aid of their bootstraps.”  (Ulysses, 1922)

This is core to the American belief that anyone, through their own efforts, can achieve their intended goals and objectives.  This depends on another belief system known as the “just world hypothesis”, which is the belief that in a just world, actions and conditions have predictable, appropriate, and just consequences. In essence, the existence of a just world is key to the ability to pull oneself up by their own bootstraps.

The just world hypothesis or belief holds that a person’s actions always bring morally fair consequences to that person, so it should follow that all noble actions are eventually rewarded and all actions that cause injury to others are eventually punished.  So how does this belief holds for this woman who has ceased her criminal and drug behaviors and is seeking to provide care for her children?

Due to her history, she is repeatedly denied employment and consequently she is unable to provide for her children.  She becomes homeless and is forced, along with her children (toddler and infant) to sleep in a decrepit automobile.   Out of desperation and the desire to survive, she gambles… leaving her children in the automobile with the engine running and air conditioner on, while she makes a mad dash for financial freedom—a job interview with the prospect of employment.

This was a desperate move during desperate times.  It is truly a blessing that someone saw the vulnerable children and intervention was obtained.

The woman is vilified as a monster for leaving her children alone in the car, even though she attempted to lift herself up by her “own bootstraps” in seeking employment—the same employment she would need to provide care for her children—and the same employment she has repeatedly been turned away from due to her criminal past and drug history.

It is the same society that vilifies this woman that also maintains the distorted system that prevents her from attaining the employment needed to care for her children.  The society that requires her to overcome these huge hurdles is the same society that punishes her for failing at doing so. In a just world, either the hurdles would be lower, or the punishment wouldn’t exist.

I would challenge you to think more holistically about the entire situation.  The societal punishment continues with the idea that the donations she received are a reward for the actions that she took. The donations are actually a result of the recognition of the terrible choice that she had to make and an attempt to keep her from being in that situation again, not a reward for endangering her children. Those who are reaching into their pockets to help are trying to make the world a little more just, the playing field just a little more level.

You are correct, however, in observing that there is something wrong with this picture.  The focus is on both the actions of a desperate woman attempting to care for her children and the response of hundreds of Americans and other people throughout the world who are responding to her plight.

Many blame the victim and sneer at those who reach out to help.  Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.  Put the focus on the system that refuses to allow this woman to pick herself up by her bootstraps and find work to provide care for her children.  Put the focus on a system that continues to handicap this woman, judging her for her past actions rather than seeking to empower her through employment so she can provide for her children.

What is wrong with this country? The belief systems as discussed are distorted.  Rather than solve the “broken system” that forces a desperate woman to gamble, leaving her children unattended in a automobile, why do we blame the victim and also to criticize those who seek to help?

The end result is that the broken system is maintained along with the distorted beliefs that hold the system together.  Subsequently the objective of maintaining the status quo and distance between working / middle class and poor is achieved.

Concluding Words

The misunderstanding here is twofold: it is tempting to fall into the same trap as this week’s writer, and focus on the fact that a woman left her minor children in automobile unattended, as opposed to focusing on the situation that forced her to do so.

If we accept this premise, then we unintentionally close our eyes and either fail to understand the reality that there are countless thousands of Americans who are homeless.  Indeed there are many men, women, adolescents and children living in similar squalor and impoverished conditions in local communities throughout this nation.

What is wrong with this country?  Well, we are still grappling with issues such as racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, and many others.  As a nation we are not perfect.  However, we are a nation of caring, sensitive and warm people.

The people who reached into their pockets and gave funds to the African-American woman and her children did so because they felt her pain and suffering.  They wanted to do something on an individual level and did so.  As these individuals through their financial gifts embraced this family, they should be acknowledged and not criticized for their generosity.

One objective that we as individuals can do as individual members of societies, communities and families is to work towards healing the distorted beliefs that maintains the inequities of the system.  This objective is a long term one yet necessary if we as a nation truly want to resolve the differences that keeps us apart. One way to do this is to focus on assisting those in plight and need in local communities by continuing to give generously to organizations within our local communities.

An example of such an organization is Youth Care, a non-profit agency located in Seattle, WA.  The agency, led by Dr. Melinda Giovengo, has a hard working staff dedicated to serving homeless adolescents and young adults.

Another program, the James W. Ray Orion Center provides food, shelter care, counseling, case management and transitional housing.  (For those seeking to provide financial assistance or simply want to help, please contact Youth Care at 2500 NE 25th Street Seattle WA 98105 or telephone at 206-694-4500).

What is right with this country?  How does one describe a nation of caring, sensitive and warm people?  In one word… generosity.

We don’t know about the issues faced by those we encounter every day. We often never know what becomes of those who receive the generous assistance of others.  We can only have faith that our help has made the world a little more just.

The Visible Man

Post Script:

Thirty-five years ago, a young man arrived in Seattle.  He soon found himself to be alone, financially broken, homeless and hungry.

It was the generosity of the people of Seattle that found him a place to stay, fed him in a church soup kitchen and assisted him to get on his feet.  This person worked hard, overcame many barriers and obstacles.

That person went on to become a contributing member of the community who has focused his life on working to assist others to empower themselves.

That individual was me.

Dr. Micheal Kane

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