The Reality of Poverty in America


First part
Written by Naveed Balouch (Son)

The podcast “Rags to Riches” highlights the truths of socio-economic equality and what it means to pursue the American dream. People may argue that in America, everyone is born equal and has the same opportunities, but the reality is that everyone is born into different circumstances, and in general, the rich stay rich and the poor stay impoverished. Although this podcast hasn’t completely shifted my viewpoint on poverty in America, it has illuminated many aspects of poverty that I was unaware of, such as the idea of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps”.

Before this podcast, I didn’t understand the saying, but I now realize what it means is that anyone can achieve their dreams with enough hard work and dedication. I can relate to this saying in some ways because my parents immigrated to America from Pakistan, and worked small jobs like McDonald’s and Mazios’s until they could finish medical school and become doctors, all while raising my sister and me.

In our situation, my parents were able to persevere and work their way up from the bottom, but as stated by Martin Luther King Jr., “It’s all right to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.”

This saying stood out to me because of how true it is, and how it pertains to the impoverished population of America. Anyone can work hard for their dreams, but not everyone has the same opportunities, and those who start with something will always be ahead of those who start with nothing. A person’s race also has a huge influence on their economic status in America.

For example, “The median black household income was 61% of median white household income in 2018” (Shaeffer par. 8). Furthermore, the textbook defines positive liberty as “the ability-and provision of basic necessities-to pursue one’s goals”, and negative liberty as “freedom from constraints or the interference of others”.

Although positive liberty ensures that one can pursue their dreams without worrying about basic living needs, it takes away another person’s negative liberty because “guaranteeing positive liberty requires making someone else provide it” (Doherty par. 3). For me, negative liberty embodies the idea of freedom more than positive liberty.

1- Doherty, Brian. “Debate: ‘Positive Liberty’ Isn’t True Liberty”. Reason, 23 Aug. 2018, . Accessed 30 Aug. 2020.
2- Shaeffer, Katherine. “6 Facts About Economic Inequality in the U.S.” Pew Research Center, 7 Feb. 2020. . Accessed 30 Aug. 2020.

Second part
Written by Lubna Mirza, MD (Mom)

Thank you for sharing your school project to learn about poverty in America with me, dear Naveed. The American Dream is not easy to reach for everyone in this country as you have alluded to in your paper. Racism in the US is very similar to casteism in South Asia. In fact, racism is the American caste system where whites are the equivalents of Brahmins of South Asia, and black people are the lowest class of untouchables, with everyone else in-between.

As a South Asian immigrant to the US, I am acutely aware of what a caste system is. Over the last hundreds of years, the lower caste Hindus often converted to Islam or Christianity in attempts to escape the systemic oppression as you described as the concept of “negative liberty” in your paper. Conversion to Islam didn’t prevent the pervasiveness of the caste system in the South Asian society as these converts quickly fabricated new castes inside of their newly acquired religion.

One such example is the caste “Syed” meaning people who descended directly from prophet Mohamad and “Mughals” or “Mirzas” are descendants of Persian kings and queens. I can tell you as per DNA analysis, I am 87% south Asian with no Arab or Persian in me.

What is caste? According to Wilkerson, “caste is the granting or withholding of respect, status, honor, attention, privileges, resources, the benefit of the doubt, and human kindness to someone on the basis of their perceived rank or standing in the hierarchy.”

According to the anthropologists Audry and Brian Smedley, “The English in North America developed the most rigid and exclusionist form of race ideology”. You may notice that even though the lower caste or lower race people were considered untouchables in South Asia or North America, it didn’t stop the higher caste or race individuals to rape the untouchable women and have children with them. The hierarchy is manmade, malicious, and arbitrary with the sole purpose to subdue, abuse, and exploit other human beings.

Describing the treatment of Blacks in America, Wilkerson writes:
“The institution of slavery was, for a quarter millennium, the conversion of human beings into currency, into machines who existed solely for the profit of their owners, to be worked as long as the owners desired, who had no rights over their bodies or loved ones, who could be mortgaged, bred, won in a bet, given as wedding presents, bequeathed to heirs, sold away from spouses or children to convene an owner’s debts or to spite a rival or to settle an estate. They were regularly whipped, raped, and branded, subjected to any whim or distemper of the people who owned them. Some were castrated or endured other tortures too grisly for these pages, tortures that the Geneva Conventions would have banned as war crimes had the conventions applied to people of African descent on this soil.”

You mentioned in your paper about the success of your immigrant parents. A lot of people believe that other races are superior to black people and if they could succeed as new immigrants in the US, why haven’t black people followed their example? In reality, it’s the black people in American who have fought for centuries for equality that made it even possible for these immigrant families to settle and succeed in the US.

Black people are visibly distinguished from European immigrants due to the dark color of their skin. European immigrants face hostility and discrimination upon arrival in the US as well but it dissipates by the 2nd or 3rd generation as they lose their foreign accent and assimilate as whites into the larger American culture. Black people have not been able to blend in America with negative stereotyping portrayed on small and large screens, print media, and generational indoctrination throughout the nation.

Psychologists have long known that the perception of a difference has a powerful impact on how we feel about people and interact with them. The greater the perceived visual difference, the greater the believed difference in another’s underlying attributes. Even black police officers are more likely to kill black criminals than white criminals.

My brother Hassan was 7 years old when we moved to America. He was often in trouble at school and as you know he is the only one out of five siblings who didn’t go to college. We were all very young struggling to adjust in our new country and we just thought he was probably more mischievous of all of us.

We didn’t realize until years later that he was being targeted by the school administration and police due to the dark color of his skin. The publicly released police records in Norman, indicate that the black and brown children are more likely to be disciplined by the school authorities and even police as compared to white kids in schools. People of color are disproportionately fined and imprisoned in this country as compared to their white counterparts.

When I worked in McDonald’s to save enough money for a plane ticket to go back to Pakistan where I was trying to complete my medical degree, I was jokingly threatened by my coworkers to be thrown into the ice bucket on my last day. “Don’t throw me in the ice bucket, I will call 911”! I said. “How do you know about 911 when you just got here”! They asked. I saw it on TV.
911 was a popular TV show that played as entertainment all around the world in the 80s and 90s. I was convinced like the rest of the world that black men were dangerous and white policemen were the saviors and protectors. The extent of colorism is pervasive in south Asia and skin whitening products are a billion-dollar industry.

Black people of America are different from recent immigrants. They didn’t come here for an even better life like me or your dad. They were brought as slaves and treated poorly. Scientific studies of the third generation of Holocaust victims show signs of generational trauma in epigenetics. Black people spent centuries in slavery. The generational trauma will not dissipate in the short time we have been alive. It’s definitely not going to heal itself without the systemic support and reparations.

The indignities of slavery were followed by 100 years of Jim Crow during which blacks were legally denied access to good educations, adequate housing, equal public facilities, and fair working opportunities. Both the GI Bill and Social Security were largely denied to them. These and other disenfranchisements are the foundation for today’s enormous black-white wealth gap. In short, blacks have been denied access to much of what made America the land of opportunity.

So, some would ask, what about immigrants of color, such as Asians, Latinos, and even other people of African descent? Why can they come to America and often do better than indigenous poor blacks?

Even though I, a south Asian came to America with empty pockets, you must realize that I was already in medical school at that point and my family is highly educated. My uncle Habib Siddiqui who sponsored us was the first person from Pakistan to have a PhD in English. Clearly, some groups come to America better prepared to take advantage of the opportunity that does exist.

Coming from Pakistan to America helped me excel as a woman because the degree of “negative liberty” in America is much smaller than it is in Pakistan for women. Thanks to great women like the suffrages in the history of this county and professor Anita Hill, women can vote and work outside of homes without harassment in America. It is not non-existent but still is a lot better than what we experienced growing up.

I went to medical school in Pakistan which was essentially free while my sister who went to OSU (Oklahoma State University) Tulsa to get her DO (Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine) degree came out of school with over a hundred thousand dollars in student debt.

Frequently, the immigrants to America are from the most privileged families and classes within their respective countries. Immigrants as a group are exceptionally motivated people.

Immigration to the United States is considered “brain drain,” around the world and is frowned upon. The brain drain is when the best trained and educated of other countries leave their countries to achieve greater benefits in a different country. I am not sure if Isha or you know this but during medical school, your dad was on top of the class of 300 one year and I was on top of the class in a different year. We were in the local newspapers. We were very motivated and determined to succeed.

I came to America and had you here in Tulsa, Oklahoma so you could have an even better life and future than we did. Lucky for us as a family to be able to live on the west side of Norman and go to the nice school here which is overwhelmingly white. It’s not by accident but by design. As first-generation immigrants, we are not poor in America right now but if the system of racial bias doesn’t change, our third, fourth, or fifth generation might just be.

We live in Norman, Oklahoma. Norman used to be a sundown town where blacks were not allowed after sunset and some were even lynched for breaking this rule. The first black person who bought a house in Norman was a black professor, Dr. George Henderson who joined OU in 1967. After he moved to Norman with his family and purchased a house here, several “For sale” signs went up in their neighborhood because their white neighbors didn’t want to live next to a black family. Black people have been segregated not just from most other racial and ethnic groups, but also from the American immigrant experience and the gradual opening of opportunities that have characteristically come with it.

The body of research comparing immigrant-origin and U.S.-origin Whites to immigrant-origin Blacks shows that the overall academic performance of immigrant-origin Blacks lags behind those of both groups (Emeka, 2004; Massey et al., 2007). Furthermore, previous analyses of the socioeconomic attainment of Black immigrants to the U.S. have found that, relative to U.S.-origin Black people, Black immigrants generally do not receive the same earnings benefits even with their higher educational attainment (Corra, 2005; Dodoo, 1997).

United States-origin black people especially men have been stereotyped negatively not just in social settings but in academic domains as well. Even the election of a second-generation immigrant black man Barack Obama has been offered as evidence that equal educational opportunity initiatives are no longer needed.

The black lives matter movement has rocked the entire country in recent months after brutal murders of black men by the police. Some wonder why black people have not revolted after everything that has been done to them. I believe part of it is internalization. Similarly, you will see women upholding the structures of patriarchy in several monotheistic religions where they are treated as second class humans.

Ben Carson for instance is a good example of internalization of oppression where a successful black man looks down at other black people. As exceptionally successful people, they dismiss the failures of their fellow beings because in their minds if they could do it, anyone else could too. Some argue that the U.S. society has entered a “post-racial” era and no longer requires policies promoting equity, the evidence is before us that there continues to be an enormous need for further research and outreach programs to bridge the gap of racial disparities in this country and around the world.

You are turning 21 this month and as a mother of a young brown man, I do worry about your safety in this country. You are more likely to be charged more seriously for minor crimes despite the socioeconomic status of your family. You were about 14 when Trevon Martin got shot. One night, you were going out to seven eleven when I said to you, “Naveed, please don’t get shot!”. In America, we are part of a military-industrial complex that is raising little white boys to grow up to be soldiers of God to police the world. People of color are denied equal access to education, healthcare, and job opportunities. As people who are being targeted, discriminated against, and hunted in this country and around the world, we don’t have any other choice but to speak up and demand equality and justice.

1- Emeka AS. New Blacks, new Whites and the new day: Intergenerational mobility among Black and White immigrants in the post-civil rights era. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association; San Francisco, CA. 2004.
2- Corra MK. Race, Gender, and Immigrant Status: Assessing Differences in Earnings among Persons of African Origin. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association; Philadelphia, PA. 2005.


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