The release of the Romney recordings last week caused much uproar and displeasure as we learned that some groups of people are just not worth his concern. Whereas the Occupy movement brought us the 99 percent, Romney put the spotlight on another group—the 47 percent.
“There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it.”
These remarks were posted and discussed all over social media sites and were met with plenty of disgust. Though, if we put partisanship and sensationalism aside, in the Romney tapes we’ll be able to see his remarks as simply a manifestation of our collective detachment. We’ll see the ease with which Romney writes off a subsection of America as quotidian and certainly not an act relegated to $50,000-a-plate banquet rooms.
I attended a get-together last week and shortly after I gathered my plate of food I was confronted with the prerequisite get-together “small-talk.” Not that I should ever be surprised about the particular form this small talk takes on any given day but the question I received was especially interesting: “How is Wilmington? What is the crime rate looking like? Though, I’m sure your street is pretty nice.” Now, this was not a set of questions I subsequently answered (how do you answer such a question?) but rather a single stream of consciousness. The person knew that I moved to Wilmington, DE recently from Camden, NJ and presented this series of questions as what he believed to be a joke. The problem is: how did we get to a place of collective detachment where crime rates could ever be a joke?
We arrived at this disheartening apathy by doing the same things that were on full display in the Romney recordings. What was evident in both Romney’s comments and the crime rate question is our problematic propensity to create or give credence to fictional divisions between fellow Americans. While Romney created such fictional borders based on crude, utilitarian calculations, others do the very same using geographic boundaries and narrow notions of neighborhood. Either way, by treating some groups of people as strange ‘others’ we justify our indifference while ignoring our common humanity and inextricable linkages in society. Thus the logic: as long as my street or city is ‘pretty nice’, somehow the pervasive crime on adjoining streets or in contiguous communities is not deserving of my concern.
It is also easy to disregard others when we reduce certain groups to nothing more than numbers in our minds. We love the simplicity of wielding a singular statistic to support our predispositions (e.g. the 47 percent or Wilmington’s crime rate) but too often deny the complex stories and experiences buried behind the numbers. The ’47 percent’ can never adequately define the hard-working Americans Romney was quick to dismiss as victims and irresponsible. Nor can a crime rate capture the pain caused by senseless violence, the distress caused by delayed justice, or the unquenchable spirit of communities refusing to let negativity define them. There are real lives affected by crime and no random data points generated to calculate community crime rates.
Lest we forget this fact, I am sharing a few maps of Wilmington, Camden, and Philadelphia that are used to geographically display crime (specifically, murders) in these cities (see below). As you scroll through the map you can see names and ages of individuals, mainly young males of color, whose lives were cut short and families forever left with a void. Now, these may not have been families you know or there may be a ‘comfortable’ distance between your place of residence and these cities but this should never stop making us all uncomfortable. We all should be uncomfortable with a society that ignores or mocks the plight of others rather than responding with compassion and transformational action. If not, we have far bigger issues than Romney’s lack of concern for the “47 percent;” we have our own hypocrisy to eventually confront.