Culture As An Iceberg, Part II


I ended last week’s blog post, Culture As An Iceberg, with this paragraph:

Cultural differences exist in my own backyard, and they are ones that lead to violence, anger, mistrust, and fear. Hoodies and swaggers fall above the water line along with angry retorts and shows of physical superiority. But what lies beneath? What do we not see; what do we not want to see?   I’d like to say more about this next week.

This past week I spent much time looking into culture as a contributing factor in the riots that have sprung up around the country following grand jury investigations in both Ferguson, MO and Staten Island, NY.

However, as I researched and particularly as I wrote more, I realized the cultural difference perspective wasn’t enough. The metaphor began to melt, as it were.

I  had heard an audio clip from National Public Radio.  It’s an interaction between an unidentified man and Benjamin Carr, the step-father of Eric Garner. For those of you outside the US, Eric Garner was a young black man who died on Staten Island NY during a choke hold while in police custody; the grand jury investigating his death recently failed to indict the policeman involved.

At the end of the clip, we hear the unidentified man plead, “Where we headed for? What’s the future for me? What’s the future for me? You know what I’m saying, for my child, for my son? What is his future?”


After listening to it, and doing some research into economic injustice in this country, I no longer see cultural clash as sufficient explanation. Of course, there remain cultural elements worth attending to as we move forward. But the violence erupting across our nation once again has pushed me to step back and see the larger picture.


In my days as a sociology student, both grad and undergrad, I learned how culture impacts a society (and vice versa, of course).  After all, we sociologists liked to think we discovered culture (though the cultural anthropologists might beg to differ).


But I also learned that culture is only one dimension of human behavior. There are the individual (the ways in which each of us is unique) and the universal (the ways in which we are all the same) dimensions of human behavior too. I began to be pulled toward those universals.

So, back to the outbreak of violence in Ferguson and Berkeley and elsewhere.

I have long believed that there’s a direct link between racism and economic insecurity. So, I looked at the long term trends in unemployment, income, housing, and education between white males and black males, nationwide. The trends are clear and noncontroversial. Wage disparity between black and white men was getting better from the post-war years into the early 1970s.

Then the direction changed. But it changed for the entire middle class and continues into today, wider and wider. Blacks and Hispanics in this country, as a demographic group, fare worse than whites. This is not new to you, is it?

Below is a chart comparing weekly earnings by race, 1965-1995.


Comparison of weekly earnings by race, 1965-1995.
Council of Economic Advisers for the President’s Initiative on Race (2009).


For the past forty years, life has gotten harder for everyone, it matters not what race you are. Granted, those at the bottom suffer more than those higher up the economic ladder. But the “work hard and see a better life” mind set I was raised with in the 1950s and ’60s just isn’t working for the vast majority of Americans.

According to Bloomberg (the business and economic news site, not the former NY mayor) the average American worker — of whatever color — hasn’t gotten a pay increase in six years.

Unless we are in that top 1% echelon of the very wealthy or are retired and living on the fixed income of our well-chosen annuities that remain after the 2008 tumble, we are all worse off today than we were forty years ago, and thirty years ago, and twenty, and ten. And given that, we are in this together. Income equality, social justice, economic security takes on a universal dimension.

We all want to know we have a secure future; we want to know that if we put effort into our work, that effort will pay off in promotions, bonuses, advancement. Surely that’s a universal value. That old Protestant Ethic of hard work = salvation is still alive up here in New England. And I imagine it’s alive in pockets around this country.

We all despair at the thought that there is no hope for a better life for ourselves, our children, or our grandchildren. Imagine how you would feel were you to believe your children are destined to live out their years in poverty, struggle, and fear?


If you missed that audio recording above, here it is again. It’s less than half a minute long.


Here’s another recording that’s worth listening to. In a 1966 interview with Mike Wallace for CBS’ 60 Minutes, Martin Luther King, Jr. says this:

A riot is the language of the unheard.  And, what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the economic plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years.

You can watch the Sept 22, 1966 video clip here.

The following year, King had this to say:

When people are voiceless, they will have temper tantrums like a little child who has not been paid attention to. And riots are massive temper tantrums from a neglected and voiceless people.

Can you find empathy for a neglected and voiceless people?

More importantly, can you identify when others, including our own news media, begins to demonize the “other?”  This is a common practice during times of war and it’s a common practice whenever we feel under attack. It is a common reaction to stress and to times when we feel we must defend ourselves. The “demonized other” is, by definition, less than we are and therefore “deserves” to be put down. It is a defensive reaction and it’s one that causes much of the violence in the world today.

Martin Luther King, Jr., also said this:

With unemployment, intolerable housing, and discriminatory education, a scourge in Negro ghettos, Congress and the administration still tinker with trivial, halfhearted measures.

I’m finding the timeliness of King’s quotes to be unnerving. They should be old hat, water over the dam, done with, finished.  Kaput. Surely, he’d have expected things to be better by now.


Here’s another MLK quote from 1963 that bodes well, if we can each of us stay in a difficult conversation.

I am not afraid of the word tension. I have earnestly worked and preached against violent tension, and there is a type of constructive tension that is necessary for growth.

We are in a period of tension in this country around race, around economics, and around justice. Let’s let it be constructive.


Here’s a prayer  I heard for the first time this past Friday night that fits, I think. It’s from Prayers for Healing and is written by Helen Weaver and edited by Maggie Oman

Almighty God, who are mother and father to us all,
Look upon your planet earth divided:
Help us to know that we are all your children;
That all nations belong to one great family,
And all of our religions lead to you.
Multiply our prayers in every land
Until the whole Earth becomes your congregation,
United in your love.
Sustain our vision of a peaceful future
And give us strength to work unceasingly
To make that vision real.  Amen.


8 Responses

  1. Kathleen Pooler
    | Reply

    Janet , I appreciate your thoughtful and thought-provoking exploration of this current event that impacts all of us on so many levels. It forces us to step back and look at the root cause of all the turmoil and then to decide how we, as individuals can contribute to the solution, not fuel the fires of racial profiling (both sides). Every time, I see the Gardner take-down on TV, I feel enraged and deeply hurt. Why? How did it come to this? It feels so wrong, both the act and the Grand Jury’s decision. More questions than answers. Yes, we all need to work together as God’s children to “sustain our vision of a peaceful future.” Thank you for shedding your light on this deeply emotional and important conversation.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      HI Kathy, Thanks so much for your warm and wise big picture view. I seem to be attracted most to those issues for which there are “more questions than answers.” Let’s do what we can to keep this conversation alive.
      Btw, I’m revisiting your memoir, Ever Faithful to his Lead, this week as I put together my guest blog for Mary Gottschalk next week. Drawing parallels between your book and mine. And there are important ones to draw that I think many women will relate to.

  2. Marian Beaman
    | Reply

    Thank you for adding another layer of insight into this discussion that seems to be reverberating on other websites just now. While economic stress may be a factor in the Eric Garner case, I get the impression that Trayvon Williams’ and Michael Brown’s family are middle class. Two examples, and surely not enough to make a case.

    Your quotes from Martin Luther King express my sentiments exactly and I share your exasperation: “They should be old hat, water over the dam, done with, finished. Kaput. Surely, he’d have expected things to be better by now.” Your posting the prayer at the end is surely not a platitude. The essence of it is our only hope of making a more peaceful vision real.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Marian, I have to admit that I haven’t seen a single TV account of either of these tragedies. I read the NYTimes Headlines most mornings, and listen to NPR during the day. Beyond that, I haven’t a clue. I once absorbed the nightly news with eagerness. Alas, those days are over. Whether it’s an emphasis on entertainment or the underlying dogma of the bottom line as a business model has infiltrated the news rooms. The few times I wind up watching the news I almost always find grammar mistakes. But then I’m a nitpicker.

      I’m glad you dropped by. Can you drop me an email with the names of the other blogs on this topic? I’d love to read what they have to say. I haven’t seen many.

  3. Adrienne Kuder
    | Reply

    Very interesting blog, Janet. This is the first time I’ve tuned in. I, personally, can verify that wages have been unchanged in several years, although sometimes by our own choices. The vast “middle class” is struggling and has been. However, this does not negate the fact that poor decisions often are made in retaliation to “the man”. Law enforcement is entrusted with protecting society. Therefore, as citizens we are obligated to follow their directives. Non-compliance with these directives is primarily what caused the recent black deaths. All citizens must work within our existing system, to maintain or to change it.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hello Adrienne and Welcome. I’m glad you dropped by. Your voice is important and I’m pleased you added it.
      I’m not sure why, buy your final comment reminded me of something a classmate of mine said during the heady days of the campus demonstrations of the late 1960s. He said the best way for the administration of the college to control the demonstrators would be to give their leaders desks inside. It took me years to understand what he meant. I think it was that, by the time we’re “inside,” we’ve got something to lose and no longer seek change. I hope you’ll stop by again.

  4. Shirley Hershey Showalter
    | Reply

    Last night Stuart and I watched a documentary on Netflix called Black Power Mix Tape, 1967-74. Wow.

    It took us back to our own youth and to the culture we experienced then.

    It is also totally relevant to hear the voices of Stokely Carmichael and Angela Davis and Sonia Sanchez talk about the connection between economic injustice and social and racial injustice and how the police protect the interests of the most powerful first.

    It’s sad that so little has changed since then and that economic disparity has actually gotten worse. However, there is hope when the nation begins to pay attention. You, Janet, are part of that effort and that hope.

  5. Janet Givens
    | Reply

    Shirley, thanks for the heads up on that Netflix documentary. I’ll look for it. And, congratulations, on your BookBub promo today. I’ll be eager to hear how it turns out for you. My plan is to use it next spring, after my second edition (with all the typos fixed) comes out.

    Yes, this conversation is an important one. But I’m struck recently by how little training anyone gets in how to have (and hold) a difficult conversation. We go into them committed to our position and afraid (I think, sometimes) that we’ll get sucked into making compromises we don’t want to make, or lose our identity as a person who holds certain values.

    May be worth exploring.

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