Watching the wave crash

Man Under Bridge

My uncle tends to be contrarian. He relishes being able to play devil’s advocate and goes to great lengths to prove the smallest points — I look up to him. We’ll be sitting around drinking coffee, and I swear to God Atlas is shrugging and Ayn Rand is asking for more cream. Then when I watch his truck pull out of our driveway, I notice the union stickers on the back of the F150 — he’s an electrician, part of “big labor.”

He loves to talk to me about Berkeley and the surrounding area. He knows it pretty well — better than me sometimes. One of his favorite anecdotes has to do with the homeless. Grinning from ear to ear, I’ve heard this tale a few dozen times on Christmas breaks and trips down south for the weekend.

“So there we were, walking down Telegraph, and this kid, he could have only been about 20, asks me for change.” His snaggled smile lets slip this gem: “That’s when I say, ‘Change comes from within, brother.’”

But my uncle is wrong.

For starters, the kid in the story is not his relative. And then there’s that whole social mobility myth: the American Dream. We — Berkeley students — are lucky. We are certainly living the dream, or something like it. Though the stress of finding employment post-graduation is starting to take its toll, the lot of us will be fine. But for so many others in our immediate community alone, the American Dream is more a decadent and depraved derby than it is a tangible reality.

Attitudes like “Change comes from within” place the blame solely on the individual. They come from people who don’t just miss the big picture — they come from people who deny that such a picture exists. Certainly, there is a place for personal ambition and the drive to better one’s socio-economic stature. That’s undeniable. But then so is the fact that poverty acts like a trap in the United States when it doesn’t have to.

One need not look further than our public schools. This past week, a huge rally of students and educators, concerned citizens and everyone in between convened to make their case yet again. Will our voices be heard? Who knows. But the point is that the problem is obvious: dwindling funds for public education matched by a workforce that favors longevity over output and locale over need are taking their toll.

I’m not about to attack K-12 teachers — they deserve far more credit than just a few inches in the Daily Cal could ever give them — but I am saying they, along with a lot of us, need to realize that it’s not an “us-them” binary. It’s a “we.” And it goes beyond the classroom. It speaks to an attitude that has crept over the state. An attitude of apathy. One of “I’m going to take care of mine and forget everyone else — these are tough times.” The haves and the have-nots. Despite what the information we have been given says, I think most of us can simply look around and know that the class divide has grown and continues to grow. Income inequality, stagnant wages and heavy debt all make social mobility a thing of yesteryear.

Pointing out that consumption rates between high-income and low-income houses remain fairly close and consistent is an unfair counterargument to the claim about income inequality and economic mobility; it is a facade used to maintain the status quo. Consumption in low-income houses is often augmented and aided by taking on high amounts of credit card debt. These people aren’t out running around South Coast Plaza or Westfield with their Visas in hand — they’re standing in lines at Ralphs and Safeway praying to God that they don’t face another humiliating “Sorry, ma’am, your credit card got denied” while buying necessary groceries.

And this isn’t a left or right issue — it’s simply how it is. Americans have taken on more and more debt. Sometimes it’s the individual’s own fault for buying that house or just having to have that car. But then again, it also has to be the institution’s fault. Banks are allowed to gamble, corporations are allowed to spend limitlessly on elections (if you prick them, they won’t bleed) and get to rig the game, and laissez-faire economics only encourage more of the same behavior.

So no. Change doesn’t only come from within. It comes when the forces of the status quo are finally pushed back by the winds of progress. When teachers and students are met in the classroom by adequate funding, reasonable class sizes and a system that rewards efficiency and effectiveness, not necessarily just good test-scores. It comes when apathy is overturned, when students and the community march in the street to Sacramento and when Sacramento finally takes the blinders off.

Maybe the past few generations fell asleep at the wheel, but lord knows we’re awake. And maybe, just maybe, this is it: the high-water mark, where the wave finally breaks and rolls back.