Up Next

Get Lifted

Racial and economic justice in America isn’t a quick fix

GoFundMe campaign for Memphis boy is feel-good story, but not the solution

The narrative is familiar: A middle-class white person comes across a poor black kid. Appalled by how sad the black kid’s life is, the white person is also touched by the kid’s drive and determination.

The white person writes a supersympathetic summary of this black life and uses it to fuel an online fundraising campaign.

Donations pour in and the kid gets more money and more opportunities than anyone could have imagined. Everyone marvels at the community’s generosity, and points to this as proof that God is real and good people still exist.

The story of Matt White and 16-year-old Chauncy Black follows this template to a T. (Yes, their last names seem ripped from central casting.) In this case, White’s monthlong GoFundMe campaign for Chauncy raised more than $341,000, enough to move the teen and his grandmother out of a poor, black inner-city neighborhood in Memphis, Tennessee, and into a mostly white suburb.

But like similar feel-good stories, it’s missing any examination of how children like Chauncy get trapped in impoverished neighborhoods, in need of a rescue that never comes. For the more than half of black children in Memphis who live below the poverty line, there will be no GoFundMe pages. They won’t get a headline-grabbing campaign to transform their hypersegregated communities, where like Chauncy’s old neighborhood, crime and unemployment rates are high, food deserts are wide and public investment is low. This is no knock on do-gooders.

But as Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.”

In a chance meeting in June at a grocery store, Chauncy offered to carry White’s groceries to his car in exchange for a box of doughnuts. White, 30, instead bought Chauncy two weeks’ worth of groceries and drove the teen to his home in South Memphis. There White found Chauncy’s grandmother Barbara, who is disabled. She raises her grandson on her disability check in a sparsely furnished house with no air-conditioning, which in the stifling summer heat is as essential as indoor plumbing.

Chauncy doesn’t have an ID to get a traditional job, so he’d decided to cut yards for cash. White started a GoFundMe campaign to raise $250 to buy a lawn mower. A month later, more than 14,000 donors gave enough money to buy the house in the suburbs and to establish a healthy-sized trust fund.

That’s amazing. So amazing that for now, ignore the white-savior trope and our voracious appetite for stories of the saintly poor. But do pay attention to how this story – and stories like this one – give credence to conservative claims that all the poor need is a better work ethic. Be wary of even the slightest suggestion that the government safety net should be outsourced to charities and generous citizens. And consider whether our failure to ask the right questions causes us to celebrate prematurely.

What would it take to install air conditioners in all of the Memphis homes where people swelter – and sometimes even die – during the summer heat? What makes it hard for kids like Chauncy to get ID? Is it transportation? The cost? Navigating the bureaucracy of government offices? What if Chauncy didn’t have to catch the bus to the “rich people’s Kroger,” as he called it, to find someone who would give him food? How has disinvestment in public transit isolated black residents from areas with good grocery stores and jobs? What would it look like to put good jobs and stores where the poorest residents live?

If a parent’s disability check is so meager that her child has to beg for food, isn’t one solution to increase the amount of the check? How can we invest in inner-city neighborhoods so success means you can stay and salvation doesn’t mean abandoning everything that’s familiar? Answering these hard questions – and not just a GoFundMe request – would help bring economic justice to the tens of thousands of poor people in Memphis, where King was killed in 1968 on a mission for economic justice.

In a sermon preached exactly a year before he was assassinated, King recalled the parable of the good Samaritan. Along the Jericho Road, a priest and a Levite saw a man who had been robbed, beaten and left for dead. The priest and the Levite passed the man by, but the Samaritan stopped. He bandaged the man’s wounds, took him to an inn to recover and paid for his care. “One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway,” King said. “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

Wendi C. Thomas is a 2016 Harvard Nieman fellow, a senior writing fellow for the Center for Community Change and a freelance journalist. In April, she launched MLK50, an online storytelling project about economic inequality in Memphis. She hopes Dr. King would be proud. On Twitter: @wendi_c_thomas