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Them That's Got Shall Get
May 14, 2002
By William R. King

As a high school English teacher I have often noticed that one thing that our kids are particularly attuned to is the notion of privilege and the injustice that it often engenders. To put it simply, they often wonder why some people get breaks that others don't. They say that they witness it most everyday. Some of their teachers, they say, favor girls over boys; some boys over girls. Some favor smart over less smart; some favor soft-spoken over outspoken. Some favor athletes over non-athletes.

Whatever the reason, our kids seem to possess a "privilege" radar. As long as they are not of the privileged set, their radar works well. When, however, they find themselves the beneficiaries of privilege, their radars begin to fade. I suppose that can be assigned to simple human nature.

Privilege recently reared its head in Washington, D.C. where each year the House of Representatives and the Senate appoint young men and women from various districts across America to serve as pages. While they are generally in the sixteen-year-old range and little more than glorified "gofers," these pages also get the special experience of a close-up look of their national government at work.

A couple of weeks ago, eleven of them were booted from the program when they were discovered using marijuana. At least one was caught "holding the bag" while in the congressional page dormitory. All of the kids were sent home but none of them were prosecuted. Why? The officials in charge would not say. Capitol Police Lt. Dan Nichols said simply that the kids had been dealt with "administratively," whatever that means.

When I read an account of this episode to one of my classes, their reaction was a general "ho-hum, what else is new." While some of their friends have had to hire lawyers, pay court costs, and, at least, do community service for something as small as a pipe in a pocket, they are not in the least surprised when their more privileged peers get breaks that they, themselves, might never enjoy.

I then read them an account of a recent Supreme Court decision which now permits public housing authorities to evict longtime tenants for any drug related activity whether or not it was perpetrated by the tenant herself, family members, or even guests. They are subject to eviction "regardless of whether the tenant knew, or should have known, of the drug-related activity." This law was established certainly to attempt to stem the tide of drug use especially in inner city housing developments. I am quite sure that there is an inner-city drug problem. I am also quite sure that this particular remedy is a travesty and a disgrace.

In fighting their evictions, Pearlie Rucker, Barbara Hill, Willie Lee, and Herman Walker argued that they had no way of knowing about the drug activities cited by the housing authorities. Ms. Lee and Ms. Hill were evicted because their grandchildren were seen in the parking lot with marijuana. A housing officer saw Ms. Rucker's daughter blocks away with cocaine and a crack pipe. Mr. Walker, a disabled senior citizen, was evicted because his live-in caregiver was found in possession of cocaine.

The chief justice writes, "This statute does not require the eviction. It entrusts that decision to the local housing authorities." That, in my opinion and as these cases show, is far too arbitrary and far too much power for any housing authority to wield. Besides, could we not logically conclude from this example that any parent whose children are convicted of drug offenses should serve the same sentence ascribed to their children?

Just recently the daughter of the governor of Florida was arrested for forging a prescription for an anti-anxiety drug often used to stem the high of a popular party drug called Ecstasy. She is twenty-four years old and has her own home. Suppose, however, that she still lived with her parents in the governor's mansion. That mansion is publicly owned. What do you think the chances are of a governor and his family being evicted from their public housing (the mansion) because of a daughter's drug abuse? You know what the chances are. Nil and none. These cases clearly portray the stark power of privilege in America.

There is a theological movement called "liberation theology" that originated during the 1960s in Latin America among some poor Catholic communities. Its major tenet was that God supposedly reserved a "preferential option for the poor." In essence, it meant that God cares more for the desperate and outcast than for the ones who oppress or ignore them. I don't know whether or not that's true, but when I consider how the world really works, I kind of think it ought to be.

In the meantime, I am reminded, sobered, and saddened by the words of the old spiritual "God Bless the Child":

"Them that's got shall get
Them that's not shall lose
So the Bible said
And it still is news."

William R. King is a high school English teacher in Kingston Springs, TN.

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