If you haven’t heard, there is a Black man in Detroit who walks 21 miles to-and-from work because he needs the money.
As reported by the Detroit Free Press, 56- year-old James Robertson works at a factory, which is located 23 miles away from his home. There is a bus line but it only covers half of his trip. The other half he must travel by way of dusty Timberland boots. He travels 23 miles, Monday through Friday, for a job that pays him a little over 10 bucks an hour.
According to the story, Robertson has been making this 21-mile journey ever since his 1988 Honda Accord broke down over a decade ago. For whatever reason, Bill Laitner of the Detroit paper sees something dignified in this. And highlights it in the most flowery of prose:
“Every trip is an ordeal of mental and physical toughness for this soft-spoken man with a perfect attendance record at work. And every day is a tribute to how much he cares about his job, his boss and his coworkers. Robertson’s daunting walks and bus rides, in all kinds of weather, also reflect the challenges some metro Detroiters face in getting to work in a region of limited bus service, and where car ownership is priced beyond the reach of many.”
But you won’t hear Robertson complain — nor his boss.”
Um, perhaps Robertson should complain a bit more?
And I’m being serious here when I say that perhaps Robertson needs to engage in a little Black Lives Matter-protesting on the job? You know, raise a stink about that long-overdue raise? Or at the very least, maybe he should be putting those resumes out for a new gig, that requires less travel time? Take it from a person who had to learn the hard way: if you want something in life you better speak up and say something. As Zora Neale Hurston once said, “if you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.”
Or you can stay ridiculously humble to the point of being self-sacrificial and wait for a nice reporter to come around and do an equally nice human interest story about you, which eventually inspires enough donations to buy you a new car. Whatever works.
And as USA Today reports:
“After the Detroit Free Press told of Robertson’s arduous 21-mile trek to and from his suburban factory job, the story inspired thousands of donations from across the nation. A day later, the soft-spoken machine operator got to meet the computer student from Wayne State University who launched an Internet crowd-funding site to gather more than $230,000 — a figure expected to continue to climb today.
At Mr. B’s Food & Spirits bar in downtown Rochester, the two hugged and were interviewed Monday night for national television shows and People magazine.”
What’s wrong with it? On the surface, absolutely nothing. In fact, it is quite generous of the global community to chip in a couple of dollars each to help Robertson, at the very least, get a car to transport him back and forth to work. However, if I was Robertson, I would be totally cautious of accepting those unsolicited funds from strangers.
What I mean is that folks can get real paternalistic over poor people. And some charity can come along with inflated expectations of the kind of impact this supposed act of kindness will have on an individual’s life. We identify the alleged hurdles in an individual’s life and then become inspired by them. And we decide to help these people fix or overcome that hurdle. Usually, this help comes with expectations that they will miraculously turn their lives around. However, when they fail to meet our expectations, we are disappointed in them, turn our backs on them and in some instances, want the return of our charity from them.
I see lots of this being played out in Robertson’s story. His savior is a banker, who first brought Robertson’s story to the Detroit Free Press and is overseeing a “board of advisors,” who will not only monitor the funds, but “set much of Robertson’s windfall aside for future expenses, including auto insurance, gasoline, maintenance, and some of the cash likely will help him with medical and dental care.” In other words, Robertson is a project.
In a sense, charity becomes an exercise in meritocracy as opposed to a matter of addressing someone’s alleged immediate need(s). And it also tends to ignore what is the larger concern here, which is income inequality. The crime here is that Robertson has to travel 46 miles round trip from home to a township, in which he probably can’t even afford to live, just to work a job that only pays him $10 an hour. The secondary crime here is that in 2015, public transportation in some parts of America is virtually non-existent. The secondary and primary crimes here often work in cahoots at keeping poor people, poor. And in lots of instances, it is by design. But instead of thinking about why there are jobs targeted to grown men and women in places that they can’t afford to live, which pay less than livable wages (and trying to fix that), we blame the people for not crawling low enough.
Now, I’m not saying Robertson shouldn’t take the money if he really needs it. If he really needs it, heck yeah, take the money. However, I really hope that those who donated won’t start trippin’ if six months down the line, we find out that homeboy is still walking to work because he decided to take that once-in-a-lifetime trip to Vegas instead of buying himself a new car. Hell, after taxes, gas, insurance and upkeep,
I wouldn’t blame him one bit if he decided to take that car money and bet it all on black.
As a former organizer, the one thing I learned was that you have to let folks be the captain of the change in their lives. And the best that you, as a help-mate, could do is support and provide guidance. Ironically, I noticed that nowhere in the story, or in the follow-up story, did anyone bother to ask Robertson if he was cool with his predicament. Everyone just kind of assumes that he needs charity to begin with.