The sick joke was always the same. Maybe it was the one where a white Christian missionary was dismayed to find bustling metropolises in Nairobi, rather than destitute and desolate collections of mud hut villages full of starving and sick people waiting to be saved. Or perhaps the one about exchange programs that send mostly white American students to visit African nations to build libraries and orphanages. Only, they’re so inept and inexperienced that local people must tear down and rebuild their shoddy work each night, a real life rendition of the cobbler gnome fairy-tale. Sometimes these stories have a more topical, geo-political bent, one that might furrow brows and provide cause for collective hand-wringing. The example comes to mind of American veterans, dissatisfied and disconnected from civilian life, seeking out honor, vindication, and purpose by playing mercenary in the Middle East . The nuances of internecine conflicts are ignored, the Hemingway-esque promise of finding self-fulfillment in conflict overshadowing all other considerations.
But have you heard the one where a 73 year-old insurance executive acts as a police deputy, is allowed to carry live weapons without proper training, and then shoots a man, resulting in his death?
Eric Harris was shot by the police and denied urgent medical attention, his death making him the 294th person to be killed by police in 2015. Robert Bates, his killer, a volunteer with the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office, donated multiple vehicles, weapons and other equipment to the Sheriff’s Office since he became a reserve deputy in 2008. Bates is not alone in leveraging his wealth into a volunteer position with the police, as “ [many] other wealthy donors are among the agency’s 130 reserve deputies.” Reporters have unearthed documents that indicate that Bate’s “supervisors at the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office were ordered to falsify [his] training records, giving him credit for field training he never took and firearms certifications he should not have received.” That Robert Bates served under the auspices and legal sanction of the state does not change the fact that he participated in an especially vile incidence of poverty tourism.
Poverty tourism is a phenomenon predicated on the privileges of wealth and white supremacy. Americans, the majority of them white, seek out experiences to gain absolution, a false emulation of lived experiences or a new story to add to their dinner party repertoire. They come to these experiences with little in the way of knowledge, understanding, or preparedness. They believe that distant nations and U.S. inner cities alike are inferior and rife with violence or poverty. Many believe that good intentions and positive attitudes can compensate for non-existent skill and capabilities. They believe that a proper application of force is the correct response to any and all obstacles, regardless of the ramifications or circumstances. And they carry these beliefs and messages back home, to be shared with friends and family and coworkers, facilitating a normalization of poverty, oppression, and violence as unfortunate happenstance rather than deliberate choices by the societies we inhabit.
As volunteering becomes increasingly associated with haphazard and shortsighted projects, the tenet of altruistic service is undermined by the emphasis on the moral or emotional gratification of the volunteer. America’s desire to believe that the lives of the marginalized and oppressed can be improved through increased proximity to whiteness manifests in these poverty tourism excursions into black and brown communities, who are then expected to cater or capitulate to their supposedly selfless benefactors. Americans must interrogate within themselves the ends to which they are serving by participating in paternalistic, white supremacist volunteer efforts, especially those which are only open to the educated and wealthy. As radical Austrian critic and philosopher Ivan Illich once said, any American who seeks to volunteer in aiding another community or culture must “recognize your inability, your powerlessness and your incapacity to do the “good” which you intended to do.” Now more than ever there is a need to ensure that the arbiters of what is “good” and “necessary” are the oppressed and marginalized, rather than the privileged seeking to reconcile their complicity with their good intentions.
Bates became complicit in this trend that predicates the desires of those who volunteer over the needs of the populations they claim to serve. It is especially jarring to find that black and brown lives can be taken without recourse not just by the police, but by volunteers who pay for the privilege to play cop. Just as disheartening is the likelihood that Bates will be absolved by both the justice system and public opinion as a concerned citizen whose attempts to help went sadly awry, while his victim is portrayed as a criminal and therefore unworthy of life. Little attention will be paid to how racism and middle class noblesse oblige enabled one citizen to act as an enforcer of the law and an executioner towards another.
White Americans, lulled into believing the problem is a lack of sufficient action on their part, double down on their incursion into black movements, black lives, and black communities. This is the especially pernicious root of poverty tourism, an idea that certain groups are inferior, without value, and incapable of saving themselves, representing themselves, or creating value for themselves without the largesse, interjection or approval of the racial or moral majority. There are numerous examples of failed attempts to save minority communities or solve social ills being advertised in the media in order to both cosset the consciences of white Americans and to remind minorities that we dare not attempt to end our exploitation without their involvement. After all, when was the last time you heard a news story about a mission trip, failed or successful, to Owsley County, Kentucky, a ninety-nine percent white community with the highest welfare rate and lowest median income in the U.S.?
The struggle to reinforce the message that “Black Lives Matter” is made all the more difficult by the unspoken popular belief that our lives matter only when in service to the fulfillment of white desires or self-improvement. Volunteering has long been a pillar of American society, and a deeply held ideal that propels many people to serve others. But like the criminal justice system, the educational system and the police, volunteerism often serves the ends of the white majority at the expense and detriment of minorities, despite any noble values and creeds espoused therein. To allow volunteering to be treated as little more than vacations with an all-inclusive package of presumed charity and altruism is to ensure that only those with wealth and privilege get to decide who is deserving of help, apathy, or violence.
The disruption left in the wake of these efforts is twofold: that which is wreaked upon physical bodies and that which emerges through policy. The latter is manifested in the form of austerity programs, of “tough on crime” or “broken windows” rhetoric, of draconic immigration and reproductive rights legislature, seeking to punish those considered undeserving of humanity and autonomy. The former manifests itself in the imagery of dead bodies handcuffed and left in the street, of families splintered, of a pervading fear imparted upon a population that they are never safe, of facing each day knowing there could be new hashtag formed from a name and the possibility that one day the name might be theirs. Eric Harris was a victim of both, a black man who had ample reason to fear and attempt to evade the police and the justice system that they serve. All the good intentions of all the volunteers seeking to somehow improve the lives of black and brown people in America without attempting to know themselves, know us or know the convoluted history that binds us could not preserve or safeguard him. And in all likelihood, they never meant to.