In my home town of Bethesda, Maryland, every bus stop is accompanied by some sort of seating. In different shapes and sizes, these chairs serve as a moment of rest or solitude for those who travel into and out of town for work. Such bus lines are relied on by those who travel into the city to work rather than locals traveling out. Thus, you can infer that such chairs are put there by those in the neighborhood for the use of others. It’s a small but meaningful act of kindness to provide someone with a moment of comfort.
However, in America, such individual acts of kindness are not reciprocated by those who rule our systems and laws. This is evident in the politics surrounding public transportation which has been largely disregarded as an irrelevant issue within our greater socioeconomic dialogue. The Pew Research center states that “Americans who are lower-income, black or Hispanic, immigrants or under 50 are especially likely to use public transportation on a regular basis,” while Black Americans are four times more likely to live in a household without a car as compared to whites.
These trends reflect the greater wealth inequality in America as the efficiency and maintenance of public transportation systems are disregarded due to our car-dependent society that has long favored suburban commuters in single-family homes over less affluent communities. The Washington Post writes, “Since the recession, more than 70 % of the nation’s transit agencies have cut service or raised fares, […] having a disproportionate impact on the poor.”
All the while, the Pew Research Center reports that “more than 40% of buses and 25% of rail transit around the U.S. are in marginal or poor condition.” In a country that prides itself on technological advancement and quality infrastructure, it proves to be a conscious decision of what public systems we have left behind when it comes to both maintenance and innovation.
For example, we can look at my home state of Maryland’s politics of public transportation with regard to the construction of the Red Line: a metro line planned and funded by a 900 million dollar grant from the Federal Government. Such a line was built to bridge both the physical and socioeconomic gap between Baltimore and the DC metropolitan area.
This line would particularly focus on Baltimore neighborhoods that were “80% Black, 30% poor, and 65% female-headed. Furthermore, 44% of residents along the planned corridor did not own a car and less than 2% of Baltimore jobs are located in the Black neighborhoods along the Red Line.”
As the Red Line construction plans were soon to be underway in 2015, newly elected Maryland Governor Larry Hogan canceled the project. As covered by Politico, “He returned the $900 million selective federal grant for the project and reallocated all of the state money that had been earmarked for the Red Line’s first construction phase — $736 million — to road projects in exurban and rural areas. In the end, not a single road or pothole in Baltimore would be paved with the money that had been set aside for the Red Line.”
Such a ruling crushed the hope that such a metro line “might restart the Baltimore region’s economy and improve race relations by building literal connections between communities,” while also projecting to add 10,000 more jobs to Baltimore residents — a city that reports Black Americans to be 62.46% of its overall population.
Hogan’s discriminatory policy did not end with the Red Line. As Hogan ended the project, he cut $36 million from the Baltimore public schools’ budget and approved a $30 million plan to construct a youth jail in the city. The current status quo of socioeconomic inequality in America points to our history of electing politicians — on both sides of the aisle — that don’t genuinely prioritize public transportation or access to education as an essential issue. But when it comes to funding more youth prisons to “correct” such problematic behavior largely born out of poverty and struggle, tax dollars are readily available. All of which makes you wonder why Hogan maintains a top five approval rating out of all American Governors in traditionally blue Maryland.
Now in a pandemic, the social contract between government and its citizens is more important than ever. Vulnerable communities are now lacking essential health care accessibility whether it’s in the form of health insurance or effective transportation to even get care in the first place. Consider the reported situations in NYC and Chicago, where drive-thru testing sites in the city blatantly disregarded the population of BIPOC and poorer Americans who did not own a car, perpetuating a vicious cycle of community spread through lack of testing. Even in 2020, such problematic practices are not given any attention in our greater political sphere. We have not learned.
When I biked around to take note of these chairs, every single one was empty; something I have not seen before. This emptiness and lack of presence illustrates a systemic disregard of these peoples and their needs. Our schema for the world around us and the cultural practices of policy that we promote greatly impacts the dialogue on what political issues we deem as important. So regardless whether it’s hate – or just sheer ignorance – toward impoverished people in this country, our board of elected officials have made it abundantly clear that even in 2020, our political discourse reflects the needs of the white and wealthy. Following Covid-19’s impact on layoffs, temporary shutdowns in public transportation systems, or health concerns, the politics of America did not lift a finger for the communities of people who truly live in struggle.
Just like these chairs, our acts of kindness come in all shapes and sizes. Whether it’s placing a chair out for someone to find a moment of relaxation from the stresses of the daily commute to comprehensive policy that looks out for marginalized communities, genuine action and advocacy are the stepping stones to improving the welfare of those around us.
However, the ills of systemic inequality in America have grown abundantly grotesque and cruel. To sit idly by while such a corroded system with harmful actions continues shows complacency and a lack of empathy for marginalized groups in our communities. Voting thoughtfully, demonstrating activism, donating food, engaging in dialogue with those who often feel unheard, and forming and supporting your principles are the least you can do to engage in the betterment of the human experience. Place a chair out for one another, engage in the greater struggles that our fellow humans are facing, and be knowledgeable enough to understand the gravity of the situation at hand.
Shot on Black and White 35mm
Articles for Reference
Shan Wallace – an inspiring photographer out of East Baltimore