samaritan’s dilemma: privilege & root causes

The world is full of incredible opportunities to do good. Many of us are raised with a background that informs us to serve others, particularly the “less fortunate.” Yet we face an ever increasing dilemma that requires us to check out prejudices at the door and delve deeper, beyond the surface of social issues.

We face these issues when encountering individuals in our own communities and when we choose to donate to well meaning organizations internationally (or work for them).

If you give a beggar money. . .

The homeless population and beggars around the world cause many to feel incredibly uncomfortable. We have mixed  emotions for a population that we feel equally empathetic and uncertain towards. Many religious texts tell us to serve the poor, clothe the naked, feed the hungry, etc., but we’ve all heard the horror stories of people who have faked being homeless or have been warned of giving money for fear that it might be used for drugs or alcohol.

“The ‘homeless’ guy I gave $5 to yesterday just paid to get on the bus- holding Starbucks and skates. Holiday generosity stock depleted.”

This seems to be credible dilemma, but it only skims the surface of the issue. How are we to know a stranger’s story? Is their predicament related to race and privilege, maybe societal power structures have adversely affected opportunities in their poor communities?

While at a social justice conference in Detroit with colleagues from around the country we were approached by a woman asking for money. It was a moment of questioning for all of us. Do we act as good social change agents and give some money or do we take a step back? In the end we all denied that we had any cash to give. Our discussion after that encounter came to the conclusion: “its always hard to know the best thing to do.”

What happens to your good intentions if you see them tomorrow?

Is it just a function of our privilege that we expect our small donation to a “less fortunate” person to change their life? Do we expect that since we took the time to be nice, that they will then no longer need to ask for more?

I’ll begin this section with a story.

A woman is approached by a middle-aged African-American couple in her quiet white suburb. They say their car broke down and they just need some money for bus fare to get home. She offers to give them the bus fare and give them a ride to the bus stop, but they say they’d just like the bus fare. A couple of days later, she sees the couple again at a department store telling the same story. The store employees scowl and say the couple is often there asking for money. This angers the woman and she feels cheated. Why does the couple have to cheat people who just want to be nice?

The real question should be: “What are the social implications that cause them to need to beg for money every day to get by?” Its all too easy to chalk up our failed giving expectations to a few bad apples, but there is often more to think about than the oversimplification of just one bad person.

Where did the person come from? What was their community like? Are these common issues that correspond with discrimination based on income level or race?

All of these questions are critical to being able to understand the root causes to the issues that people face. Very often there are dynamics of privilege and power at play. Historically, African-Americans have come from areas where they have been marginalized due to their race, which predisposes them to reduced opportunities in education and career, which can lead to lower incomes and continued discrimination.

Personally, I often struggle with the dynamics of being approached on the street and so I often neglect to give anything. Occasionally, I give a small amount to individuals who seem to be genuine, but that’s all too easy for me to pass judgment with my privilege. I guess I would prefer to donate to local organizations that work with the homeless instead of doing my own cash grants on the street.

Good intentions + organizations = addressing root causes?

The quick answer is “NO!”

We can’t begin to imagine that our choices to “do good” will completely change systems or flip our societal order in favor of the poor or racially discriminated. There is much more work to be done than handouts and volunteering if we are going to change entire systems and see change in our lifetimes. Social change takes many people working together over generations to make real and lasting impacts.

It is unfortunate that even humanitarian organizations can either be fake or completely off base. Here the samaritan’s dilemma becomes two-fold. What organizations should you donate your money to? and how do you know where (or to whom) that money is going?

Often service and development organizations fail to take the time to map out the root causes of the issues they work on and get trapped in actions that don’t address the root cause. To say that a beggar is homeless and on the street because they are addicted, lazy, or incompetent is an oversimplification. To say that a multi-country conflict is fueled by a single man shows a serious lack of historical understanding. We have to take the time to learn more and think critically about the social issues that we would like to amend and the people who we would like to help.

We cannot keep picking at the fruits of the social issues we see, we must start chopping at the trunks (institutions & policies) that perpetuate the root causes.

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