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Is ‘gaming the system’ ever justified?

January 29, 2011 by  
Filed under News, Weekly Columns

( In 2004, rappers M-1 and, together known as the politically-charged rap group Dead Prez, released the lead single to their sophomore album (Revolutionary But Gangsta), “Hell Yeah (Pimp the System).” The song and accompanying video detail various money-making schemes, all of the illegal variety, from the long-con of defrauding major credit card companies, down to the immediate ordering pizza and robbing the delivery man at gunpoint.

From the point-of-view of the storyteller in each verse, these types of capers are necessary in order to survive, to provide their families with “money and thangs,” as the chorus suggests, because their opportunities for economic sustenance are otherwise non-existent. When M-1 provides instructions on how to go down to the welfare office and make a false claim for government assistance, he justifies his actions by exclaiming “f*** welfare, we say reparations.”

The song purposefully utilizes extreme imagery in order to convey to the listener the sense of desperation that fuels the actions described therein. In real life, that desperation manifests itself in much more subtle ways, such as in the case of Kelley Williams-Bolar. Williams-Bolar is the 40 year-old single mother of two daughters living in Akron, Ohio who has been sentenced to 10 days in jail, 80 hours of community service, and three years on probation for falsifying records in order to send her children to a better school district.

On official documents, she reported that her daughters resided with their grandfather, Edward Williams, in order that they would be eligible to attend school in suburban district of Copley-Fairlawn, when in actuality they lived at home with their mother in a public housing project in Akron. As a result of now having a felony on her record, Williams-Bolar is no longer eligible to complete the teaching license she was a mere 12 credits shy of receiving from Akron University.

Undoubtedly Williams-Bolar broke the law, but a case such as this raises a litany of questions: is the punishment too harsh? How many other parents are doing the same and are getting away with it? Do the ends justify the means?

These are all valid questions, and the dialogue that is sure to arise from this case there will be answers bandied about from every corner, but might I suggest that all of them are questions that only serve to address very surface issues. The question that must be posed and answered if we wish to unburden ourselves from such stories is this: when do we stop pretending?

When do we stop pretending that Williams-Bolar’s actions exist in some sort of vacuum, and are not the result of structural inequalities our social and economic systems? When do we stop pretending that the system is perfect and only fails when “a few bad apples” get caught disrupting it? When do we stop pretending that all it takes is hard work to achieve the “American dream,” even when our American version of capitalism continues to reward the richest among us and place unfair and unjust burdens on the rest? When do we stop pretending that Williams-Bolar is alone?

Because when the 2012 election cycle rolls around, the Williams-Bolar case will become fodder and talking points for politicians across the country. She will become the new “welfare queen,” a mythical figure invented by President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s to suggest that the reason the United States faces crippling debt is Black women in the inner-city who abuse the welfare system, refusing to get jobs and choosing to have more babies to qualify for more public assistance, leeching off the hard-working American taxpayers. Never mind that welfare and food stamps are part of the 14 percent of the federal budget that goes toward social safety net programs that “kept approximately 15 million Americans out of poverty in 2005 and reduced the depth of poverty for another 29 million people.” Even if welfare fraud were as rampant as some politicians and pundits would have us to believe, it’s likely a negligible fraction of the overall budget that is affected.

And if welfare fraud is an immense problem, the solution is not to lock all those guilty of committing fraud behind prison walls and creating a new cycle of poverty. We have to ask why so many people find it more beneficial to gain money through illegal means. The myth that people simply don’t want to work is preposterous. Close to 10 percent of this country is not out of work (with the number up around 16 percent of African-Americans, and those under-employed not even counted) because they are lazy. Poverty does not persist in the United States because the poor are indifferent to their status.

There are structural inequalities that loom, along lines of race, class, gender, and a host of others that are well researched, documented, and largely ignored in order to feed the narrative of American exceptionalism and keep privilege with the privileged. When we stop pretending that those who disrupt that narrative, who strike out against these inequities, even through illegal means, are acting solely on their own cruel intentions, only then will we prevent such behavior.

Williams-Bolar recognized that her current situation would not benefit her children down the road and she did something about it. Her actions may not have been lawful, but she saw the expense of doing nothing as far greater than the alternative. She is not alone, as many before her have chosen a similar path, and if nothing is done to change the structural reality that created her decision, there will be many more after. Millions will continue to “pimp the system” until the system changes.

Written By Mychal Denzel Smith

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