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The Logic of Stupid Poor People by Tressie Mcmillan Cottom and Impulsive Judgments

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Logic is Determined From Circumstance

In Tressie McMillan Cottom’s “The Logic of Stupid Poor People”, Cottom uses personal experience and observed patterns to explain how foolhardy it is to judge, and or generalize a population’s logic based upon experiences one cannot personally relate to. In this particular case, Cottom asserts the idea that the logic of poor people is derived from navigating the white bureaucratic gaze on a daily basis, and thus is a logic rooted in the instinct of survival. Urging people to rethink their worldview, Cottom shares her reality through her lived experience and by posing questions only individuals who can relate to her experience can answer. By focusing on the observed patterns of white bureaucratic speculation of black peoples, and even more specifically- the black female body, the need for further evidence to support her claim deteriorates; Cottom does not include statistical evidence or research studies that examine the prejudice based upon what material items an individual may or may not possess. The absence of data strengthen Cottom’s argument because how can you argue or debate a person’s lived experience and truth?

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Cottom uses her matter-of-fact tone to convey the absurdity of trying to convince someone that doing anything it takes to live is illogical. By stating that “nothing is more logical than trying to survive” (1012), Cottom primes the reader to view her family history as a story of survival- a human instinct everyone is familiar with. The way Cottom lays out her family history makes the “classic black American migration family” appear more relatable and common, and her critique credible. Cottom articulates how she has come to these conclusions by explicitly stating how she has observed prejudice in action; “I learned, watching my mother, that there was a price we had to pay to signal to gatekeepers that we were worthy of engaging” (1012). Through stating that she has come to these conclusions solely from observation, Cottom makes her argument stronger because it solidifies the fact that her authority is rooted in her experience of being raised by black women-women who know how the system works for them as individuals. And so, through the use of a factual and trustworthy tone Cottom designs her argument to not rely on logos to articulate her message.

Cottom poses questions that encourage people to reflect on their own experience and relationship with survival. However, the authority of these questions are rooted in Cottom’s lived experience. For example she poses the question; “What is the retail value of a school principal who defers a bit more to your child because your mother’s presentation of self signals that she might unleash the bureaucratic savvy of middle class parents to advocate for her child?” (1013). Although Cottom uses the phrase “retail value” to probe at the thought of how the value of a person can seemingly be determined based upon material possessions or physical appearances, Cottom may ultimately be echoing the existence of the legacy of slavery that is present in the way that many black people are expected to present themselves. By mentioning the fact that “aging Black Panthers can never outrun the effects of stigmatization” (1014), Cottom forces the reader to confront this other reality and see a way in which black bodies are subject to scrutiny, in a larger effort to articulate how the worldview of poor people is a product of a natural human drive to survive. Cottom uses the concept of survival to evoke a sense of understanding and or empathy in the audience.

Returning to the discussion of the opportunities available to poor people through discrimination based on appearances, Cottom asserts the idea that material items bought by low-income individuals are actually investments that are “returned in hard-to-measure dividends”(1013). These claims assist Cottom in her effort to explain to readers that they will never be able to understand how these material items affect livelihoods unless they live in poverty themselves. Furthermore, Cottom even claims that she is “living proof of its investment yield”(1013). Cottom uses her own identity as a black woman to develop her voice of authority in regard to the true logic behind poor people and builds up her case even more when she states that “there is no evidence of access denied” (1013). By telling the reader that there is no specific data that support her claims, Cottom uplifts her point to get people to stop assuming that they understand what it’s like to be poor. Moreover, she even mocks the life of the “not poor” to evoke a sense of guilt to make the audience widen their worldview. Cottom achieves this by simply calling the reader out- “You have no idea what you would do if you were poor until you are poor” (1015). And it is this emotion of guilt that Cottom conjures that draws the audience into this harsh reality of the logic of poor people.

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By using her awareness of the patterns poor black people are suck into through the gaze of bureaucratic capitalist society, Cottom argues it is illogical to try and convince a community of people that their way of survival is wrong when you have no idea what they are truly up against. “The Logic of Stupid Poor People” leaves readers reflecting on how it is unfair to assume you understand the logic of a community you virtually know nothing about. By strategically setting people up to confront this shared reality of oppression against black bodies, Cottom develops an argument that demands both empathy and awareness of other worldviews in an effort to defend a logic of survival.

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