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Sunday, October 1, 2023


The 53 percent

When my father first set foot on American soil, he was 14 and had nothing but the clothes on his back. He was a refugee from the Cambodian Genocide, a senseless massacre instigated by the Communist Khmer Rouge regime led by the Marx-inspired Pol Pot. My mother was 12 when her uncle’s Christian mission in America rescued her from the refugee camps, but not until she had lost six siblings in the genocide; only her mother and brother survived.

My parents hardly spoke English and were placed in housing projects very close to the heart of the University of Houston, Third Ward. They went to Milby High School, lumped together with all of the other miscellaneous Southeast Asian refugees. Despite coming to America with nothing, my parents were able to make it into the middle class through hard work and discipline. They are now part of the estimated 53 percent of Americans who pay the Federal Income Tax.

There’s been plenty of news about the Occupy Wall Street protests and its counterparts across the country. They’re touted to be grass-roots uprisings, representatives of the 99 percent of Americans who aren’t in the top 1 percent — the supposed CEOs and Wall Street fat cats dedicated to running the country with an iron, possibly diamond-encrusted fist. Some believe that these 99 Percenters are the true heroes of America, the only ones brave enough to speak in open defiance of corporate greed.

The true heroes, however, are members of the 53 Percent, a group that gets its name from the 53 percent of Americans that pay the Federal Income Tax. This group is a counter-protest group to Occupy Wall Street. Their website, the53.tumblr.com, follows the same style and format as a popular 99 Percent website, wearethe99percent.tumbler.com, with members posting pictures of themselves and personal messages describing their hardships. However, unlike the posts on the 99 Percent website, which are generally statements on hardship followed by an expressed desire for these hardships to be alleviated in some way, the 53 Percent’s posts follow a different route.

The background stories on some of the posters are generally identical to that of the 99 Percenters: poverty-stricken upbringings, low-paying jobs, overwhelming student loans and debts, and a desire for the ability to pursue that elusive American Dream. The key difference here, however, is the philosophy.

Strangely absent in the 99 Percenters’ posts is that there is no cry or demand for something to be done to make the future better. The 53 Percent have done it. These are success stories of hard work pulling through in the end for the disadvantaged Average Joe — who’d be lucky to be born with a spork in his mouth, let alone a silver spoon.

Find a single father of three on the 99 Percent website, and he’ll ask what can be done to ensure that his children will have a better future in this world. Find a single father of three on the 53 Percent website, and he’ll tell you how he scrambled for every cent he could find and pulled multiple jobs just to keep the lights on at night.

The 53 Percent believe that there should and will always be the pursuit of happiness. The problem is that the pursuit does not guarantee the happiness sought. The 53 Percent are content to trudge along, however, proud in their ability to push forward despite what life’s cruelties throw at them.

My father is one of these people. He worked for a time in a greenhouse, picking fruits and vegetables for menial wages. He was also a bagboy for the AppleTree Markets supermarket chain until he fought his way up to store manager. Imagine: A know-nothing refugee with the most tenuous grasp on the English language making it to store manager. The chain closed down in the late ‘80s, but my father bounced into the field of professional photography, back when you didn’t need a fancy degree for such a thing. There he spent hours on the road, leaving my mother and I at home while he made what he could and sent it straight to us so the lights stayed on. He quickly climbed the ranks to become regional manager for a generally well-off photo company before splitting off his own company. The recession of the early ‘90s hit my parents hard, and my father’s new photo company was obliterated into one lonely family-operated store located in the seedier part of Greenspoint.

The cycle continued, my father making just enough lucky breaks to give our family some semblance of a luxurious life. Compared to the Killing Fields they left behind in their native land, America was and forever will be a paradise.

Life may not always be easy, but at least in America the streets are paved with something other than human skulls. In America, a meager dollar menu meal is still better than the Khmer Rouge’s state-guaranteed daily serving of a small bowl of stagnant water and five grains of rice.

It may have taken him more than 30 years of sleepless nights and hours on the road, but somehow my father the know-nothing refugee made it in the same America where supposedly 99 percent of Americans hardly have a chance to succeed anymore. And, he did it all without taking a cent of government unemployment benefits. From almost the lowest point anyone could start off, my father somehow pushed my family into the middle class that is so threatened to disappear.

It is clear that the 53 Percent are the true heroes of America. They are the doers while the Occupiers are the sit-and-watchers, hoping that some higher authority in office will be convinced by their plight to bend the system to fit them. That is the fundamental difference between the two groups. The 53 Percent are the voice of action, the people who commit their lives to working for a better future instead of asking for it.

Actions speak louder than words, and the actions of the 53 Percent show that there is still hope for an American Dream — people just have to embrace the hard work that comes along with getting it.

James Wang is a history freshman and may be reached at [email protected]

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