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Poverty and Race in America
December 20, 2011 8:29 AM   Subscribe

Article suggests that we need to reassess our assumptions about the relationship between poverty and race. Following the article published in Forbes magazine dealing with poor black kids, this article brings up the question about poor whites and how invisible they have become.
posted by RedShrek (38 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

 
Some pieces of my world just settled into place and my mind is suddenly a slightly more spacious place to live. Also, that article was surprisingly uncomfortable reading for me. I kept waiting for the racism bogeyman to jump out from around the corner every time it referred to "whites" for some reason. It never did, though.

Our conversation about race and class in this society is incredibly tortured and convoluted and it hurts us that we cannot speak plainly about our problems. Racists and bigots have co-opted all the simplest terms, tainting them and forcing those with good intentions to create ever-more-coded language which at once obfuscates the subject we wish to talk about and creates new linguistic safe havens for those same bigots to inhabit.
posted by Scientist at 8:41 AM on December 20, 2011 [8 favorites]


The article is a little short on stats. The National Poverty Center statistics show that while percentage-wise far fewer white children live in poverty, the actual numbers run between 5,000,000 and 6,000,000 for white, black, and hispanic children each.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 8:42 AM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Poor White Trash - Harriet Beecher Stowe 1896
posted by The Whelk at 8:42 AM on December 20, 2011


In general, a reassessment about how anyone thinks about poverty or race is typically a good thing.
posted by Panjandrum at 8:47 AM on December 20, 2011


There is some truth to the idea that certain words are indeed, "code" words. It is not the entire truth. It's also an issue worth investing a lot of time in, instead of prefacing a short article rife with assumptions that the reader is already in agreement with the author.

White conservative right wingers are not ignorant about the existence of poor, underpriviliged whites either. They never have been, and they never will be. This is a large portion of the right wing base, and its been a gold mine politically for the right - a source of of working class white resentment about racial preferences given to minorities. While the left impotently wrings its hands and wails about how "why don't poor whites understand the power structure want to oppress them too" , the right has been smacking them in the face with the racial resentment issue like a foul-smelling mackerel for decades. But the left is too myopic to see it.

In fact, I would call that the single most important issue in the alienation of working class whites from the progressive cause. By far.
posted by Xoebe at 8:48 AM on December 20, 2011 [27 favorites]


Our conversation about race and class in this society is incredibly tortured and convoluted and it hurts us that we cannot speak plainly about our problems.

The reason it is tortured and convoluted is that they are fighting over table scraps. If there were plenty for everyone, no one would feel like they were getting short-shrifted when anyone else got helped.

Fighting each other instead of working to gether is the way They like it.
posted by DU at 8:53 AM on December 20, 2011 [10 favorites]


Interesting. The notion that race and poverty are often inseparable in the minds of many folks seems to me to represent a kind of comfort zone that we can often reliably use as ideological and/or rhetorical landmarks when discussing issues like race or poverty. Often without ill intention. Yet, as can happen with such mental shortcuts, it sometimes encourages lazy thinking, overlay broad assumptions or worse, across the political spectrum, innocently, or in more insidiously malicious ways.
posted by 2N2222 at 8:53 AM on December 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


Americans found using intractable false consciousness race issues to avoid developing any kind of dialogue on class. Film at 11.
posted by Kandarp Von Bontee at 8:54 AM on December 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


This is not just a polite effort to avoid explicit mentions of race; it is an attempt to link African Americans to these characteristics, constructing a pathological view of black America.
Overall I think this was a good article, but I'm not sure it's either true or helpful to frame this sort of "coding" as a concerted long-term effort to influence culture. I suspect the coding is more about using one phrase to send different messages to different audiences. To pander to several existing sentiments at once, rather than to steer any of them.
posted by Western Infidels at 8:56 AM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Our insistence on equating "poor" with "black" has undermined the success of anti-poverty programs.
Do many people actually make that assumption?
This kind of coding has become so prevalent, even black commentators have fallen victim to it. When the Jerry Sandusky case emerged, charges that the former Penn State coach sexually assaulted the young men who were part of his Second Mile charity immediately raised questions for some about the racial identity of those victims. Descriptions of his victims as "underprivileged" or "disadvantaged youth" -- the same code words so often used for African Americans -- had some black commentators wondering if his victims were black.
Really? I never once thought his victims might be black, mainly because College Station, PA doesn't sound like a very diverse location. Apparently the city is just 3.8% black. It's 9.8% Asian, apparently and 83% white.

Obviously when people like Newt Gingrich talk about people without "work ethics" and crap like that, it's obvious he's blowing race coded dog whistles.
White conservative right wingers are not ignorant about the existence of poor, underpriviliged whites either. They never have been, and they never will be. This is a large portion of the right wing base, and its been a gold mine politically for the right - a source of of working class white resentment about racial preferences given to minorities.
Poor whites are much more likely to vote democratic then middle class or wealthy white people.
posted by delmoi at 8:57 AM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


@Xoebe,

I am in full agreement with you about the role poor whites play in conservative politics.
posted by RedShrek at 8:59 AM on December 20, 2011


I have encountered this is the US - the assumption that white people cannot be poor - from both white and black Americans.

I think it not only renders poor white people invisible, but it also undermines the solidarity that poor black and poor white people (and poor brown, etc) need to have.
posted by jb at 9:00 AM on December 20, 2011 [5 favorites]


Well, this gets back to what I keep saying, that reverse racism just perpetuates racism itself. If we help people because they're black, then it reinforces throughout the society that blacks are inferior and need help, and it reinforces especially strongly to black people that their black skin is really important.

If, instead, we just help poor people, then we automatically help whoever needs help. Because poverty rates are higher in Black and Hispanic communities, they'll be helped disproportionately, which is exactly what should happen.

I suspect that, at this point, it's the War on Drugs that's more responsible than anything else for the creation of the black underclass. If we'd stop that, and focus on attacking poverty wherever it's hiding, no matter what color the poor are, I think racism would gradually leave the national dialog in exactly the same way that we no longer talk about serfs and nobility, or hang out help-wanted signs telling Irish or Chinese people to drop dead.

It's the fundamental idea that you can even sort people into races that's wrong, and the longer we perpetuate that bad idea, the more damage it does. The fact that we even TALK ABOUT minorities is messed up -- there shouldn't be tribes, there should just be Americans. We should all be celebrating St. Patrick's Day and Kwanzaa and Chinese New Year, because we come from all those traditions.

Ethnicity is cool, but it shouldn't be important in any real way. Oktoberfest for everyone!
posted by Malor at 9:04 AM on December 20, 2011 [15 favorites]


Oh yeah, and I forgot to address this as well:

The Right considers poverty to be a function of morality. In the purview of the Right, being black and poor doesn't equate to "lazy blacks". Being poor equates to being lazy, period. This includes whites.

This is why the Right resists progressive policies so reflexively. They literally see progressive policies as rewarding someone who should be punished instead - whipped or goaded into working harder. Because hard work is all it takes to succeed. And if hard work doesn't get you success, then you haven't worked hard enough. Work harder.

It's the same way many people see prayer as well. Prayer doesn't seem to be working? Pray harder. Pray for patience. Pray for strength.

I bring this up because these two ideas have roots in the same place - God rewards the good, those who work hard. If you are being punished by circumstances, well there is a reason for that.

These ideas also work closely with racism, though they really are distinct and separate. The Right isn't as racist as you think; what Progressives fail to understand about the Right is that the Right simply thinks all poor people deserve their lot. Much of this disdain gets conflated with racism, because race and poverty are so closely intertwined in America. I am not saying that much of the Right isn't racist; it's that racism and disdain of the poor are easily mistaken for one another.
posted by Xoebe at 9:07 AM on December 20, 2011 [20 favorites]


Poor whites are much more likely to vote democratic then middle class or wealthy white people.

I would be interested to see the numbers; this seems counter-intuitive to me for some reason
posted by Hoopo at 9:08 AM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Americans found using intractable false consciousness race issues to avoid developing any kind of dialogue on class. Film at 11.

Yes, there should be a film at a11. This stuff is anything but obvious to most. I don't know why people continue to act like things that are outrageous are "yeah yeah, everybody knows that" material. No, everyone does not know what you know.

It's the fundamental idea that you can even sort people into races that's wrong, and the longer we perpetuate that bad idea, the more damage it does. The fact that we even TALK ABOUT minorities is messed up -- there shouldn't be tribes, there should just be Americans. We should all be celebrating St. Patrick's Day and Kwanzaa and Chinese New Year, because we come from all those traditions.

Ethnicity is cool, but it shouldn't be important in any real way.


Here's this again. No, I think people should see and acknowledge difference, and treat people fairly regardless. The obsolescence of the race discussion will happen when people in power stop using it to give people jobs, benefits and perks. Once that happens and it's clear that it doesn't matter what (socially constructed) race you are - once it doesn't mean anything to have lighter or darker skin, that will be when it is no longer talked about. But trying to "not talk about it" and have that cause people in power to stop using it to give people jobs, benefits and perks will not work.

It'll just make it verboten to talk about, while people in power still favor one (socially constructed) race over the other. I do not think you can magically make it happen by not talking about it, and pretending what is happening, isn't.
posted by cashman at 9:10 AM on December 20, 2011 [5 favorites]


Descriptions of his victims as "underprivileged" or "disadvantaged youth" -- the same code words so often used for African Americans -- had some black commentators wondering if his victims were black.

That says more about the commentators jumping at shadows than anything else. If you know anything the observations on abuse, it's that abusers most often like to abuse people closer to their own identities than not. Anecdotal example here, but the pattern exists.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:12 AM on December 20, 2011


God rewards the good, those who work hard. If you are being punished by circumstances, well there is a reason for that.

A lot of humans who think themselves as religious are in for a big surprise when they face God. Prosperity religion was not what Jesus had in mind.
posted by francesca too at 9:14 AM on December 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


I have encountered this is the US - the assumption that white people cannot be poor - from both white and black Americans.

I've encountered the idea that white people can't be poor from poor white Americans.

Oh, they're not poor, they're just broke this month. They're all middle class folks fallen on hard times.
posted by muddgirl at 9:16 AM on December 20, 2011 [9 favorites]


I wish I used "we" instead of "they" in my last comment.
posted by muddgirl at 9:17 AM on December 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


It's important to learn about how the US has had a poor white underclass for hundreds of years - for longer than the US itself has existed as a political entity. As much of a trollfest as much of the book is, Jim Goad's Redneck Manifesto has a lot of great information about the experience of dirt poor whites and their wealthy white masters, who used "divide and conquer" in order to control the social order.
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:20 AM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


In the purview of the Right, being black and poor doesn't equate to "lazy blacks". Being poor equates to being lazy, period. This includes whites.

Super skeptical about this. In my own experience, white people who come on hard times tend to get help and sympathy, even from the rightest of the right.
posted by downing street memo at 9:22 AM on December 20, 2011


From the article: Just look at the ways that images of white victims of police brutality in the Occupy movement have reinvigorated the national discourse on police brutality. For decades, African Americans and Latinos have been victims of excessive police force, brutality and even killing. Now that our media are peppered with images of predominantly white youths being sprayed, beaten, cuffed, shoved and dragged, people seem ready to have a broader conversation about the militarization and excesses of our police force.

We must do more than simply shrug our shoulders and say, "Welcome to our world." We must use this as an opportunity to engage in strategic alliances and to frame our problems in a broader narrative that appeals to as many constituencies as possible.


MLK JR: "For many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. They have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom."

I'm struggling to find another quote by MLK JR where he further says that things will right themselves because the plight he describes, and freedom, is tied to the ideals of America.
posted by cashman at 9:25 AM on December 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


Super skeptical about this. In my own experience, white people who come on hard times tend to get help and sympathy, even from the rightest of the right.

Really? The idea of poor people deserving their lot (and the wealthy deserving theirs) is famously thick in American culture. It's central to the Protestant work ethic, our Puritan heritage, etc.

You hear a majillion variations on "GET A JOB!" when it comes to the Occupy stuff. There's also the typical skepticism on the right of handing out welfare checks, of supporting others' health care through your taxes, etc. Americans tend to be okay with one's own private decision to fund charity, but they're also typically averse to letting the government mandate that they take care of their fellow man.
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:29 AM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


> Racists and bigots have co-opted all the simplest terms, tainting them and forcing those
> with good intentions to create ever-more-coded language which at once obfuscates the subject
> we wish to talk about and creates new linguistic safe havens for those same bigots to inhabit.

Creating ever more coded language to obfuscate the subject is what the well-intentioned do to create safe havens for themselves to inhabit so they won't get called racists by others of the well-intentioned. One might almost think avoiding the r-bomb is a lot more important to the well-intentioned than taking any actual forward steps in this minefield of a problem.
posted by jfuller at 9:31 AM on December 20, 2011


Super skeptical about this. In my own experience, white people who come on hard times tend to get help and sympathy, even from the rightest of the right.

Don't confuse noblesse oblige for actual compassion.
posted by mstokes650 at 9:33 AM on December 20, 2011 [5 favorites]


Just look at the ways that images of white victims of police brutality in the Occupy movement have reinvigorated the national discourse on police brutality. For decades, African Americans and Latinos have been victims of excessive police force, brutality and even killing

What surprised me most about this was that this was police MO against all people all throughout the Bush years too and no one gave a shit. I'm not sure why it got so much attention when it happened to Occupy, but based on my own experience there are factors beyond just race in play here because police brutality against protesters in the wake of 9/11 was commonplace and the protests just as full of young white people.
posted by Hoopo at 9:35 AM on December 20, 2011


The Right considers poverty to be a function of morality. In the purview of the Right, being black and poor doesn't equate to "lazy blacks". Being poor equates to being lazy, period. This includes whites.

I agree. This goes a long way toward explaining why so many poor whites steadfastly insist that they are not in fact poor at all but middle class, and both reject and resent programs designed to help minorities who they do consider poor, despite there being very little actual difference in their socioeconomic situations.
posted by Naberius at 9:41 AM on December 20, 2011 [5 favorites]


There is also a lot of misconception about poverty being urban. In my conservative rural county, (1% black and under 3% minority of any kind) there are plenty of poor people, and most of them live in actual ghettoes.

A co-worker, who grew up in the city, came in to work one morning and said he had been to a party the night before "in the projects." Where? "You know, the projects." We had no idea what he was talking about. Finally he described where it was. "Oh, you mean the trailer park," we all said.

And some of these trailer parks are crowded, ugly, crime-ridden and violent. They are rural ghettoes, and often isolated: dozens of single-wides jammed together along a back road. Out of sight is more comfortable for the more comfortable.

And yes the right wing has no sympathy for the "trailer trash," lazy welfare bums, they are. Do the poor whites vote Repuiblican? I suppose a few do. Mostly though, they don't vote at all.
posted by tommyD at 9:59 AM on December 20, 2011 [8 favorites]


Well, this gets back to what I keep saying, that reverse racism just perpetuates racism itself.

I'm not meaning to pick on Malor here, but can we please stop using this term? It makes the tacit assumption that all racism naturally flows from white people to black people, or from "oppressor" to "oppressed"; that when someone who belongs to a racial minority says something racist, it's a reversal of some natural order. Racism is racism is racism. I don't care who it comes from.
posted by Afroblanco at 10:15 AM on December 20, 2011 [9 favorites]


I still firmly believe that one of the biggest tragedies in American History is the horrible, twisted lies told by white elites in the years after the Civil War. Teaching poor whites that skin color should be a greater bond than class has led to the continued oppression of the poor of all colors. This has prevented the poor whites, who so often support hateful social policies that would actually help them, from seeing that the true threat to their way of life and families are the rich, who are lying to them, and taking them for all their worth every second of their lives.

These lies held back unionization efforts in the South, encouraged the race riots of the sixties and continue to haunt our nation and stunt our economic and social growth. Until large numbers of people start to reject that lie and understand that skin color is and will continue to be an artificial dividing line that keeps us weak, this type of shit will continue. I honestly don't know how to get people to understand that class is a far bigger divider than race, but articles like this can help by showing how white folks are poor too.
posted by teleri025 at 10:28 AM on December 20, 2011 [6 favorites]


In the 1970s, South Boston was the site of one of the most violent oppositions to school integration when its predominantly white Irish neighborhood rejected the legally mandated desegregation of South Boston High.
South Boston had one of the nation's highest concentrations of white poverty and was marred by crime, suicide, drug-use and violence rates that the residents of South Boston themselves refused to own up to, convinced that those were problems exclusively of black ghettos.

This reminded me of an identical situation in New Orleans in the late 60s when the city cynically located the first desegregated schools in the poorest areas of the city, resulting in racist attacks by the local poor white. John Steinbeck described this in Travels With Charley.
posted by binturong at 10:38 AM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Voter turnout by socio-economic class: 36.4% (of any race) in the lowest quintile by income. 63.1% in the highest quintile.

Party identification and voting habits by low-income whites (low-income defined here as "bottom third"):
Some highlights, since it's a little tl;dr. Note: chart 1 does not load for me.

In the fourteen presidential elections from 1952 to 2004, a majority of white voters in the lower third of the income distribution chose the Democratic candidate over the Republican in only four.

Despite much hand-wringing by progressive commentators, there has been no decline in the propensity of low-income whites to vote Democratic in presidential elections.

The reason is that voters are myopic, and Democratic presidents have been less likely than Republican ones to produce healthy income growth in election years.

Lower-income-third whites were more likely to vote Republican than Democratic in presidential elections even in the 1950s and 1960s (chart 1 above), but during those decades this group was much more likely to identify as Democratic than as Republican.

posted by desjardins at 10:51 AM on December 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


The above party identification research from desjardins also squares with observations in the paper "Political Polarization and Income Inequality (link)," by Nolan McCarty et al.:

To illustrate this point consider the way partisanship (as measured by the National Election Study) varies across income groups. In 1956, a respondent from the highest income quintile was only 25% more likely to identify as a Republican than was a respondent from the lowest economic quintile. In 1960, that number was only 13%. Throughout the 1990s, a respondent is more than twice (100%) as likely to identify as a Republican if she is in the highest quintile than if she is in the lowest.
posted by blucevalo at 11:16 AM on December 20, 2011


In the purview of the Right, being black and poor doesn't equate to "lazy blacks". Being poor equates to being lazy, period. This includes whites.

Super skeptical about this. In my own experience, white people who come on hard times tend to get help and sympathy, even from the rightest of the right.


I invite you to come and visit Appalachia, where poverty has always been mostly white, since the population has always been mostly white. Hillbillies, now as then, are lazy drunken trash in the view of most politicians: easily duped, easily misled and easily forgotten, since they're back in the hollers where nobody can see them. Well, nobody could see them until the mountains became a tourist mecca and retirement center, at which point their land got sold for little or nothing and they got moved into trailer parks in less scenic hollers. There is still one whole hell of a lot of grinding poverty and all its attendant ills - disease, crime, meth labs, crack whores, abuse, ignorance and so on, up to and including the kind of police actions that you think only happen in the inner city - in these mountains.
posted by mygothlaundry at 1:52 PM on December 20, 2011 [6 favorites]


@mygothlaundry

That is so foreign to me. I guess when you are black in America, you get so tuned into all the crap that goes with that blackness that you forget that others could be suffering similar things. Now, I have seen poor whites but not in mass. I live and work in a world that is overwhelmingly white. I am the outsider looking in. When I look in, what I see and hear is that poverty and crime are something that happens to black and brown people. After a while, I knew I had somewhat absorbed some of this messaging even though I did not want to and that is why the concept of poor whites living in ghettos is so foreign to me.
posted by RedShrek at 2:39 PM on December 20, 2011


poor whites living in ghettos

Part of it is that it's more of a rural issue. They live out on a scrap of land a couple miles from some small 5000 person town. It makes them more invisible. You'll see it a lot more in a school setting, where some people are going to college, and others aren't.

It was enough in my small town there were the white people you didn't hang around with, and the "nice ones" in the ethnic minority (who had social status, money) who you could. Granted race still made a "nice one" in the minority lower than a "nice one" who was white, but there were plenty of white people lower than the "nice ones".
posted by zabuni at 2:52 PM on December 20, 2011


If, instead, we just help poor people, then we automatically help whoever needs help. Because poverty rates are higher in Black and Hispanic communities, they'll be helped disproportionately, which is exactly what should happen.

Not if the reason you're poor is partially because you are black. If, for instance, we raise the minimum wage, that will help white people more than black people because it's easier for white people to get jobs. Targeting poverty doesn't change the fact that banks are less comfortable lending money to non-whites, or that police are more likely to throw a poor black person in jail and let a poor white person off with a warning.

A higher tide might float all boats, but the ones with weights tied to them will still be lower than the ones without. As long as racism is part of the problem, you have to treat the racism and the poverty.
posted by Peevish at 9:30 AM on December 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


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