Thursday, September 22, 2005

Being Black Does Not Equal Being Poor

As we all saw the black faces trapped in New Orleans, I started to hear talk about race in America.

And that's when I started feeling funny.

There is talk again about the topic of race in America and how we need to do more to help African Americans. What's interesting about this talk is that it is interwoven with a talk on poverty in America. Witness this column by Washington Post writer, David Broder. Broder seems to mix the issues together. I have a problem with this. For one thing, yes, race is still an issue in America (witness the Rodney King verdict and subsequent LA riots), but let's face it, the America of 2005 is not the America of 1955. I can eat in a restaurant and sleep in a hotel and very few would bat an eye. That wasn't the case with my Dad fifty years ago. He moved to Michigan from his native Louisiana in the early 50s. When he went to visit his Mom back home, he had to sleep in the car and eat meals packed for him because he couldn't sleep in a hotel or get a good meal at a diner.

What also bothers me is that most often when we talk about blacks and whites, blacks are always portrayed as poor and whites are all well to do. This is malarkey. There are blacks who are firmly in the middle class and whites who are poor. I have relatives who make six-figure salaries and I've met white people who are very poor. It's a little frustrating to when people see blacks and white as monolithic groups and not diverse communities.

I think the civil rights revolution of the 60s did a lot to remove the racial barriers that kept Black Americans from being full members of society. It helped lift a fair number of blacks out of poverty and into the middle class. But there were a lot of blacks that lacked the basic resources and remained mired in poverty. Those were the faces we saw in the Big Easy. Was race involved? Maybe. But it seems the bigger issue here is that there is a little opportunity for these people to get out of poverty and better themselves, their families and their communities.

I tend to believe all the talk about race tends to sidline poverty. There will be calls for more conversation and some blacks will talk about how hard it is to be black in America. But that talk tends to focus on middle class blacks and not about how to help the poor.

Let's also not forget that there are huge numbers of poor people who are whites as well. For some reason, they tend to be forgotten.

It's time for America to have a conversation, NOT on race, but on poverty. No one wants to talk about this. Liberals don't want to talk about poverty because it doesn't fall into their view of indentity politics. Conservatives don't want to talk about it because it means questioning their worldview that there is a class system in American society.

We need a government that would develop programs to give people a hand up. Affirmative Action should not be soley racial based (it only helps the black middle and upper classes) but based on economics,to help those who are economically behind as well.

We need to ask why we ignore the poor or condemn them. We need to ask what makes people poor. And we might even have to ask the poor to stop doing behavoir that could keep them mired in poverty.

Booker Rising quotes Vanderbuilt professor Carol Swain on how to solve this issue:

“The best strategy for racial and ethnic minorities to adopt, therefore, is one that minimizes identity politics and instead focuses on the attainment of policies and programs that will address common needs. Fortunately, many of the problems affecting poor minorities are common among poor whites as well. A political strategy that deracializes issues is more likely to succeed than one framed around race. Surveys have shown that a large percentage of Americans support job creation, universal health care, education reform that expands parental choice, a minimum-wage increase, and immigration reform. On some of these issues the political parties are not responsive to the will of the people. It should be encouraging to minorities that the majority of white Americans, while opposing racial preferences, support outreach, nondiscrimination, and equal opportunity. We are in trouble, though, unless Americans move away from narrowly defined identity politics. Strategies that ensure more support for race-neutral policy agendas should be preferred over those geared toward enhancing the perceived needs of any single racial or ethnic group. Indeed, beyond a certain point, a focus on narrowly defined group interests can become counterproductive. When leaders are responsive to the needs of the people, the race of the legislator becomes less important.”

So, let's talk about poverty and class. Not to blame, but to find solutions. I don't have time to rehash and argument that was mostly (but not totally) settled 40 years ago. I'm ready for the discussion. Are you?


At 11:19 AM, Blogger halfback jack said...

I would generally agree with Swain's comments EXCEPT that she misses one very important factor in today's poverty: culture.

The general problem is that many government programs are "race neutral," but they are also "decultured"--at least from the perspective of a recent immigrant from Somalia, Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, etc.

What we forget is that many of these groups place a very high value on preserving their cultural norms to the greatest extent possible. Few government-run programs take this into account when it comes to designing or delivering services.

Community-based agencies have evolved from within these cultural communities to provide culturally-specific services, but their ability to fundraise beyond government-funded initiatives is frequently limited (sadly) by misperceptions, skepticism, and outright racism.

In today's rabid environment, does anyone honestly think that raising funds for programs serving immigrants who just happen to be Muslim would be an easy task? I don't think so.

I stand ready for the brickbats that are probably about to fly my way. :-)

At 7:04 PM, Blogger Brian said...

I thought it was interesting that the president talked about how rebuilding New Orleans was a chance to address the economic divisions and poverty that had characterized pre-Katrina New Orleans. While that's certainly an admirable goal, shouldn't that be a goal for all Americans? Do the poor of New York or Detroit or LA need to wait until their city is destroyed too?

At 9:08 PM, Blogger Kirkrrt said...

Thank you for this post. It is a call that I will send to everyone on every list I have because you are right. America NEEDS to have this conversation.

Poverty isn't about race.

I grew up in Iowa and now live in Atlanta, GA.

People in GA look at my with their mouths open when I tell them there are parts of Des Moines I don't feel safe driving through. I have gone into trailer parks in an ambulance that I would not go into on my own.

I don't know the definition of "ghetto", but I am betting race ins't part of it.

At 5:51 AM, Blogger halfback jack said...


The term "ghetto" originated in the Middle Ages. I found this definition from the Columbia University Press:
ghetto (g?t'?), originally, a section of a city in which Jews lived; it has come to mean a section of a city where members of any racial group are segregated.

In the early Middle Ages the segregation of Jews in separate streets or localities was voluntary. The first compulsory ghettos were in Spain and Portugal at the end of the 14th cent. The ghetto was typically walled, with gates that were closed at a certain hour each night, and all Jews had to be inside the gate at that hour or suffer penalties. The reason generally given for compulsory ghettos was that the faith of Christians would be weakened by the presence of Jews; the idea of Jewish segregation dates from the Lateran Councils of 1179 and 1215.

Within the ghetto the inhabitants usually had autonomy, with their own courts of law, their own culture, and their own charitable, recreational, educational, and religious institutions. Economic activities, however, were restricted, and beyond the ghetto walls Jews were required to wear badges of identification. One of the most infamous ghettos was that of Frankfurt, to which Jews were compelled to move by a city ordinance of 1460. Crowded into a narrow section, the ghetto underwent several disastrous fires. The ghetto in Venice was established in 1516 after long negotiations between the city and the Jews. In 1870 the last ghetto in Western Europe, in Rome, was abolished. In Russia the Jewish Pale continued to exist until 1917. After the 18th cent. ghettos were also to be found in some Muslim countries. During World War II the Nazis set up ghettos in many towns in Eastern Europe from which Jews were transported to concentration camps for liquidation; the Warsaw (Poland) ghetto was a prime example.

In the United States, African Americans, Chicanos, and immigrant groups have been forced to live in ghettos through economic and social forces rather than being required to do so by law.

At 8:04 AM, Blogger Kirkrrt said...

I love it when someone does the work for me and I get to read the answers.

At 8:51 AM, Blogger Earl said...

I haven't read the post.

I haven't read the comments.

I just have to say this: Nothing will be done about the current and everlasting problem of poverty [regardless of race] in today's theoretical Ownership Society overly-endorsed by most (Rabid, Moderate, Liberal) Republicans out there because it is based on results. End justifying the means and all that stuff.

Means today are broken labor contracts, underfunded pensions, the Red Cross, and IRAs...

There is no "community" in the Republican view. There is only yourself and your bootstraps.

I hope they're tough.

That's just my opinion. I could be wrong.

Sorry, Dennis.

At 8:56 AM, Blogger Dennis Sanders said...


I think you paint all Republicans with a very large paintbrush. You are right that Republicans do tend to learn more towards opportunity as opposed to outcomes, but some Republicans DO care about community and about the poor. You might want to actually read my blog to see that other side instead of just assuming that we are all selfish.

Just something to think about.

At 9:51 AM, Blogger halfback jack said...

Maybe if you read it Earl--instead of taking a swipe at Dennis.

That's why I get POed at the Fox-types that have no interest in listening or trying to understand other positions. "My way or the highway." Ish.

At 10:54 PM, Blogger Earl said...

After 25 of my years as a Liberal Democrat - and being painted with a very broad (tax/spend/abort/confiscate guns/let child molesters out of prison/Don't hold anyone accountable for their actions because we're trying to understand them instead) brush - I've learned to not take it personally.

I stand by my point, which is the direction that the country is going now does not give a damn about the poor and we're getting closer to Grover Norquist's dream.

Funny how everyone wants to get "civilized" now that the Rep dream seems to be cracking.

At 10:55 PM, Blogger Earl said...

And halfback - I listen to a whole heck of a lot of positions and I can understand how people can feel that way.

I simply do not agree.

At 7:01 AM, Blogger halfback jack said...

That's cool Earl... Actually, I tend to be more in line with your point of view than these other folks.

I also agree that the Grover Norquist's of the world are idiots and they do NOT care a whit about anyone but themselves...and their investment advisors.


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