Zaheer Ali: What About Poor White Kids?

Roundup: Historians' Take

Zaheer Ali is a doctoral student in history at Columbia University, researching 20th-century African-American history and religion.

Recent discussions of poverty have revealed themselves to be, in fact, coded conversations about race. When Newt Gingrich talks about poor kids having no work ethic and Donald Trump agrees, they discuss poor kids interchangeably with black or inner-city youths. For years politicians, policy wonks and others have used "disadvantaged," "underprivileged," "inner-city," "urban" and "poor" as code words for black and brown people.

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. Poverty is, according to this view, a problem confined to the black community, the result of cultural pathologies. This view reached its ultimate expression last week with Gene Marks' much refuted "advice column" for poor black kids that was published in Forbes.

Our national conversations about poverty -- so entangled with race in unspoken ways -- have rendered the white poor invisible and the black poor pathological, and undermined our attempts to gain majority support for anti-poverty programs. Led to believe that the poor are "other people's problems," a significant portion of Americans have come to view social welfare programs designed to assist the poor as attempts at wealth redistribution -- not just across class lines but across the unspoken, coded racial lines.

If white America would come face-to-face with white poverty, it would realize that these anti-poverty programs are needed in their communities, too. And we would move beyond a view of poverty as the pathology of a specific racial or ethnic group. Would white people casually accept Newt Gingrich telling them that their children have no work ethic and need to start cleaning school bathrooms?...

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