White Poverty: Lying by Omission in America
America is a schizophrenic country. We collectively attend churches dedicated to a savior from an impoverished background. Yet, we do not even have a language for white poverty. When and where we should talk about white poverty, we talk about race. And the consequences have been, are, and will continue to be disastrous.
White poverty. White. Poverty. Poor. White. Individual. Say that. Don’t say, “Poor white trash.” Say “poor white individual.” Say this. White underprivileged youth. Say, first-generation white college student. Say white working poor. Say affirmative action for white women. White poverty. White poverty. White poverty. white poverty whitepovertywhitepoverty. There are poor white people in America. White people are poor in America. Through no fault of their own, white people are on food stamps in America. If it were not for affirmative action, many white women would not receive jobs or college admission in America. White people need social security disability benefits in America. White people need Obamacare in America. And even if they hate the Democratic Party, white people desperately needed those stimulus checks in America.
Reader, regardless of your color, if you are an American, just reading that to yourself over and over again or saying it out loud makes you feel uncomfortable. Doesn’t it?
Let me tell you why “white poverty” makes you uncomfortable. America has never dealt with white poverty. Instead, the big lie that America has told and continues to tell itself is that we don’t have class issues. And that is partially true. We neither have the British title system nor the private, competitive colonial school system that it left behind in its former colonies. That school system contributes to cyclical poverty all over Africa and the Caribbean. That school system contributes to marked class and gender differences in Africa and the Caribbean. That school system ensures that a very small percentage of people prosper while the vast majority of people in the former British colonies remain impoverished. America, with its public school system and open-admission community colleges, offers anybody with a dream, a social security number, a tax return, and the ability to fill out financial aid papers the opportunity to climb the economic ladder if not the social one.
Yet, there is part of America’s past, its present, and its future — the big lie- that feeds its culture. It is dirt that keeps getting swept under the rug. And at this point, the rug has a lump in it as big as a camel’s. It’s white poverty. America, is schizophrenic in that we frenetically attend Christian churches where we learn that we serve a savior who was born of an unwed, teen mother from a poor town (can anything good come from Nazareth? That’s the Bible’s question and not mine), whose earthly stepfather was a carpenter. But Monday through Friday, we practice poverty-shaming socially and have historically made being poor the problem of the individual as manifested by the put-down, “poor white trash.” We cannot even THINK “poor” and “white” in the same sentence without thinking of “trash,” too. In America, white people aren’t supposed to be poor. Period. If white people are poor, it is their own fault and not any faults of our legislative, economic, or social systems.
This is ingrained in the American psychology so effectively that certain words are synonymous with African Americans or Native Americans or Latino populations, but never with white people. Words and phrases like, “underprivileged” or “underserved,” or “working poor,” or “medically underinsured,” or “welfare recipients.” Why can’t a working-class white woman in rural Vermont be as medically underserved as a Black woman in New Orleans? Are there no “working poor” white people in West Virginia or Idaho? Are white people in Kentucky any better off economically after the ravages of NAFTA than Black people in Detroit? This is ingrained so effectively in the American psychology, that when we hear “middle class,” we automatically assume “white nuclear family.” Even in academia, the standard for social science research is “white middle-class nuclear family.” We know that in reality, that is a myth. The reality, especially in the American South, is an extended family of cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents. And this is true for everyone. Yet, America keeps right on lying to itself about its lack of white poverty.
And how did things come to be this way in America? Well, most nations with white majority populations were FORCED to deal with white poverty like adults. We may have a disdain for the British class system, but the poor were acknowledged in that class system. The British had no choice. In my classroom, I teach this work song in a unit about the British industrial revolution.
But whereas the British experienced the abolition of slavery rather early and were forced early on through violent skirmishes with the Irish to deal with white poverty, America REFUSED. And they had two major ways of sweeping white poverty away from them.
When the British were fighting with the Irish and were singing “Poverty Knock,” America concocted a new way to make fun of Black Americans: the minstrel shows and blustering politicians.
While most people who study minstrel shows focus on the racialized elements of minstrel shows (and they should), I would like to pause here and focus on something else. Minstrel shows were also a way for America to sweep white poverty under the rug. White people in blackface could place upon Black bodies, Black speech, Black music, Black mannerism, and Black attempts at education all of the things that they did not like about themselves. This also includes poverty. The minstrel shows relegated poverty to African Americans.
As minstrel shows were rising, “local color” and Southern Gothic writers were also rising. I am thinking here of Mark Twain. Most of us would be familiar here, Reader. Most of us would be familiar with the fact that Mark Twain, at some point and in most places, was banned. Fewer of us are familiar with William Faulkner. Honestly, I like Faulkner, but the man wrote in that modernist style that is a holy terror for some people to read. It is not beach reading. Faulkner, like Twain, was banned in many places. Some say it was for his “racialized” writing. Having read most of Faulkner’s output, I find his writings on race not totally out of keeping with the views of his time. Mostly, he convicted the white people of his time, but as a white man, he was not a mouthpiece for Black liberation. Still, he made an effort and was more liberal than most white Mississippians and I can take him better than Welty on any given day…even I can give Faulkner that. But what I find most interesting is how Faulkner portrayed the poor whites of North Mississippi. It was not that his portrayal of Black people was so humane. His daring to put the red light district and white woman sexual slavery of E. H. Crump’s Memphis on paper, his stark portrayal of white poverty in New Albany, Mississippi in As I Lay Dying, and the silliness of the white townspeople and how they overly-romanticized their own sense of upper-class duties in “A Rose for Emily” are the reasons why Faulkner were banned — not his “race writing.” He exposed the nobless oblige, the white sex slavery underbelly, the crooked white politicians, the sheep mentality of the lynch mob, the intellectual impotence of the Southern Agrarians, and even the hateful psychology of some poor whites to boot. I never thought Faulkner was concerned with Black folk or that he sought to portray Black folk as anything other than stereotypical. He was banned for airing white folk dirty laundry and nothing more.
Still, another writer of white poverty that even fewer of us know is Erskine Caldwell. Like Twain and Faulkner, he was a local colorist who rose to prominence around the same time. Like Twain and Faulkner he was banned. Few of us know Caldwell, because he fell from favor. Well, before he fell from favor, he had great success with his novel, Tobacco Road. People claimed that Caldwell was banned for his portrayal of women, race, etc. No, he was not. Caldwell was banned because he portrayed poor white people. He even advocated sterilization for poor whites in Georgia. Like Faulkner, Caldwell aired white folk’s dirty laundry in its fullest. His first literary concern was not the humane portrayal of Black folk.
When certain politicians ran for office during segregation, they avoided talking about economic reforms by race-baiting. A master of such was Mississippi’s 39th and 43rd governor, Theodore Bilbo. Theodore Bilbo often felt that the Mississippi planter class of the Delta was too powerful. As a short man, he was a towering demagogue who used inflammatory, racialized rhetoric to camouflage his real agenda: he slowly sifted power away from the Delta class and moved it over to the poorer farmers of the hill counties. Before he died, Bilbo confessed that he used race to camouflage his class politics.
Other politicians used his strategy at the national level. It’s very effective. They simply blame a new group of people for white poverty. They tell white people straight up: “You’re poor and those _______________________ are stealing your jobs, your benefits, and your slots in school.” You can fill in the blank according to who is trending in conservative circles.
Sometimes, the blame is placed on government programs and entitlements. After all, according to conservative talking points, minorities are just a bunch of lazy people drawing benefits that honest, hard-working tax-paying Americans must pay for while we stand on the porch drinking 40 ounces, waiting on the mailman to deliver welfare checks. To boot, our children go to Ivy League schools on affirmative action slots! I remember being an undergraduate at a Predominantly White Institution (I went to a state institution that tried its hardest to be an Ivy League institution. It was so crass, that it called itself, “The Harvard of the South.” How cheap and tawdry was that? Right?) around the year 2000 and this college Republican was railing against affirmative action. I turned around in class and said, “Affirmative action may have gotten me in school. I’ll give you that. But I’m a sophomore. and affirmative action reads none of my books, takes none of my tests, and writes none of my papers.” The whole lecture hall exploded in laughter.
And so, the rage machine keeps going and going and going. People explode in anger, because there is white poverty here. But we REFUSE to acknowledge it, address, explicate it, analyze it, or solve it. We don’t have a language for it. Instead, the rage machine goes on and on and the incentive for that rage machine has been so perverse. In the past, it was rewarded with political fame and long careers. The aforementioned governor of Mississippi was a towering political figure for forty years. Not only was he renown in Mississippi, he was a nationwide figure and a giant at only five feet two inches. Now, people are profiting from it. Has anybody checked the net worth of any of the talk show hosts who add flame to the rage machine? And the digital racism that is allowed on social media is a whole other post! The machine is allowed to rage as long as the clicks keep on coming and the advertisers keep on paying.
White poverty. White poverty. White poverty. White poverty. White poverty. When are we going to become an adult nation and address this as adults? If we do not, if we do not even develop a language for it, I fear for us as a nation. It’s like this: my grandfather used to build houses for a living. He once told me that where a leak shows up is never where it is. You may see the leak as a brown spot on the kitchen ceiling. However, the leak may have actually started in the upstairs bathroom. The lazy person is going to simply paint over the brown spot in the kitchen ceiling. Each time, the brown spot comes back wider and browner. The lazy person simply adds more paint rather than finding out where the leak is originating. Then one day, the entire ceiling upstairs is going to collapse on the homeowner. Are we, as Americans, simply too lazy mentally to deal with white poverty? Is it simply too easy and profitable to keep blaming ________________________ people or ____________________ (fill in with the newest government program) for white poverty and economic distress? If so, where are we going as a country?
This is coming from my own musings. If you are interested in this topic, there is an old book, a blast from the past, called War on the White Slave Trade (1909), written by Ernest A. Bell that you may want to give a read.