John Edwards: Obama's Ace in the Hole

It took a white man to finally put the issue of poverty back on the agenda.

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It was the finest moment of the agonizing slog this election season has become. John Edwards was back, bringing a gift of reconciliation by merging three concerns that have divided loyalties this year: race, gender and class.

By endorsing Barack Obama on Wednesday, Edwards pointed voters back toward the "moral shame of 37 million people who wake up in poverty every day." He made a place at the heart of the campaign for those who are the least among us: poor people, children, elderly, the sick and uninsured, the undereducated, war veterans and those in battle still.

After Edwards bowed out of his own campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination Jan. 30, the public and the press seemed to forget about deprived and disadvantaged Americans, and the forces that keep them so. The Clinton vs. Obama contest became increasingly focused on his race and her gender—with the usual stingy attention to people in economic hardship. I took heart during the early days of the primary season that, through John Edwards, my interests would be voiced. Over the past couple of months, my enthusiasm certainly waned.

Now Edwards has returned, talking of taking down walls. He assumed a role as peacemaker or party conscience that is perhaps fitting for a white male in this historic time for women and black people, especially for those who fall into both categories and are, thus, used to being the last of the last. His announcement came with its own backdrop of divided loyalties. Elizabeth Edwards said she would not necessarily feel obliged to support her husband's choice of a candidate. A woman gifted with admirable insight and blessed to be a cancer survivor, she has, for example, endorsed Hillary Clinton's health care plan, not Obama's.

But John Edwards, in one stroke, has erased a great deal of angst. It was not his generous praise of Clinton's character and stamina that smoothed edges of race and gender. It was his insistently pushing poverty to the forefront again, because class issues are also implicitly about race and gender.

Poverty in America falls so disproportionately on black and Hispanic women and children that discussions of tough economic circumstances inherently include race and gender. We know from the U.S. Census that poor Americans, especially single mothers and their children, are disproportionately women of color. More than 40 percent of black and Hispanic female-headed families are poor.

Nearly 30 percent of households headed by single women are poor, compared with less than 6 percent of married-couple households. Nearly a quarter of black Americans live in poverty, as do only a slightly smaller percentage of Latinos, according to Census reports.

I have never doubted that class trumps race in our society—and largely aligns with gender. It was an early lesson, drawn from my mother's frustrating refusal to explain her white grandfather. Though I never knew him, he was a troubling, incongruent fact of life to a black child in the thoroughly segregated South. But she would say only, "Everybody was so poor back then that it didn't matter."

That lesson was reinforced for me years later in trailer homes down country roads of Mississippi. I found white women who were effusively grateful for their black friends' keen organizing skills among groups protesting denial of food stamps to eligible families. What they had learned in the civil rights movement now served members of the oppressor group. Since then, I have met women from Marin, Calif., to rural New England who validated the lesson that poverty transcends race—and that women routinely shoulder unequal portions of hardship.

One can only hope that whatever bargain Obama made to get John Edwards' priceless support includes a promise to keep the forgotten folks and their needs right up front. No matter what happens from now to November, this was a shining moment when those who have been forgotten in the campaign battles of recent months were lifted up again. I hope history will show that the country was made better by it.

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