What MacDonald’s memoir also tells us, though, is that 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.
When reading the text, my students often register surprise that those kinds of communities exist — that were it not for race, the residents of South Boston would find much in common with their neighbors in predominantly black Roxbury. The students begin to understand poverty as a function not of race but of class.
In this white-majority country, it is imperative that white America sees poverty as its problem, too. Increasing the visibility of the white poor helps disrupt the racialized narrative we have of poverty, laying the groundwork for the strategic alliances we need to address it as a nation.
For sure, poverty is not experienced equally across racial lines. With poverty rates in black and brown communities twice that of whites, we need to look at race-specific solutions that take into account how racially discriminatory practices have exacerbated poverty and its effects in black and brown communities. A rising tide may lift all boats, but not all boats are equal in their structural reinforcements to respond favorably to that tide.
Indeed, a poor white poster child is not going to solve all our problems. But for a nation that still thinks so tribally and racially, it opens the way for collective empathy. Ideally, the sight of any person in need should inspire our better selves; but conditioned as we are to think as racial families and ethnic blocs, seeing one of “our own” (however we define that) may be the little nudge we need.
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.
This narrative need not be colorblind. In fact, our current colorblind codes let racist assumptions about the black poor go unchallenged while masking the suffering of the white poor. What we need is our discussions to be more colorful, highlighting how poverty is wreaking havoc in all our communities — black, brown and, yes, white.
Zaheer Ali is a doctoral student in history at Columbia University, researching 20th-century African-American history and religion. Follow him on Twitter.