A Bronx Tale: How Racism Created and Perpetuates Poverty

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

ColorLines editor Kai Wright takes a hard look at 2010 census figures showing that nearly 28 percent of families live below the federal poverty line in the Bronx, N.Y. In a piece that originally appeared in the Nation, he says that the situation was created by failed economic and political decisions that were made decades ago.


… Nearly 28 percent of its families lived below the federal poverty line at the Census Bureau’s last count, in 2010; that rate approaches three times the national mark. Nearly 16 percent of people older than 16 in the Bronx were out of work in 2010.

Those numbers are sadly predictable. The Bronx is nearly 
90 percent black and Latino, and that demographic profile remains a solid indicator of dense poverty and joblessness. More than a quarter of blacks and Latinos nationwide live in poverty, too. Six cities have black jobless rates near or above 20 percent — on par with rates during the Great Depression — according to the Economic Policy Institute. Four more cities can say the same about Latino unemployment. National black unemployment is officially above 15 percent and rising. White unemployment is 7.6 percent.

For decades, the myopic national debate on this deeply racialized poverty has invoked images of poor people as passive victims or self-defeating freeloaders. But people … have struggled frantically for generations to yank up their individual and communal bootstraps. They have not succeeded because the poverty they live in is not accidental. It’s the result of decades of political choices that first created ghettos and then left them prey to a still growing industry that profits from their existence.

The Bronx, in fact, provides a uniquely clear case study of how yesterday’s economic and political choices constructed the poverty that so many people accept now as a natural phenomenon. From midcentury forward, a series of planning initiatives ripped out the community’s interstitial tissue. Middle-class housing subsidies drove white residents into restricted suburbs. Public funds built highways to move those white migrants to and from equally restricted jobs, tearing down housing in the process and replacing it with high-rise projects. Officialdom turned a blind eye as slumlords milked dry the black and Puerto Rican residents left behind.

Read Kai Wright's blog entry at ColorLines.