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.
This kind of coding has become so prevalent, even black commentators have fallen victim to it. When the Jerry Sandusky case emerged, charges that the former Penn State coach sexually assaulted the young men who were part of his Second Mile charity immediately raised questions for some about the racial identity of those victims. Descriptions of his victims as "underprivileged" or "disadvantaged youth" — the same code words so often used for African Americans — had some black commentators wondering if his victims were black.
As it turns out, Sandusky "tended to choose white boys from homes where there was no father or some difficulty in the family." Somehow, those white kids were not the first who came to many minds when terms such as "poor" and "single-parent household" were used.
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?
One of my favorite texts to assign my American-history class is Michael Patrick MacDonald's All Souls, a memoir about growing up in the racially segregated neighborhood of South Boston. In the 1970s, South Boston was the site of one of the most violent oppositions to school integration when its predominantly white Irish neighborhood rejected the legally mandated desegregation of South Boston High.
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.