Collateral Damage: Poor Whites and the Unintended Consequences of Racial Privilege

Published as a ZNet Commentary, 10/05/03

A few years ago, a young woman who was an anti-poverty organizer in rural Kentucky asked me how she could infuse her work with an anti-racist analysis. She knew there was a need to address the link between institutional racism and white privilege on the one hand, and economic oppression on the other; yet, she was aware of the difficulty of relating these issues to the lived experiences of the mostly white poor with whom she was working. After all, how does one explain — indeed is it even proper to bring up — the existence of white privilege among poor whites, for whom the idea of privilege must seem remote? And how could she make poor whites realize the need to fight racism against people of color when they have, to put it mildly, their own problems?

I thought seriously about her questions and promised to get back to her with some ideas; then, as often happens, I got sidetracked and never got around to responding. Yet, I continued thinking about the issue, finally concluding that not only is it proper to address white privilege among the white poor, but indeed it is critical to do so, if we ever wish to address not only the misery faced by too many people of color, but even that felt by the white poor themselves. For poor whites, as I’ll explain below, are victims not only of a class system that views them as expendable, but also a racial caste system that favors them, and yet whose favors come at an enormous cost.

Of course, to suggest that poor whites reap the benefits of skin color when they suffer so terribly in class terms seems preposterous to some. But privilege is not merely a monetary or absolute concept; rather, it is also relative, and it is this relative meaning of privilege that concerns us here. The white poor, for example, clearly reap certain privileges vis-a-vis the poor of color, beginning with the more positive way in which they are typically viewed.

Consider the early imagery of the poor in the U.S., and what various changes in that imagery over time have wrought in terms of the nation’s views towards persons in poverty. Not all that long ago, the poor in this country were typically thought of and represented as white, especially white and rural. Images from the Great Depression or the Dust Bowl were among the first mass-distributed visuals of the poor in the U.S., and along with early ’60s media attention to conditions in Appalachia, helped frame poverty in a way that was just as likely to conjure up visions of whites as anyone else. In line with the mostly white representation of the poor, came a significant degree of sympathy for those in poverty. During the Depression and for several decades after, most Americans viewed poverty as something that was in large part the result of forces beyond the control of the poor themselves.

But by the 1970s, the discussion of poverty had shifted dramatically, thanks in large part to a transformation of media imagery. Whereas in 1964, only a little more than one-quarter of all media representations of poor people in the U.S. were representations of blacks, by the early 1970s, over 70 percent were, and three out of every four stories on so-called welfare programs featured African Americans. This shift in imagery of the poor corresponded with a growing backlash against anti-poverty efforts and the poor themselves, who increasingly became the targets of political scapegoating, and were rarely seen as victims, but rather perpetrators of social decay.

Importantly, the white poor, despite their economic condition, generally escaped the full weight of this emerging invective and were not the ones typified as the harbingers of social pathology. Even though roughly 40 percent of the long-term poor and welfare dependent “underclass” is white, virtually all media stories discussing the underclass — inevitably in highly critical ways — have portrayed people of color, with few if any exceptions.

The white poor, despite the growing backlash, have been able to remain the “salt of the earth” in the eyes of most, buffeted by circumstances not of their own making. In the 1980s, the farm crisis left thousands of white families on the margins of economic survival, and needing government support at record levels (on top of the agricultural subsidies they had already been receiving for years). Yet few blamed the farmers themselves, recognizing instead the larger structural forces at work. This, in contrast to the lack of slack cut to the inner-city poor, even though they too were facing economic forces beyond their control: deindustrialization, the loss of manufacturing jobs, and outsourcing to poor nations by companies seeking higher profits, to say nothing of plain old-fashioned racism.

This difference in the way the poor are viewed based on race is indicative of racial preference: an advantage and immunity extended to the white poor, irrespective of class status, which leaves them several steps above the poor of color in the public’s estimation, and thereby more likely to garner support, be it in the form of charity or government expenditure. This is one reason why the whiter one’s state is demographically, the more generous is one’s welfare system likely to be. States with an overwhelmingly white population tend to have far stronger safety nets for those in need, and have imposed far softer cuts and sanctions under the rubric of welfare reform.

And yet, these benefits and privileges have a flipside: one that demonstrates just how harmful racism against people of color — which generated those privileges in the first place — can be, even for the persons who reap the benefits of it in relative terms. In other words, white racial privilege and its corollary (anti-black and anti-brown racism) have blowback effects on whites, especially the white poor, and these blowback effects render the white poor a form of “collateral damage” in the ongoing oppression of their darker brethren.

First, because the poverty and welfare issues have been racialized, the white poor have been rendered largely invisible. On the one hand, this extends the privilege of not being the ones scapegoated for the problems of the underclass; but on the other hand, personal invisibility renders one’s very real suffering invisible as well. And if the white poor are off the radar screen, because the public is so angrily focused on the supposed depredations of the black and brown poor, it will become harder to address the economic needs of the white poor too.

Secondly, to be white and poor in a nation that is rooted in the notion of white domination and supremacy is to fail to live up to that society’s expectations; and to fail to live up to those expectations — which because of racial privilege are higher for whites than for others — is to render oneself vulnerable to a special kind of stigma. It is to be an exceptionally spectacular screw-up, which can lead one to not only be shunned by other whites, but to develop a crippling amount of self-doubt as well. In other words, it’s bad enough to be poor and black, but to be poor and white in a land where white folks are expected to excel is to forever brand oneself with a scarlet L, for loser. Here too, the system of white privilege grants benefits on the one hand, even to the white poor who can remain one step above the poor of color, but still sets up many whites for a fall. It generates expectations that can be sustained for most, but which for some will fall flat, to their absolute detriment. That society provides extra opportunity for whites to make it is a privilege to be sure; but for those who fail, the promise becomes an especially cruel hoax, precisely because of its magnitude.

Third, to the extent the public identifies poverty and welfare efforts with blacks, that same public will become increasingly hostile to the provision of income support needed by all persons in poverty, including whites. Studies have found that the public perceives the poor to be much blacker than they are, and that the public perception of blacks and their work ethic is the single strongest predictor of their attitudes towards income support programs. In other words, if whites think of blacks (especially poor blacks) in negative terms — a kind of racism that provides privilege to the white poor who can be viewed as more deserving than those of color — this racism will translate into calls for safety net cuts, thereby endangering the well-being of the very whites who benefited in relative terms from the racist imagery in the first place. So once again, privilege has a downside: in this case, it brings with it a more frugal welfare state and system of support for all the poor, because that privilege is the side effect of racism, and that racism limits support for public assistance generally.

Finally, a system of white privilege encourages the white poor not to form alliances with poor and working class people of color, since such a system encourages those whites to think of their race as all they have, when their economic condition is so miserable. The failure then to form such alliances renders the collective strength of poor and working class people below what it would otherwise be, and thus harms all those who could benefit from such an effort.

Historically, this is how both racism and the class system have been maintained, by playing off whites against people of color, offering the former just enough advantage in relative terms to keep them from aligning with the poor of color and rebelling on the basis of their absolute condition. In the 1700s, this meant ending indentured servitude and placing poor whites on slave patrols among other things, so as to make them, at least partially, members of the same team as the elite. In the mid-1800s, it meant Southern aristocracy convincing poor whites to ally with the cause of secession and the maintenance of slavery, even though the latter drove down the wages of all low-income whites, since they would have to charge for their labor, while black property could be made to work for free.

When people are poor, a little boost is sometimes all it takes to divide them from their natural allies. White privilege has been that boost. In fact, ironically, white privilege matters more to the poor than the rich. When one is rich, after all, one has enough money to stay warm and buy security. But when one is poor and white, skin is all one has left, and it takes on larger-than-life meaning.

If we ever hope to eradicate the class injustices of poverty and relative deprivation, we must confront directly the racism and institutional privilege that has for so long prevented the class unity needed for such an end. Racism cannot be viewed as it often is on the left, as secondary to the “real issue,” which in the minds of white leftists is typically class. The fact is, the issue is both, and without a frontal assault on racism and white privilege, there will be no end to the class system, because there will never be the necessary coalition building needed to fundamentally challenge the existing system of domination and subordination that immiserates poor whites and poor persons of color alike.

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