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Why Elites Want to Mask the Suffering of Poor Whites

White elites and opinion leaders are wary of poor white people because they expose the defects of capitalism.

NBC's recent story on how 80 per cent of Americans will be living at or near the poverty level  in their lifetimes was accompanied by the above photo of a "poor white family."

The heart of the AP's report on the (further) economic imperilment of the American people is focused on the rise in "white poverty," and the struggles faced by the white working class in the time of the Great Recession.

Images that feature human beings work in communicating political and social meaning because of how the viewer reads them. There are stated and unstated assumptions which the person who is seeing applies to the object of their gaze.

The white gaze views a photo of a young black man in a hoodie and sagging pants and sees a social predator who exists in a state of criminality.

A photo of a white man wearing a suit and walking down Wall Street in New York will be seen by the white gaze as representing a respectable person and a hard worker living the American Dream. 

In reality, the young black man could be on the way to his third job, has never been in prison or arrested, and takes care of his aged parents and siblings. The white man in the suit could be a child-molesting murderer and rapist who is also embezzling millions of dollars from his clients.

White and male--and whiteness more generally--views itself as benign and harmless. Black and male--and blackness more generally--is viewed by White American society as dangerous and pathological. The power of images is how they harness and channel assumptions about how various types of personhood find representation in, and are configured by, a broader system of dominance, subordination, privilege, inclusion, exclusion, and hierarchy.

NBC.com's photo is an example of those processes at work. There we see two overweight white women with a young child, and thus make social and political assumptions about gender and class. We see a small home and generalize from that visual about how "poor people" live, and more importantly, "what type of people" they are.

Images also give the viewer permission to empathize or to condemn the subject. Are these "good" people or "bad people?" What is my sense of obligation to them? Does my sense of community extend to people like them?


Stereotypes serve as cognitive short-cuts which the viewer, and we as a society, use to categorize and evaluate the relative worth of whole groups of people. The way that images of white, "poor", female, "overweight", "unattractive", bodies are processed by the viewer is a reflection of how we as a society think about race, class, and gender. These concepts exist individually while also having meaning in relation to one another.

Moreover, in America, because of the Calvinist-Horatio Alger-Myth of Individualism and upward mobility, claims on poverty necessarily involve moral judgments.

The black single mother is a welfare queen who is lazy and has bad morals. The poor white person is a redneck or a hillbilly with all of the stereotypes and assumptions implicit in such language.

Consequently, poor white people are one of the few groups which can be made fun of and mocked in American culture without consequence or public sanction.

White elites and opinion leaders do not want to talk about poor white people because that would expose the defects of capitalism. These same elites also avoid discussing white poverty because it would undermine how they have historically been able to mine white supremacy to mask inter-class conflict and exploitation among whites in the United States.