Why Elites Want to Mask the Suffering of Poor Whites

News & Politics

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NBC's recent story on how 80 percent 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.

"Race is how class is lived in America." Consequently, the leaders in the black and brown community care about poverty as a general issue because it disproportionately impacts people of color.

White privilege extends to all white people in America. Black and brown folks have to deal with both the colorline and other types of inequality in American society. Moreover--and I do believe black and brown elites are more correct than not in this choice and instinct--there is a deep belief, one hard taught by American history, that poor and working class whites will consistently choose to serve the interests of rich white people because of the psychic wages that are paid to them by whiteness. As such, why focus the limited political capital of the black and brown community in a time of crisis on solving a "white" problem?

Poor and working-class whites may have much in common with poor and working-class people of color. But their greatest allegiance is doing the work of white racism against their own immediate class interests. From Bacon's Rebellion forward, with some notable deviations, this has been one of the key themes in American history.

However, the new white poor are not the stereotypes drawn from the exploitative TV show Honey Boo Boo.

They are the former middle-class and non-college educated whites who worked in the skilled trades or as low-level municipal and public functionaries. Many of them are invisible as they couch surf with friends, or move back in with their aging parents or other relatives. The new white poor lost their homes and are living in motels (if they are lucky). Other members of the new white poor are sleeping in their cars, one of the last possessions that marked them as middle class, after their IRAs and 401ks are drained, the credit cards maxed out many months ago.

The new white poor are the students in some of my classes who share with me how they are using their student loans to support their parents; thus they must pass their courses or the whole family will be homeless. The new white poor are those college students universities have to accommodate with showers, lockers, dorms, and other supports because many of them have nowhere to go when the school day is over, and when the academic year has ended.

The white poor are not toothless rural folks sitting around smoking meth and making moonshine as depicted in the American popular imagination. They are your neighbors, in the suburbs, rural areas and our cities, who are right next door, who are trying to get by while maintaining their dignity.

The type of white poverty stereotyped by the lede photo on NBC's news item is a caricature that is easy to mock and deride. Those poor white people are an alien Other. "Respectable" white folks (and others) mock them, because poor whites represent a basement below which the white middle class imagines they cannot fall beneath.

It is much harder to minimize and ignore the now poor white folks who are the former members of the middle and working-class that shop at Trader Joe's or Target with their SNAP cards and pittance of remaining unemployment checks, praying that no one they know sees them, and then get back into their paid-off SUV and drive to a parking lot to sleep for the night with their kids, waking up early the next day to wash up in the McDonald's bathroom.

The mainstream news media will likely not show you a picture of failed white suburban domesticity in the Age of Austerity and the Great Recession. The Fourth Estate is not a truth teller. It supports the status quo and the powerful.

A meaningful discussion of white poverty in the Age of Austerity is not an approved topic for the public discourse even while "we the people" are suffering every day.

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