Poor whites are being conned—Leonard Pitts Jr.—Miami Herald

More excellent commentary from Leonard Pitts Jr. on race in America:

It’s just that, if the headline here is that Obama was rejected by whites on the basis of race, I submit that’s not the whole truth. Pollsters say he was actually rejected on the basis of race by whites who lack college degrees and whose household income is less than $50,000 a year. In other words, he was rejected by the poor and the less educated.

Which is a desription that fits many in Appalachia — and also a vast swath of African America. So for me, the story here isn’t simply the old, familiar tale of the nation’s stark racial divide, but also another tale, just as old, less often remarked, of how the white poor and the black poor have long been kept at one another’s throats as a means of keeping them from looking too closely or clearly at the ways both are maniuplated by the forces of money and power.

This reminds me of an incident at a platoon party while I was a Marine. Music is, of course, a big part of culture, and can often be a flashpoint for disagreements. At this party, we were rotating through the preferred genres and were in the midst of a R&B (not rap or hip hop, but R&B and soul) section when one of the young Marines said, “How long are we gonna have to listen to this nigger music?” loud enough for at least a quarter of the platoon to hear. Stupid move. One of the black sergeants grabbed him and began to explain to him (in what I thought was a really restrained way) the error of his ways; a black staff sargeant grabbed his corporal buddy who had been agreeing with the sentiment and chewed him out. Both the young Marine and the corporal were from Appalachia. Neither really seemed to grasp that the characterization was racist; they just wanted to make everyone else suffer through more bad country music.

If it’s that difficult for Marines, who live, work, train and play together, who must depend on one another, who may be asked to fight and die as comrades in arms, who are required to follow orders and respect fellow Marines regardless of color, can harbor such ignorance and veiled hate, it’s no wonder that regular people have a tough time with it? Especially in Appalachia and the Deep South (my home), where it is especially ingrained. But that’s not to say “don’t hope, don’t work, don’t try to change things”—it is, instead, a recognition of the challenges we face.

The white poor have been victims of a con job going back at least as far as the Civil War, when poor white men were used as cannon fodder for the right of rich white men — I repeat: rich white men — to keep slaves. They were told they fought for state’s rights.

My point is that race has often been used as a means of distracting and diverting the white poor. They had little in life, nor any realistic expectation of having more.

But the one thing they did have — or so the con went — was whiteness itself. Which meant they had someone to be better than. Someone to look down upon.

This, even though they did menial work under menial conditions, earned menial pay, sent their kids to menial schools, were subject to menial indignities, made do with menial health care and lived menial lives hemmed in by want, ignorance and hunger.

Exactly like those they had been taught they were better than. Exactly like those they had been taught to look down upon.

There are those in positions of political power who can and should be held to answer for the meanness and narrowness of poor people’s lives. But they can’t and won’t so long as those who should be standing together to demand those answers are kept busy fighting one another over superficialities of color and culture.


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