Writer and commentator Will Shetterly has some rather original things to say about racism.
“If we fight racism, we’re accepting the enemy’s battleground and the war will last longer. I think the way to end racism is to ignore it and fight poverty.”
In the context of Katrina, race and class are on everyone’s minds; poverty and wealth are even being discussed in the mainstream media in a way entirely new to that venue. The tone in which the media discusses race may also be shifting, perhaps ever so slightly.
Our government has a mixed attitude about racism. Racism certainly exists at all levels of society, and at the same time, pressure against (overt) racism does exist. When Trent Lott is caught making an overtly racist remark on tape, he’s forced to backpedal and pretend he didn’t mean it. There’s a place in the government for Condoleeza Rice and Al Gonzales (the Attorney General) and Norm Mineta (the Secretary of Transportation). They weren’t appointed by accident. Nor is it an accident that the Bush administration actively courts middle-class voters of color, and tries (without much success, we’re pleased to say) to drive a wedge of privilege between them and their working-class and poor counterparts.
Fighting poverty is profoundly necesary, even though it is not sufficient. Fighting poverty is a goal our government gave up on more than thirty years ago; by now, there’s effectively no social pressure, outside of progressive circles, to make any concessions away from the strictly Calvinist view that poverty is poor people’s fault and poor people’s problem. From Clinton’s despicable welfare bill to Bush’s war on Social Security, the message about poverty is absolutely consistent: if you’re poor, you did it to yourself and it’s not your government’s problem.
Race and class are deeply conflated in this country. In terms of absolute numbers, many more white people are poor than people of color; white people get most of the welfare money (such as is left), most of the food stamp money, etc. In terms of percentages, many more people of color are poor than white people. And in terms of perception, as a nation we present poverty as if it were the problem of people of color. And there is no doubt that if we were to return to a set of social values that puts the responsibility for the country’s poverty on the shoulders of all of us, that would help many people of color.
So Will has a point.
And then there’s the other truth: Racism has always been used to divide people from other people with common interests, and it’s a very useful tool. African-American poet and writer Audre Lorde, self-described “Black lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” said, “The master’s tools will not dismantle the master’s house.” Divisiveness is one of the masters’ primary tools: the struggle for justice for all calls for not dividing our priorities, but for seeing all aspects of respect for human beings as part of the same whole.
So as long as racism isn’t just about poverty, we can’t discard one struggle for the other. Look at the composition of the nation’s prison population, and you’ll see that we imprison people of color disproportionately even without looking at income level. (Yes, we also imprison poor people disproportionately.) Ask anyone who has been stopped for DWB (Driving While Black) whether a nice well-maintained car protected them from police harassment. Put a name like L’Tisha or Alfonso or Ahmed on your next job application and see how many employers call you.
Racism and poverty both exist, and they frequently exist in tandem. And they’re both, as Will points out, very much about privilege. If what we are striving for is “liberty and justice for all,” working against poverty while ignoring racism won’t get us there.