About a one or two years ago I remember hearing an interesting fact. There are more white people living in poverty in the United States than there are black people. But when you ask someone to picture a person living in poverty, most people vision a black person struggling to get by. In her book The New Jim Crow Michelle Alexander gives us some background of how racial attitudes developed in our country, particularly in how race was used as a political tool to shape ideas and thoughts regarding low income black people. She explains the ways in which black people were framed as dangerous, flawed, and undeserving and how these descriptions were used politically to establish political attitudes based on race within the United States. Overtime, these attitudes have persisted, and have been intentionally used to split low socioeconomic status white people in our country from black people and minority populations.
Alexander writes, “by 1972, attitudes on racial issues rather than socioeconomic status were the primary determinant of voters’ political self-identification. The late 1960s and early 1970s marked the dramatic erosion in the belief among working-class whites that the condition of the poor, or those who fail to prosper, was the result of a faulty economic system that needed to be challenged. As the Edsalls explain, ‘the pitting of whites and blacks at the low end of the income distribution against each other intensified the view among many whites that the condition of life for the disadvantaged—particularly for disadvantaged blacks—is the responsibility of those affected, and not the responsibility of the larger society.’”
The quote from Alexander shows us that race, racial attitudes, and the systems of support we develop in our country are flexible and open to manipulation. There is no reality behind race, but racial ideas have been used for political purposes throughout our countries history. Alexander argues (and her argument has been supported by other researchers) that bottom-up movements that placed lower classes against upper classes in the United States have been countered and broken up with the use of racial prejudices and attitudes. In the 1970’s President Nixon pushed the idea that black people were dangerous, and that the state needed to crack down on black crime. From these ideas and from this desire to break up a coalition of low socioeconomic status black and white people came racial exploitation and discrimination, leading to the start of a mass incarceration system in the United States.
What I have found particularly interesting in our country is the belief that people hold about becoming rich. We like to believe that we will all somehow reach the top socioeconomic status groups, and we tend to believe that hard work and smart decisions are all that are needed to reach those upper echelons. While it is certainly true that hard work and smart decision making is necessary to be materially and financially successful, we should not over inflate the importance of those factors and decrease the importance of luck, familial income level at birth, and of social attitudes and thoughts about you and people who share your identities. We must recognize that financial and material success are not solely the responsibility of the individual, and by the same logic failure and poverty are not inherently the responsibility of the individual poor. How we structure society, how we allow or bar individuals from participating in the economy, and how we treat certain groups and individuals matters in terms of who succeeds and who does not. Aspiring to become successful does not mean that we should treat the highest socioeconomic status groups differently, simply because we believe we will somehow be there and will somehow benefit from policies that clearly disadvantage us and the rest of society.