Sunday, March 16, 2014

Looking Into: “What About Poor White People?” an article by Ricky Lee Allen

The struggle within the white race and its class divisions seems to rationalize the actions of nonpoor Whites while attempting to de-racialize poor whites, who are obviously part and parcel the collateral damage of centralized white wealth. “in more recent years Rickey Allen has come to believe that this one particular semantic move is categorically different from the others that nonpoor Whites employ in that its rhetoric is as much intraracial as interracial.” (209) The question that thereby arises is no longer interracial relationships, say between black and white, but rather intraracial relationships such as a White CEO and his blue -collar mechanic.  “What about poor white people?’ does not more than express a desire for an individualistic notion of racism. It also signifies that poor and nonpoor Whites share a close bond: nonpoor Whites stand up for poor Whites when poor Whites are not around to represent themselves.” (210)

Thus the stratification of class within the White race is important to understand when attempting to dismantle White supremacy from all different directions. “the signification of poor Whites by nonpoor Whites provides a window into the internal political organization of the White race, which has yet to be adequately theorized in race-based terms.” (210)

Rickey Lee Allen states that “Understanding how the White race is held together is the first step toward the ultimate goal of breaking it apart so as to disassemble the political alliances that keep White supremacy in place.” (210) She believes that at the outset the relationship between poor and nonpoor Whites glosses over the obvious class difference.  “The inherent, teleological assumption being made is that poor and nonpoor Whites should be aligned, and class conflict divert attention from the racial agreements that hold them together.” (211)

And what is even more ridiculous is that poor Whites, by not problematizing class divisions within the White race, become the object of their own racism. This complacency is one of the pillars of White supremacy and without it, may deteriorate into propaganda nonsense. “White race requires an internal hierarchy in order for it to exist, meaning that those at the bottom of this hierarchy must be willing to submit to the authority of those on the top.” (211) If one were to question how and why do certain Whites get admitted to certain Universities because of their legacy, much of the unwarranted racism thwarted at “affirmative action” students could be re-directed against a population that rarely answers questions about their wealth. “Avoiding the reality of poor Whites’ lower status relative to nonpoor Whites ultimately weakens the overall effort to create cross-racial solidarity and end White supremacy because an opportunity to expose and disrupt the troubling racial alliance between poor and nonpoor Whites is lost. In the Whiteness studies approach, it is the avoidance of discussing poor Whites, both on the part of the educator and the students, that gives ‘What about poor White people?’ much of its power.” (212)

Allen suggests that to understand the dynamics of the poor and nonpoor White relationship one must apply Critical Race Theory. “To move beyond the limited analytical vision of undifferentiated- White privilege versus Marxist-analysis-to-the-rescue, what I suggest is a critical race exegesis of ‘What about poor White people? It’s more recent growth can be traced to legal studies, its roots go back at least to the work of W.E.B. Dubois (1868-1963) and Franz Fanon (1925- 1961).” (212)
“At the top of the White supremacist hierarchy, the White racial polity is invested in its dominant status and will only give political concessions to people of color when they are pressured from multiple sides to do so and, most importantly, stand to benefit the most from what appears to many as racial progress for people of color. Bell (1980, 1992) calls this White supremacist phenomenon the ‘interest convergence principle.” (213) In other words poor Whites many times do the dirty work of nonpoor Whites, and create a mythological boogie man that takes the form of people of color. When these courses of actions are deconstructed one can clearly identify the origin of bigotry and hatred. All fingers point to the hegemonic, white, rich oppressors who act behind close doors. And poor Whites, who may have advantageous access to nonpoor Whites, become key actors in the movement to dismantle the systems of racism, classicism, and sexism. 

Although it may be hard to believe “Poor Whites are in a relational sense oppressed people who do face institutional and everyday forms of dehumanization.” (214) And the forms of dehumanization take on many shapes and sizes. “One of the ways that poor Whites are dehumanized is through stereotypes. Many of the prevalent slurs used against them directly communicate their lower status in the White group.” (214)

Luckily Allen doesn’t confuse the racism that people of color endure with the racism of poor Whites.  “Although I agree that poor Whites are not the victims of racism, I disagree with the notion that their denigration stems primarily from class exploitation.” (214) What Allen is trying to say is that it is difficult to highlight forms of poor White dehumanization but it does exist, and will most likely be more appearrant within Critical Race Theory. With this apparatus a layman can identify stereotypes geared at those who are often times defenseless. “Moreover, stereotypes of poor Whites are often rooted in racial notions. For example, negative images of poor Southern Whites’ racism, backwardness, and biological corruption are often juxtaposed against images of the educated, genteel White Southerner who supposedly embodies civility and protects seemingly defenseless Blacks from the violent racism of poor Whites (Smith, 2004). (215)

What becomes problematic is not the stereotype itself but its generalization, and the fact that poor Whites have to get past a preconceived notion of where they are from and how they act. And in the attempt to debunk these stereotypes they may get frustrated from pressures within the White race and sling a racial slur. Which often times is said to be a mark of their ignorance.  “While some poor White Southerners do in fact live out the stereotype of the uneducated, virulent racist, the problem is that portrayals of poor White Southerners by seemingly antiracist filmmakers leave nonpoor White Southerners looking as thought they are the only members of the White group who work for racial progress.” (215)

And even knowing that this pressure is coming from nonpoor Whites to throw away the shackles of the hillbilly, poor Whites still show love and admiration to their true oppressors. “Given that nonpoor Whites are the main group that distorts the image of poor Whites, one would think that poor Whites would harbor a lot of animosity toward nonpoor Whties. Such is not the case. It is an if poor Whites do not care if they are depicted as crazed racists.” (215)“nonpoor White perceptions of and interactions with poor Whites, particularly with members of subgroups like White Appalachians, are largely guided by a combination of fear (of retaliation) and revulsion (toward their genetic inferiority).” (216)

And “Although poor Whites experience systemic dehumanization, they are as much oppressors as they are the oppressed.” (216) Which means that yes, poor Whites can be just as racist as nonpoor whites, while the former prefer interpersonal racism and the latter a more institutional tilt, both play the troubling role of possum.

Allen argues that this racism device is one that has historical roots, dating back to the days of slavery where homeowners and slave-owners feared slave rebellion. Allen believes that European immigrants were brought to this country to serve as a buffer between nonpoor Whites and blacks. And up to today, this paradigm still exists. “Whites must have perceived a threat to the normative order of White supremacy, such as the possibility of a slave revolt, and were therefore willing to open up the ranks of the White racial polity in order to preserve White domination.” (217) Thus the influx of European immigrants to America, a white social order needed to be maintained. “In our contemporary context, I see ‘What about poor White people?’ as a coded representation of the long-standing hierarchical and hegemonic alliance within the White racial polity.” (218) Poor White people have been used for quite some time, and Allen argues, to the benefit of generational White wealth.

Allen suggests that there are benefits to being white. “The benefit that dutiful poor Whites receive for playing the role of decoy is the current manifestation of the public and psychological wages of Whiteness. They receive race-based benefits that people of color do not receive for allowing themselves to be the distraction that is necessary for nonpoor Whites to evade a high level of scrutiny.” (218)

However, “Higher status, nonpoor Whites will never want all Whites to be economically equal because there would be no device left to divert attention away from the racism and White racial privilege of nonpoor Whites.” (219)

Allen believes that part of the responsibility in fighting racism lays in the hands of White people. “Rather than having people of color do all of the anti-racist work, we poor Whites need to be the ones who challenge nonpoor Whites during discussions about race when they ask, ‘What about poor White people?’ I have seen too many poor Whites remain silent and let nonpoor Whites do the dirty work of the White hegemonic alliance, but we poor Whites join them in this semantic move and support more actively the White racial clause.” (219)

She also believes that there should be academic pedagogy that recognizes hegemonic power the accurately explains: racism, sexism, and classicism. “Absent a curriculum that provides poor White students with an opportunity to unlearn their submission to nonpoor Whites, investment in Whiteness, and learned superiority relative to people of color, the future of poor Whites will most likely resemble their past since they will not be able to forge meaningful and transformative political alliances with people of color.” (220) “The white hegemonic alliance overdetermines the educational experiences of poor White students.” (220)

“Without a critical discourse to reveal a myth of the achievement ideology, a good many White Appalachians will experience self-hate and blame themselves or others of their group for their predicament.” (221)

“Despite the educational woes of poor Whites, it would be a mistake to suggest that poor Whites, such as White Appalachians, are in the same social and educational situation as students of color.” (221) Which may answer the question to the debate over affirmative action and white privilege.

“The benefits of being White and Appalachian are highly evident when looking at educational attainment.” (222) Meaning even though many blacks and white people share the same economic bracket they are more likely to get admitted into a four year university. “If the struggles of poor Whites are hidden then it is due to their situatedness within the White hegemonic alliance.” (222) And this alliance has every reason to deny their involvement in the detrimental gap of wealth in the country.

“Poor Whites’ learned sense of inferiority relative to nonpoor Whites is only half of the story. For the other half, we need to think about the benefits that poor Whites receive for not engaging in an antiracist social movement to change the dehumanizing education that they are offered.” (222)

“It is also important for the maintenance of White supremacy that poor Whites leave school believing that their worldviews and knowledge systems are superior to those people of color (Mills, 1997)” (223) So it would seem that along with entertainment (minstrel shows) and propaganda (skewed political ads),  nonpoor Whites also use education (public education) to teach poor Whites that they are superior to their brethren who may have mellonin. This is not only problematic for those poor White youth but also educators seeking to teach a transformative text. Educators must recognize this slant in the public education system and do something to ameliorate its negative effects.

“We also need to avoid class-based approaches that see race as an empty ideology (Leonardo, 2005) and stop imagining poor Whites primarily, if not solely, as victims of capitalist exploitation.” (222-223)

This article was taken from The Handbook of Social Justice in Education, edited by William Ayers, Therese Quinn, and David Stovall. Published by Routledge New York, NY 2009   

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