White and poor, must be stupid.

Aris Foucault Etheridge
Leverett, MA

I think it’s possible that the poor urban white perspective may be a helpful one in thinking about race as it relates to poverty. What are the similarities between the poor urban white experience and the poor urban black experience? What are the differences, and how do these differences effect the given populations? Are the pathways out of poverty for one population effective for the other?

As a child growing up in Boston it struck me that the media often linked the words “poor” and “minority”. What about us I would sometimes think? The predominantly white (some Hispanic) housing project I was growing up in also lacked dads and had a preponderance of unemployment and drug addiction. Some white families were stuck in my project for multiple generations, and there was definitely annoyance that our suffering didn’t seem as recognized. If you were poor and black, I thought, you could at least blame racism. What were we supposed to blame? our parent’s stupidity? Of course looking back on it, I’m guessing linking “poor” and “minority” together was probably annoying to minority kids, too.

When I made it to college in rural western Massachusetts, and after I graduated, people would often enviously comment on how diverse it must have been going to the Boston Public Schools. I would generally contradict that statement. I was blessed to have friends from a variety of ethnicities, but as far as I could tell poor white kids, poor black, kids, poor Asian kids, and poor Hispanic kids were all pretty similar – at the least the kids on the track team that I hung out with. Getting to college and hanging with solidly middle and upper class kids- that seemed way more diverse to me. (Note: my public school experience was affected by going to one of Boston’s exam schools; our parents may not have had much money but they valued education.)

Not that race was never an issue. It could be, just in more complicated ways than my new middle class friends assumed. And often it seemed from my perspective that the idea of racism could cause trouble just as effectively as racism itself.

I am no longer poor and no longer live in the city, but I still believe that the poor urban white perspective on race could be an informative one. Or perhaps better still an outside sociological perspective that looks at the two experiences and tries to glean data that can be used to combat urban porverty.

 

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