Tuesday, May 27, 2008

5516: Poor Excuses.

From The Chicago Tribune…

Poverty gets the blame, not racism

By Leonard Pitts

I keep thinking I should be mad at West Virginia.

Not because Barack Obama was recently beaten like a red-headed stepchild—to use my father’s expression—in that state’s primary. No, I’m thinking I should be upset about “why” he was beaten. According to exit polls, 2 out of every 10 voters said race was a major factor in how they cast their ballots.

Jon Stewart of “The Daily Show” ran a clip of a white woman who explained her refusal to vote for Obama thusly: “I guess because he is another race. I’m sort of scared of the other race ‘cause we have so much conflict with ‘em.”

It’s disappointing to see bigotry in Appalachia so vividly displayed. Yet I find it doesn’t make me angry. I feel sorry for them. If that sounds patronizing, I apologize. That’s not how it’s meant.

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 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 description that fits many in Appalachia—and also a vast swath of black 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, 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 clearly at the ways both are manipulated by the forces of money and power.

And here, let me tell you what I am not saying. I’m not saying all bigots are poor or all the poor are bigots. I’m not saying everyone in Appalachia is poor, or less educated, or atavistic about race.

But I am saying this: 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, but the one thing they did have—or so the con went—was whiteness itself. Which meant they had someone to be better than.

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.

Over the years, many of us have figured that out.

In West Virginia, at least, 2 in 10 of us have not.

Leonard Pitts is a syndicated columnist based in Washington.

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