How Poverty Breeds Racism in White Minds

We cannot end anti-black racism without ending poverty.

Poverty perpetuates racism in three ways.

First, disproportionate black poverty perpetuates racist white myths of black laziness. Second, black poverty breeds black crime, which reinforces in white minds ideas of the deviant, aggressive, violent black man. Third, black poverty leads to lower academic performance from black children, leading to white myths of lower intelligence in blacks.

Behind each of these racist beliefs, one can easily conclude, is an appalling lack of historical and sociological context.

For example, were (conservative) whites to accept the historical causes behind intergenerational black poverty–centuries of white oppression that confined black Americans to the lowest wages, the most miserable housing and schools, barred them from colleges, work programs, and welfare like Social Security, and banned them from positions of social, economic, and political power–the whole idea that their impoverished condition is due to laziness or irresponsibility or poor parenting would seem absurd.

The notion that whites don’t hold such ideas to be true is nothing more than white denial, rooted in a lack of education easily rectified by reading works such as Colorblind: The Rise of Post-Racial Politics and the Retreat from Racial Equity (Tim Wise).

Wise provides research that shows about 60% of whites will openly admit to trusting negative stereotypes about lower intelligence, higher aggression, and greater laziness in blacks. 25% of whites say an ideal neighborhood would be free of them.

Psychological research shows nearly 90% of whites hold subconscious anti-black biases.

Experiments reveal that resumes with “black” names are 50% less likely to earn an interview than identical ones with “white” names. Blacks are less likely to be offered a quality home loan than whites with the same (sometimes worse) qualifications and income levels. Likewise, whites receive better medical care at the same facilities than blacks with identical diagnoses and medical histories.  

Blacks are more likely to receive longer prison sentences and the death penalty than whites who commit the same crimes. They are more likely to be pulled over and searched while driving lawfully than whites driving lawfully. Unarmed Americans killed by police are usually twice as likely to be black than white. And so on.      

White inability to understand how past and present racism preserve intergenerational poverty today (it did not, shocking to many whites, end after the civil rights movement of the 1960s) helps keep racism a contemporary problem.

They fail to grasp how in each American city, only 150 years ago, former slaves started with nothing (no money, no wealth in home or business ownership) and battled racist sentiment, practices, and policies daily to build for themselves what they could, but still had little in comparison to whites to pass on to their children. And even with the weakening of the Jim Crow era only 50 years ago, blacks were still disproportionately poor and subject to savage racism. And today, many children of the civil rights era are still poor and have fewer opportunities due to anti-black biases, whether conscious or subconscious.

But that framework of historical fact does not fit well in conservative ideology.

In conservative thought, any person willing to work hard, be responsible, and “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” can rise out of poverty. The poor are therefore lazy, not working hard enough, irresponsible, lacking ambition. This likewise stems from a lack of education concerning socio-economic realities that ensure nearly all Americans will die in the social class in which they are born (see Lies My Teacher Told Me, Loewen).

If conservatives believe the poor are poor due to laziness, what then is the logical conclusion (historical context being ignored) when a conservative hears that blacks are 2 to 3 times likely to be poor than whites (see Colorblind, Wise)? That while there are more poor whites in the U.S. due to their sheer numbers (67% of the U.S. is white, 13% black), the average black American is nevertheless more likely to be impoverished?

There is only one conclusion: blacks are more likely to be lazy. It is a faulty premise, and a conclusion seeped in old beliefs of biological and cultural inferiority.

Consider now that poverty breeds crime.

This holds true regardless of skin color. But due to our racial history, the American landscape is characterized by crime-ridden slums in inner cities, dominated by minorities, surrounded by wealthier white suburbs. Within the “ghettos,” theft, murder, and gang violence inspire in conservative white minds racist ideas of blacks being more aggressive, dangerous, prone to criminality by nature.

The majority of Americans who commit crimes are not black, again due to population numbers. However, blacks, due to disproportionate poverty, commit crimes disproportionate to their population. For example, blacks make up 13% of the U.S. population, but about 20% of violent crimes are committed by blacks, about 40% of the people who rob others at gunpoint are black, etc. (Also, because we live fairly segregated lives, blacks are nearly always the victims of blacks, whites nearly always the victims of whites.)

If one cannot accept that our history led to disproportionate poverty, which led to disproportionate crime, the only alternative is to attribute black crime to innate deviancy and bloodlust.

Finally, black students in poor schools do not perform as well on standardized tests as white students in fine schools. For example, the average ACT score for blacks is about 17, for whites about 24.

To those willing to consider sociological context and study research, the cause of this is not difficult to ascertain.

Children who grow up in poverty are more likely to experience high-stress homes, absent parents, abandonment, displacement, homelessness, hunger, violence and sexual abuse, exposure to alcoholism, drug use, and crime, poor health, depression, developmental delays, decreased concentration and memory capabilities, and a host of other health problems.

A 2015 study showed that parts of the brain tied to academic performance are 8-10% smaller in children from very poor households.

Might this and the sad state of schools in the inner cities–low-quality teachers, crumbling facilities, overcrowded classes, a lack of books, supplies, physical and mental health care, and student worry over gas leaks, mice, and freezing temperatures–have something to do with lower test scores?

Or is it, as some conservatives feel, due to bad parenting (“black parents just don’t care enough about education”) or lower intelligence in blacks?

It is a sad state of affairs that yesterday racism bred minority poverty and today minority poverty is breeding racism.

To say that poverty is breeding racism is not to shift blame away from whites who consciously hold and spread anti-black biases–they should confront their misunderstandings through personal studies of history and social class. Rather, it is to suggest that if certain social conditions could be alleviated, if we could end poverty, it would go an enormous way to also ending racism. It could eliminate the misguided thinking of many whites and at the same time undo the worst sins of American history.

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