Originally posted on Blavity
I grew up in South Carolina, one of America’s poorest states, with two high school-educated parents. My family has a long history of doing the best they can with the little they have. They were, and are, far from unintelligent. However, due to our financial situation, I was fed by the free and reduced meal program throughout my childhood. This gave me a title I could not escape: poor. It was a scarlet letter that put me in an enclosed box for what I could achieve. No matter how well I performed in school, how many clubs I participated in, or how well-spoken I was, that title was paired with my racial identity—I was black and poor above all else, attaching me to a host of powerful and oppressive societal stereotypes.
I can recall sitting in my 12th grade AP Calculus class when my friend—who was white—turned to me and said casually, “Donovan, you’re the whitest black guy I know.” At the time, I could not articulate why that comment offended me, but I knew I felt like an outsider. I was not only the lone black person in that class, but I was the only black person in my AP Literature and AP Language classes too. I was the only black class president at the time, the only black person ranked in the top 10 my senior year, and the only black marching band drum major in my county.
According to those around me, there was no way could I be black, poor, smart and driven. I must be an “Oreo,” a term that my peers still label me with—black on the outside and white on the inside, as if only whiteness could be associated with intelligence and potential. There were many times when I questioned whether I should even aspire to a better life. It was not until I started college that I began to question the origin of such distorted opinions like those of my peers and countless others on race and poverty.
I now know this phenomenon is deeply American. As historian Thomas Sugrue argues, such is the “fundamental reality of the economic inequality in American history that race and class were—and are—fundamentally intertwined.” Consequently, black and poor are two labels that together seem to define the majority of those experiencing poverty. This reality is nowhere more apparent than with our nation’s modest welfare program. Welfare has long been implicitly and stereotypically defined as a “black issue,” reinforced by the media’s continuous and careless portrayal of poverty as black and “lazy.” As a result, the public attaches these labels to the black community as a whole, with devastating sociocultural, economic, and political consequences for everyone. Furthermore, as demonstrated in the renowned work by political scientist Martin Gilens, over-racializing poverty creates a negative feedback loop, where “negative stereotypes of African Americans as lazy and misperceptions of the poor as predominantly black reinforce each other.”
Severe sociocultural, economic and political consequences aside, attaching blackness to poverty is just not accurate. The truth is that while blacks experience poverty at more than twice the rate of white non-Hispanics, they represent less than one in four people in poverty. And yet, stereotypes still plague poverty politics today, as seen in House Speaker Paul Ryan’s poverty plan, which assumes that the poor abuse welfare benefits and refuse to work. As such, the plan creates barriers to public insurance programs, increases penalties for food stamps participants who can’t find jobs, and reduces Social Security benefits. Relying on such rote assumptions allows politicians and the media to sidestep facts that do not align with their narrative—like the fact that the majority of households receiving public assistance are headed by working adults in low-paid jobs.
Reinforcing half-truths about blacks and poverty not only hinders long-term progress in addressing poverty, but also likely harms struggling individuals now. A study from the Human Communication Research Journal suggests that while news consumption is positively associated with greater social capital (as measured by membership in associations, neighborliness, interpersonal trust and community trust), the opposite is true for black Americans, potentially because of the media’s persistent and problematic portrayal of black faces. And, perhaps most damning, a Harvard Law Review study shows that the subliminal flashes of black faces contributes to unconscious racial bias in popular attitudes held about the black community.
Stereotypes are all too attractive and powerful. My truth, being black and poor, fit the exact preconceived notions that society has attempted to link together—that my blackness was the cause of my hardship. But then I became a Phi Beta Kappa first-generation college graduate, and now a Harry S. Truman Scholar. Poverty was my situation, not my limitation. To address poverty, we must first understand how oppressive the ways we describe it are.