Recently, I sat down with someone who was involved in the civil rights movement in Mississippi in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He had a huge collection of material from that era, including a fake NAACP membership application that the White Citizens Council created as a publication piece. You can see the application on the right and click through for a larger version.
What struck me about it wasn’t just the vulgar rhetoric of white supremacy of the propaganda piece. We’re all used to the idea that Mississippi at that time was virulently racist. Those of us who have some familiarity with the place and the time know what to expect when we’re looking at documents like these.
What struck me more was that I see similar rhetoric all the time. But when I see it, it’s not directed openly at African Americans; it’s directed at low-income communities.
Take family structure, for example. The fake application takes several shots at a stereotypical ‘informal’ family structure among African Americans. Here are some of the questions it asks:
The implications are obvious: African Americans have loose family structures characterized by illegitimacy, infidelity, and informality.
Now take a look at this quote from Ruby Payne’s Bridges Out of Poverty: Strategies for Professionals and Communities:
In generational poverty, on the other hand, many marital arrangements are common-law. Marriage and divorce in a legal court are only important if there is property to distribute or custody of children…
…[The mother] may have multiple sexual relationships. Many of her children also will have multiple relationships, which may or may not produce children. The basic pattern is the mother at the heart of things, with nearly everyone having multiple relationships, some legal and some not. Eventually the relationships become intertwined. It wouldn’t be out of the question for your sister’s third husband to become your brother’s ex-wife’s live-in boyfriend. Also in this pattern are babies born out of wedlock to children in their early teens; these youngsters are often raised by the grandmother as her own children. For example, the oldest daughter has a child at 14. This infant becomes the youngest child in the existing family. The oldest daughter, who is actually the mother of the child, is referred to as her sister— and the relationship is a sibling one, not a mother-daughter one.((Ruby Payne, Phillip DeVol, and Terie Dreussi-Smith, Bridges Out of Poverty: Strategies for Professionals and Communities, Kindle Edition (Highlands: aha! Process, Inc., 2009), Kindle Locations 804-823))
Payne doesn’t cite sources, so I don’t know where she gets the information that informs this ‘pattern’ from (other than her personal observations). But notice how easily it lines up to the racist rhetoric from the fake NAACP application. In this quote, low-income families are characterized by illegitimacy, infidelity, and informality. People have multiple sexual relationships and complex webs of intertwined relationships, there is a pattern of young teenagers having babies out of wedlock, legal marriage and divorce are unnecessary legal formalities (and, therefore, the legitimacy of many children is dubious), and so on.
Elsewhere, the mock NAACP application implies that African Americans are fundamentally dishonest, especially when seeking welfare assistance. It asks these two questions:
Again, the implications are obvious: African Americans are willing to lie on applications for welfare and to steal in order to make their living.
So let’s take a look at Robert Lupton’s Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (and How to Reverse It):
Four months passed. Then the Christmas season came. Janice still hadn’t landed a job, but a couple of interviews looked promising. Ann’s friends were eager to collect gifts for the family to make their Christmas as bright as possible. The relationship between Ann and Janice, however, began to fray. Details about Janice’s past, about her friends who were in and out of her apartment, just didn’t line up… Christmastime revealed, unexpectedly, other pieces of Janice’s story – details that she carefully concealed. When some of Ann’s friends delivered their gifts, they encountered a houseful of other “angels” loaded down with wonderful, expensive presents for the girls. Hardly the scene of a struggling single-parent family just weeks out of a homeless shelter.((Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (and How to Reverse It) (New York: HarperOne, 2011), 59-60))
Or there’s this sentiment that Lupton attributes to Andy Bales, the executive director at Union Rescue Mission in Los Angeles:
Most panhandlers are not really homeless at all. Most are scammers who may collect $300 a day from kindhearted passersby and at the end of the day walk a block to their cars and drive home.((Lupton, Toxic Charity, 45))
Like Payne, Lupton doesn’t cite sources so much as identify ‘patterns’ in his personal observations. But notice again how well this version of poverty lines up with the racist rhetoric from the fake NAACP application. Low-income families – not all of them, of course, but enough that a pattern is formed – are more than willing to con and scam others out of their hard-earned money. If anything, they depend on the goodwill and compassion of strangers to keep their lifestyles going. Lupton isn’t alone in this opinion. This false narrative has become a popular one in American images of poverty.
The final piece I want to look at is the idea that idea of a lack of work ethic and a sense of entitlement. The fake NAACP application states outright that the purpose of the NAACP is to transfer wealth from white people to African Americans. Besides the question about how much ‘applicants’ receive from relief and unemployment, there’s this sentence in the pledge at the bottom: “I believe that white folks should pay more taxes than us [n******] so we can get more welfare [and] bigger checks.”
I shouldn’t have to point out that it’s a common myth that charity and welfare foster dependency, create a sense of entitlement, and erode the work ethic of recipients. Here is Lupton again:
Decades of free aid from well-meaning benefactors has produced an entitlement mentality and eroded a spirit of entrepreneurship. The outpouring of more aid, though necessary to preserve life in a time of disaster, is ultimately worsening the underlying problem… [G]iving our resources hurts the poor as often as (or even more often than) it helps.((Lupton, Toxic Charity, 36-37))
Much of the case against charity seems to be based in a deep seated anxiety that once people start receiving assistance, they’ll never be in a position to stop; there will be a constant transfer of wealth from the ‘makers’ to the ‘takers’. One might suspect that there was a similar anxiety among the white supremacists who produced the fake NAACP application. To them, equality for African Americans meant lifting the African American community up and, therefore, pushing the white community down.
I’m not trying to suggest that Payne, Lupton, or any of the other people making the case against charity are themselves white supremacists. I suspect that they would insist that this rhetoric is obviously wrong – both factually and morally – when directed at another race. But I am struck by the similarity of the rhetoric. It is as though the stereotypes of African American and low-income communities are interchangeable.
It’s not surprising that race and poverty are deeply intertwined in the American imagination. While there are more low-income people who are white than who are members of any other single race, poverty rates are higher – often much higher – among other racial groups. But there’s a something deeper going on here: blackness and poverty – especially ‘irresponsible’ poverty – are linked in the American imagination.
This link is what makes it so easy to transfer – consciously or not – rhetoric about African Americans (who are already imagined as poor) to low-income people (who are often already imagined as African American).
I would hope that if we saw this rhetoric being applied to African American communities, families, and individuals, we would immediately recognize it for what it is: racist, hateful, and ugly.
And I would hope that when we see it applied to low-income communities, families, and individuals, we would react in the same way. At the very least, its similarity to white supremacist rhetoric should cause us to respond with some skepticism.