If We Talk About Race Without Taking On Poverty, How Much Can Really Change?

PovertyStanton Peele, The Influence
Waking Times

The New York Times ran three columns about race relations this week, all of which said the same thing: We ask that everyone discuss racism, be more understanding of other racial groups, and resolve to be nicer to one another.

That’s all well and good. But none of it carries much weight unless we change basic societal structures—or, to be more specific, reallocate resources in a way that drastically reduces poverty and improves well-being for the impoverished, which means the powerless, in our society.

Of course, poverty is far from exclusively black. But black people are much overrepresented among the poor due to basic long-established structural biases around such crucial areas as education, housing and health. According to the 2014 US Census Bureau ACS study, 27 percent of African Americans (and an even higher 38 percent of black children) live below the poverty line, compared with 11 percent of all Americans.

And if we don’t address these inequities—the underlying drivers of so many problems—then we can’t adequately address, for example, policing practices and police killings around the United States, along with establishing a basic quality of life for all Americans.

As we’ll see, our three Times columns approach this conclusion to differing degrees.

  • First came John McWhorter’s July 13 “What Clinton Should Have Said About Race.” The link on the front page declared: “It’s not enough to call for a conversation. To heal, the country needs strong policy ideas.”

    That approach worries me because our leaders have been calling for precisely such a discussion for the past 50 years, unsuccessfully—and I am unaware of any new argumentational techniques that would change that. We need only recall Bill Clinton’s national “dialogue” on race. Did it change anything? …

    What, even, would the form of this conversation be? Editorials? Panels? Reports? “Hamilton”? Even the last, which Mrs. Clinton encouraged her audience to listen to, won’t prevent more Alton Sterlings, or get an ex-con back into mainstream life. …

    What if, instead of calling for a conversation, Mrs. Clinton had called for revitalized support for vocational schooling to help get poor black people into solid jobs that don’t require a college degree? Or an end to the war on drugs, which furnishes a black market that tempts underserved black men away from legal work. Or ensuring cheap, universal access to long-acting reversible contraceptives, to help poor women (who praise these devices) control when they start families. Or phonics-based reading programs, which are proved to be the key to teaching poor kids how to read.

    All desirable, and they should be tried. But are even these repairs possible—and adequate—without deeper structural change? I hate to sound like some old Bolshevik, but these improvements themselves address merely symptoms of our underlying problems, rather than their roots.

    In the meantime, our leaders aren’t even prepared to take the relatively small steps McWhorter (who, by the way, is a professor of literature at Columbia) recommends. We are busy cutting back those very programs, primarily under pressure from popular Republicans like Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, but mainly because the American public generally has no appetite for spending money on them.

    The following day, we had Nicholas Kristof’s column, “A History of White Delusion.”

    This complacency among us white Americans has been a historical constant. Even in the last decade, almost two-thirds of white Americans have said that blacks are treated fairly by the police, and four out of five whites have said that black children have the same chance as white kids of getting a good education. In short, the history of white Americans’ attitudes toward race has always been one of self-deception. …

    “If America is to be America, we have to engage in a larger conversation than just the criminal justice system,” notes Darren Walker, the president of the Ford Foundation. “If you were to examine most of the institutions that underpin our democracy—higher education, K-12 education, the housing system, the transportation system, the criminal justice system—you will find systemic racism embedded in those systems.”

    But what, exactly, is going to cause us to reverse direction and to devote funding to these fundamental institutions, as well as to change our underlying perceptions of and commitment to the larger community?

    Meanwhile, consider the impact of economic inequalities on health disparities. African Americans’ average life expectancies are several years below those of their white counterparts, while those years are more often hindered by diseases from diabetes to breast cancer. (Addiction, of course, discriminates economically, too.)

    Consider breast cancer, for which this wasn’t always true, but now is:

    From 2008 to 2012, breast cancer incidence rates increased 0.4% per year in black women and 1.5% per year among Asian/Pacific Islanders while they remained stable among whites, Hispanics, and American Indian/Alaska Natives. By 2012, the rate at which black women were diagnosed with breast cancer caught up to the rate at which white women were diagnosed. However, differences exist among states. Incidence rates were higher in blacks than whites in Alabama, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Tennessee.

    That these figures are not simply linked to race, but also to education (and thus also to income) and region is further made clear by this following startling comparison in life expectancy: “CDC researchers found that white men with 16 or more years of schooling can expect to live an average of 14 years longer than black men with fewer than 12 years of education. For white and black women with the same educational differences, that gap was 10 years.”

    And before we return to the pages of the Times, let’s refer to this week’s Politico interview with Sylvia Mathews Burwell, Secretary of Health and Human Services and chief administrator of Obamacare.

    It’s about how she is trying desperately to make sure that the Republicans, should they win the presidency in addition to controlling both houses of Congress, don’t move immediately to repeal Obamacare (aka the Affordable Care Act, or ACA), which has gained health insurance for 20 million more people (disproportionately poor, and disproportionately black).

    Interviewer: Donald Trump has promised to undo all of this if he’s elected. How much of your time remaining here is going to be about shoring up the ACA against repeal efforts?

    Burwell: The most important thing to do is to continue on the path of what I call “putting points on the board,” adding to the substantive success. Why I believe that repeal is not an option is because this is in the fabric.

    The idea that you are going to pull out the thread of insurers not being able to deny over pre-existing conditions? Don’t think so. The idea that you are going to pull out the thread of 20 million people who have coverage? The idea that you are going to pull out that thread of, “Oh, you’re going to go back to paying for your contraception, and you’re going to go back to paying for your flu shot, and I’m going to pay for my kids’ wellness visits?” No.

    The thing that I can do—and it’s most important whether there’s a Democrat or a Republican—is to just keep building on the changes in access, affordability and quality. That’s the most important thing I do. Because in the end, it isn’t about the name of this thing. It’s actually about the substance of what people care about.

    In the first place, most Republican-controlled states refused to expand health coverage to poor people, often black, through Medicaid. As Burwell’s interviewer noted: “You’ve made it a big priority to encourage more states to expand Medicaid under the ACA [which very much emphasizes prevention policies]. But so far, 19 states have resisted, most because of political pressure against embracing the health law.”

    These states include the poorest ones in America, with large impoverished black populations, such as Louisiana and Mississippi (check out those alarming breast cancer rate rises again).

    Finally, let’s return to the Times, where columnist Charles Blow is the most direct of all in allocating the blame for our current situation, from inequity to violence, in his biting July 14 piece titled, “Blood on Your Hands, Too.”

    Blow commends the discussion examining police bias leading to episodes of violence. But unlike even his Timescolleagues, he then seeks the underlying societal cause for this.

    No, this issue is about everyone. We have areas of concentrated poverty in our cities in part because of a long legacy of discriminatory urban policies. We don’t sufficiently address the effects of that legacy, in part because it is rooted in a myth of racial pathology and endemic poor choice. …

    It’s not the blue-collar civil servants in law enforcement or the working-class and poor communities, which are aggressively patrolled. No. The “we” is the middle and moneyed classes.

    While the blue, black and brown groups on the lower end of the spectrum are forced into more interaction—on one hand to contain disruption within communities, and on the other to finance police departments and civic governance—everyone else goes about their business unaware and unbothered until something causes “political blowback or inconvenience” and disturbs the more prosperous half’s “peace of mind.”


    As I have previously described, we ignore the social pathologies of disadvantaged white Americans and African Americans because, well, they’re ignorable in our wealthier enclaves, where the richer 10-25 percent of liberals and conservatives alike live.

    And what will make all of this change? Not our same old tired discussions. We need to recognize, and be motivated to change, the basic social, economic, and health divisions that increasingly mar America. (The United States has beensurging ahead in inequality since the 1970s.)

    Of course, changing our social and political dynamics is a very, very tall order. But at the very least, when we discuss inequalities, let’s loudly identify root issues, rather than focusing primarily on symptoms and related tired bromides. (“Why can’t we all just get along?”)

    Although the United Nations obviously has its own credibility problems in this area, its staff has recently formulated sustainable policies to “reduce inequality within and among countries.” These policies are worth considering as a place to start.

    Instead, just as we do with addiction theory and policy, we seem for now inclined to let people die in favor of maintaining comfortable assumptions.

    About the Author

    Stanton Peele is a columnist for The Influence. His latest book, with Ilse Thompson, is Recover!: An Empowering Program to Help You Stop Thinking Like an Addict and Reclaim Your Life.  He has been at the cutting-edge of addiction theory and practice since writing, with Archie Brodsky, Love and Addiction in 1975. He has since written numerous other books and developed the online Life Process Program. His website is Peele.net. Dr. Peele has won career achievement awards from the Rutgers Center of Alcohol Studies and the Drug Policy Alliance. He is currently working on an e-book: How to Use Drugs. You can follow him on Twitter: @speele5.

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    **This article (If We Talk About Race Without Taking On Poverty, How Much Can Really Change?) is re-printed here with permission from The Influence, a site covering the full spectrum of human relationships with drugs. Follow them on Facebook and on Twitter.**

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