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Poor whites and Jim Webb’s proposal to redirect affirmative action policies

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In late July, Senator James Webb published a bold call to end affirmative action that seemed certain to generate attention and controversy. But his op-ed, “Diversity and the Myth of White Privilege,” was lost in the day’s dramatic events as the Shirley Sherrod story unfolded. Several commentators have since lamented this apparent missed opportunity to talk about how we might restructure what Webb labeled “diversity programs,” ruing the sensational distraction generated by Sherrod’s forced resignation over a deceptively edited video clip that seemed to depict her practicing reverse racism. But, ironically, the two stories have much in common, and their shared feature gives us an interesting angle on Webb’s ideas.

Poor whites lurk at the core of Webb’s proposal and are at heart of Sherrod’s drama. Webb holds up the plight of marginal whites as victims of affirmative action, whites much like Roger and Eloise Spooner, whose looming farm foreclosure 24 years ago provoked a profound realization for Sherrod that “it’s about the poor versus those who have,” rather than a struggle between “black and white.” Sherrod’s reflections on the Spooners’ predicament were cynically edited to sound as though she was depriving disadvantaged whites of her power to help them, directing them, instead to “their own kind” for help. But she shifted in her thinking about race when she realized how badly the Spooners were mistreated by the white lawyer to whom she referred them. Even after taking their money, the lawyer refused to file a motion on their behalf to prevent a foreclosure, telling the Spooners, “y’all are getting old. Why don’t you just let the farm go.” This dismissive disregard both shocked and angered Sherrod, who characterized the Spooners mistreatment as something “that I have not seen yet to any other farmer, black or white.”

The class contempt evident in the Spooners treatment is a fact of life in the United States, where the poor fair badly against “those who have.” Along with the material disadvantages that poverty presents in a country where we like to imagine any child can grow up to be president, the poor must also deal with a visceral loathing against them that parallels racism in its intensity. Can we imagine a type of Federal policy that would mitigate such sentiments in a way that would bring marginal whites more broadly into the public sphere in American life? I think it would be difficult, but I suspect that this is not actually the primary purpose of Webb’s proposal.

More than a concern with affirmative action, Webb is targeting how we talk about whiteness, particularly how it is associated with privilege in this country—an association that Webb thinks is a “myth.” Webb challenges the notion of “White Anglo-Saxon dominance,” arguing, via an unfortunate metaphor, that is has “served as the whipping post for almost every debate about power and status in America.” Webb asserts that white dominance and privilege have ended and now we need to recognize the ways affirmative action led to discrimination against whites. We need only look historically at the plight of white sharecroppers in the South to see their disadvantage in relation to the privileges of wealth and educations associated with WASPs.

But the notion that whiteness is no longer a privileged status in this country is laughable. The wealth gap between white and black families quadrupled over the last twenty-five years and now stands at $95,000, according to sociologist Thomas Shapiro, at Brandeis University. This constitutes a huge advantage for those who are born into white families. And whatever impacts the current recession is having on how wealth works in this country, they are disproportionately affecting African Americans, particularly in the precarious black middle class. This is hardly happenstance, as Harvard sociologist Orland Patterson argues, because these impacts are a reflection of hypersegregation in metropolitan areas that steers economic and social capital away from predominantly black neighborhoods. But such obvious evidence of continued white privilege in this country should not lead us away from considering the issue raised by Webb of the diversity of whiteness.

Webb is right: policy makers have long ignored “disparities within America’s white cultures.” But if we are talking about marginality and disadvantage within whiteness we have to do more than point to white diversity. We have to ask specifically which whites are we talking about and whether this is really about making policy changes in a way that would truly help the most deprived? Or is it, rather, a way of using marginal whites in a strictly symbolic role to divert attention away from continuing forms of white privilege? This question takes on added significance when we think about the host of commemorations underway this year to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, a book that did much to amplify the idea that poor whites, like the Ewells, are the ones really responsible for racism. As I wrote in Odd Tribes, this image of poor whites “allows an insidious belief to stand: that it is only those people who are racist, only those women who are so licentious that they would engage in miscegenation, only those men are so cruel and desperately violent in maintaining the color line.” Given this fraught history of symbolic uses of poor whites to manipulate and maintain color lines in this country, I think this new found concern for them now warrants closer scrutiny.

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Written by jhartiganj

August 4, 2010 at 1:39 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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