The Miami Herald

Poor whites are being conned

I keep thinking I should be mad at West Virginia.

Not because Barack Obama was recently beaten like a red-headed stepchild -- to use my father's expression -- in that state's primary. No, I'm thinking I should be upset about why he was beaten. According to exit polls, two out of every 10 voters said race was a major factor in how they cast their ballots.

Jon Stewart of The Daily Show ran a clip of a white woman who explained her refusal to vote for Obama thusly: "I guess because he is another race. I'm sort of scared of the other race 'cause we have so much conflict with 'em." She spoke in the vaguely shamefaced, what're-you-gonna-do? voice of someone who knows she should stick to her diet or stop smoking, but just can't help herself.

You'd think this would have me in a state of high dudgeon, fingers blazing the keyboard in righteous rebuke of attitudes so atavistic and wrong. But I can't. Oh, it's disappointing to see bigotry in Appalachia so vividly displayed. Yet I find it doesn't make me angry.

It just makes me sad.

I feel sorry for them. If that sounds patronizing, I apologize. That's not how it's meant.

It's just that, if the headline here is that Obama was rejected by whites on the basis of race, I submit that's not the whole truth. Pollsters say he was actually rejected on the basis of race by whites who lack college degrees and whose household income is less than $50,000 a year. In other words, he was rejected by the poor and the less educated.

Which is a description that fits many in Appalachia -- and also a vast swath of African America. So for me, the story here isn't simply the old, familiar tale of the nation's stark racial divide, but also another tale, just as old, less often remarked, of how the white poor and the black poor have long been kept at one another's throats as a means of keeping them from looking too closely or clearly at the ways both are manipulated by the forces of money and power.

And here, let me tell you what I am not saying. I'm not saying all bigots are poor or all the poor are bigots. I'm not saying everyone in Appalachia is poor, or less educated, or atavistic about race.

But I am saying this: The white poor have been victims of a con job going back at least as far as the Civil War, when poor white men were used as cannon fodder for the right of rich white men -- I repeat: rich white men -- to keep slaves. They were told they fought for state's rights. There are those in positions of political power who can and should be held to answer for the meanness and narrowness of poor people's lives.

From then till now, the white poor have often been the front line of white supremacy. You think people with college degrees and six-figure salaries are out there marching around under pointy white hoods, burning crosses? Hardly.

My point is that race has often been used as a means of distracting and diverting the white poor. They had little in life, nor any realistic expectation of having more.

But the one thing they did have -- or so the con went -- was whiteness itself. Which meant they had someone to be better than. Someone to look down upon.

This, even though they did menial work under menial conditions, earned menial pay, sent their kids to menial schools, were subject to menial indignities, made do with menial health care and lived menial lives hemmed in by want, ignorance and hunger.

Exactly like those they had been taught they were better than. Exactly like those they had been taught to look down upon.

There are those in positions of political power who can and should be held to answer for the meanness and narrowness of poor people's lives. But they can't and won't so long as those who should be standing together to demand those answers are kept busy fighting one another over superficialities of color and culture.

Those are differences that too often obscure commonalities -- of need, of hope and of cause. Over the years, many of us have figured that out.

In West Virginia, at least, two in 10 of us have not.




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