Can’t ignore race when discussing poverty in America

Ta-Nehisi Coates cites several sociologists in making the argument that white and black poverty is different in the United States:

In its pervasiveness, concentration, and reach across class lines, black poverty proves itself to be “fundamentally distinct” from white poverty. It would be much more convenient for everyone on the left if this were not true—that is to say if neighborhood poverty, if systemic poverty, menaced all communities equally. In such a world, one would only need to craft universalist solutions for universal problems…This chart by sociologist Patrick Sharkey quantifies the degree to which neighborhood poverty afflicts black and white families. Sociologists like Sharkey typically define a neighborhood with a poverty rate greater than 20 percent as “high poverty.” The majority of black people in this country (56 percent) live in high-poverty neighborhoods. The vast majority of whites (94 percent) do not. The effects of this should concern anyone who believes in a universalist solution to a particular affliction…

But the “fundamental differences” between black communities and white communities do not end with poverty or social mobility.

In the chart above, Sampson plotted the the incarceration rate in Chicago from the onset imprisonment boom to its height. As Sampson notes, the incarceration rate in the most afflicted black neighborhood is 40 times worse than the incarceration rate in the most afflicted white neighborhood. But more tellingly for our purposes, incarceration rates for white neighborhoods bunch at the lower end, while incarceration rates for black neighborhoods bunch at the higher end. There is no gradation, nor overlap between the two. It is almost as if, from the perspective of mass incarceration, black and white people—regardless of neighborhood—inhabit two “fundamentally distinct”worlds.

Coates might also cite Massey and Denton’s classic American Apartheid that convincingly shows residential segregation between whites and blacks is of a different magnitude than residential segregation between other groups. Additionally, there is evidence that whites and blacks with equal characteristics are not treated equally (see a number of audit studies involving mortgages, renting, car loans, and jobs) and even that blacks who are wealthier than whites do not have access to the same opportunities. Ultimately, Coates uses these sociological findings to argue policies intended to float all lower-class boats won’t really work because they ignore the fundamental differences between black and white poverty.

Put another way, given America’s history perhaps we should require scholars and policy makers to show that race doesn’t matter in the issue they are addressing rather than the other way around.

One thought on “Can’t ignore race when discussing poverty in America

  1. I am a middle aged white woman in the midwest. Our entire town is lower class and full of meth. burglary, domestic abuse, unkempt yards, hoarding, depression, and fast food. As much as you would like to pretend no white could possibly live in poverty and our problems are insignificant, we matter just as much. We have no public transportation, no trains to other cities, no consistency in education or application of federal guidelines, not much social programs to speak of, and way too much social promotion in school. We have very few black people here, but the ones that are here aren’t any more criminal that the whites. Your blog seems, like so many others, to imply that no matter how bad poverty is for us, who gives a —- because we’re white.


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