September 2017

Dyeing Poverty: Thoughts on Poverty and Race

From the Jim Crow era to the present day, discrimination has obstructed equal access in attaining greater wealth and upward mobility for marginalized people.

by Christy Hyman

“Poverty is a form of isolation and exposure rendering marginalized communities’ invisible as well as hypervvisible.”[1]  The hypervisibility makes African Americans seem the poster children of failure—the bloodsuckers of society. As Lauren Angel noted earlier in this issue, “poverty in the United States has been historically coded as black.” Likewise, blackness is conflated with poverty. African American poverty is also invisible, however, in that its causes and effects are hidden by race.

This tension between hypervisibility and invisibility leaves many African Americans occupying a space of social death—the condition of people not accepted as fully human by wider society. African American personhood is too often framed as the result of personal choice and not systemic structures of oppression is cause for concern. It is by addressing the public representations of historical, racialized conceptions of poverty that we can hope to fully understand black poverty.

Poverty and Blackness

Poverty is a condition of continuing and largely unrelieved lack of necessities needed for survival. In the United States, the vestiges of ideals rooted in “rugged individualism” portray those impoverished as deserving of their condition and those suffering from poverty do so as a result of “moral impairment” or misguided priorities in managing personal responsibility.

In 2012, Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum singled out African Americans as being the recipients of federal benefit programs. He announced that he did not want to “make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody’s else’s money.” he channeled a pervasive idea that poverty in America was an African American problem, implicitly perpetuating that the impoverished condition was endemic to black life. Given that Santorum was reportedly speaking to a mostly white audience, he may have felt that such sentiments would be readily received as common knowledge.[2]

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The Black Panthers critiqued the widespread and racialized nature of poverty in American culture, as this Emory Douglas cartoon suggests. Via Pintrest.

The problem of framing poverty as a race psychology specific to African Americans, outside of the fact it is false, is that it becomes an excuse for inaction. It speaks to an implicit strategy that conservative policymakers use to nullify the importance of combating poverty as a salient issue. It resituates a public problem as a personal one.

So what is Santorum hiding? What does poverty really look like?

Dwellings cramped and congested, scorching heat in summer, cold and chilly in winter. The ventilation and insulation does not seem to do its job. Down the street there may be a local store or gas station from which to buy sundry items. However the grocery store is located a considerable distance away.

Poverty stretches beyond the individual. It is expressed spatially through dilapidated infrastructure, the distance to necessities like food, and the scarcity of reliable work. It is a collective sore—an open wound.

Impoverished locales are often part of food deserts, areas where access to affordable and nutritious food is limited. Other amenities like parks and even sidewalks are often absent. In urban locales transit access is also limited, in rural locales there may be no automobile in the family. What this means is that transport to local social services that provide aid are difficult to get to thereby prolonging the suffering that stems from poverty.

In short, poverty stretches beyond the individual. It is expressed spatially through dilapidated infrastructure, the distance to necessities like food, and the scarcity of reliable work. It is a collective sore—an open wound.

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A mobile home with laundry drying on the fence. Though we tend to think of poverty in the abstract as an absence of wealth, it’s expressed most profoundly in space—cramped quarters distant from stores, jobs, and other necessities. Courtesy Daily Mail.

To get at how poverty became synonymous with African Americans, we must look to the institution of slavery. The ideological pillars that upheld the system of slavery rested on the myth that African-descended people were inherently lazy and intellectually inferior. Proslavery rhetorician George Fitzhugh was quite descriptive in his assessment of African Americans:

He the Negro is but a grown up child, and must be governed as a child, not as a lunatic or criminal. The master occupies toward him the place of parent or guardian. We shall not dwell on this view, for no one will differ with us who thinks as we do of the negro’s capacity, and we might argue till dooms-day in vain, with those who have a high opinion of the negro’s moral and intellectual capacity.[3]

Fitzhugh’s description written in 1849 embodies the paternalism of the period and helps us understand the fundamental reasoning on how slavery was accepted ideologically during the antebellum era.

Slavery stripped personhood from African Americans. It lied, framing slaveholders as benevolent despots.

Slavery stripped personhood from African Americans. It lied, framing slaveholders as benevolent despots. It created a powerful fable in which African Americans were devoid of many of the capacities that comprise human beings. In short, it intentionally confused the effects of enslavement with its cause.

As Orlando Patterson has observed in his brilliant work Slavery and Social Death, the “state of social death was the basic precondition of slavery with violence, violation of personhood, dishonor and namelessness all constituent elements of slavery.”[4] This process resulted in a total dehumanization of the African American. The conceptions of blackness then were rooted in the belief that African Americans were subjects who needed to be dominated, while being violated with impunity, and ultimately erased.

Discrimination and Poverty

Poverty results from the effects of discrimination. Discrimination is the unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people or things, especially on the grounds of race, age, or gender designation. From the Jim Crow era to the present day, discrimination has obstructed equal access in attaining greater wealth and upward mobility for marginalized people. Douglas Blackmon in his work Slavery By Another Name “charts the origins and persistence of a system that re-enslaved able-bodied southern African Americans on the basis of all manner of trumped-up charges which ended up making a mockery of the promise of freedom.”[5]

Oppressive systems denied African Americans access to earning power relegating them further into the margins while increasing a state of dependency.

Such oppressive systems denied African Americans access to earning power relegating them further into the margins while increasing a state of dependency. Influential African Americans such as Booker T. Washington, W.E. B Du Bois, Charlotte Hawkins Brown, Mary McLeod-Bethune and many others would work tirelessly to establish schools, educate, and create opportunities for uplift to counter the oppressive conditions inherent in Jim Crow America.

As for conditions in the present day, de jure discrimination is supposed to be a thing of the past. A Reveal News program provided by the Center for Investigative Reporting, however, found that de facto hiring discrimination remains relatively widespread. Reveal exposed racial profiling within the temp agency industry:

When temp agencies fill orders for a worker of a certain race or gender, that’s illegal. So some use code words like “vanilla cupcake,” “country boys” or “blue eyes” to hide the discrimination. (Hint: Those are all codes for white workers.)[6]

For many Americans, temporary agency employment is the only ticket to finding work. Manufacturing companies increasingly utilize this service to hire employees to avoid giving workers full-time status and benefits. As workers strive to find work quickly a temporary job can provide a relatively simple process (depending on the company) that allows workers the ability to begin employment in a short amount of time. For companies to discriminate in an industry that seems to have the one of the greatest potential for job attainment is extremely troubling.

A Startling Number

The official poverty rate was 13.5 percent, based on the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2015 estimates. In that year, an estimated 43.1 million Americans lived in poverty according to the official measure. That number, 43.1 million, should be a figure compelling enough to galvanize a concerted effort by lawmakers to eliminate poverty in the United States. The harsh truth of the matter as has been laid out here is that because poverty has been racialized as a “black problem.” The grave outcomes of poverty continue to ravage the lives of a great number of people of all ethnicities and creeds in the United States.

Fitzhugh lied. Santorum lied. If we hope to meaningfully address poverty and lower that 43.1 million, we can no longer accept their racist fantasies. We must move beyond these lies and give more to communities marked by suffering and want than a wag of the finger.

Hyman_HeadshotChristy Hyman is a PhD student in History at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln. Her work wrestles with the societal and ideological tensions in defining freedom within the United States south during the nineteenth century. Specifically, she highlights African American efforts toward cultural and political assertion in the Great Dismal Swamp region. Her focus also includes environmental impacts resulting from the extractive industries that originated in the Great Dismal Swamp alongside the exploitation of enslaved labor. Building on the work of archaeologists, historians, and novelists, her work maps (or rather counter maps) the experiences of enslaved runaways and laborers who were exposed to the Great Dismal Swamp and the longue durée of the attendant political, social and environmental costs of human/landscape resource exploitation.

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[1] Jill Stauffer Ethical Loneliness: The Injustice of Not Being Heard. NEW YORK: Columbia University Press, 2015.

[2] Marie Diamond. Santorum’s Racist Welfare Rant: ‘I Don’t Want To Make Black People’s Lives Better’ With Taxpayer Money Think Progress, January 2012,

[3] George Fitzhugh, “The Universal Law of Slavery” George Fitzhugh Advocates Slavery, 1849,

[4] Vincent Brown. Slavery and Social Death The American Historical Review, Vol. 114, No. 5, December 2009,

[5] Fitzhugh Brundage, “How the South Reinstated Slavery after Emancipation.” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, no. 60 2008,

[6] Julie B. Chan and Will Evans, “How far one temp agency went to please its customers,” Reveal Decoding discrimination in America’s temp industry, January 2016,

1 comment on “Dyeing Poverty: Thoughts on Poverty and Race

  1. Pingback: Understanding the Scourge of Severe Poverty – The Activist History Review

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