The Blackening of the Public

The face of the poor used to be this one.

The worried woman looking to a bleak future while her children cling to her and look away. It is indeed a powerful image. So powerful in fact it may have had more to do with the public acceptance and promotion of the New Deal than the President himself.

So long as this was the face of poverty, the majority of people (and not just white people) felt sympathy for the poor, felt empathy for the poor. Some people even felt that the state of poverty itself needed to be eliminated. With this now the face of poverty, a decades long campaign providing publicly financed programs and services to relieve Americans of the burden of want was waged.

Then a curious thing happened.

Black people showed up.

Now, black people had been there all along. But not until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s, 60s and 70s did the majority of Americans actually see black people as something other than stereotypes of popular culture.

At first, black folks were seen as these nice, well dressed, non-violent, colored folk being arrested and beaten by bad southern white racist police. The good people in the majority thought this was a bad thing, a contained thing found in the South and no place else, and something that should be condemned. So they did. The bad people in the majority thought that black folks where making trouble and should stop doing that and either accept their lot, or wait for white folk to see black folk as worthy of better treatment and laws. Most of the majority simply said, that was a shame and what’s for dinner.

As the Movement went on, the pictures began to change. There were still well-dressed, non-violent, colored folk being arrested and beaten and killed, but now there were also people not so well-dressed, not so non-violent, and they were fighting back against arrest, they were talking back to power, and they had matches.

Pictures of school teachers and baptist preachers, were now sharing space on the evening news with pictures of burning buildings and raging children.

And NOT in the South.

Evidently there were these places not in the South called ghettos and slums. In these places were black people, not colored people, and these black people were poor and put upon and pissed off and not going to take it any more. These black people were not states away but streets away. These black people were scary.

The majority didn’t know how to feel about these black people and while they were being scared and confused and wondering why all these black people not in the south were so upset, a group of their kin saw an opportunity.

There have always been in this country particular people who professed to believe that anyone, hell everyone, who worked hard and followed the rules could live a life free of poverty. THEREFORE if you were living in poverty, you must not be working hard enough and/or you must not be following the rules. THUS, you deserved your lot in life. Poverty was a choice. These particular people held the high moral ground and saw themselves virtuous, moral, and pure. They were not just rich, but deserving of riches. It was a good life.

These people had had a pretty good run for a long time in America, until that picture surfaced in the 1930s. After that picture showed up, after all the empathy for poor people emerged in the general public, these people found themselves being taxed, their business practices regulated, and their morality and worthiness being questioned not just by anarchists, communists and trade unionists, but middle America, the people who had been admirers of the rich. This was not good.

The time was 1965. At the Department of Labor there was an Assistant Secretary of Labor named Daniel Patrick Moynihan and he published a report called The Negro Family: The Case For National Action.

The report started a firestorm. The paper makes a case that there are problems in the negro family, those problems spawn poverty, ignorance and failure; and removing those problems will remove poverty, ignorance and failure from the lives of black people. Here’s the thing. The paper said that the problems were somewhat systemic but mostly the problems were of character and choice. If black people improved their character and made better choices, poverty in the black community could be severely curtailed if not eliminated.

When that particular group within the majority read that report, the clouds parted, the sun shone, and the heavenly host sang Hallelujah! Politicians, pundits, professors; patricians and plebeians in all walks of life who shared the beliefs of the privileged few, took this report as a clarion call to action. Poverty was the fault of the poor and the poor were BLACK!

Not only did this do away with that pesky empathetic picture of poverty from the 1930s, but it replaced it with a picture of scary black people who were then currently rioting in the streets. Even better, if poor people were black, and their poverty was their own fault, then they didn’t deserve our largess, our public programs to relieve poverty. Those programs were helping people who didn’t deserve it and were a waste of money. And with that conclusion, public relief and poverty and black people and waste were all married in the American mind.

All things public became code for black and poor and wasteful and not my problem. Public disbursements of money were for black poor people who made bad choices and not my problem. Public housing was a waste of resources and not my problem, and most recently, public education is a failure and in need of “reform.” With charter schools as an alternative, public schools can become not my problem.

So we have ended welfare as we know it, we are in the last stages of gentrifying public housing all the way out of our cities and now we are ramping up reformation of public education.

And once we get that done, “we” won’t have any problems anymore.


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