There Are No Poor White People

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Yglesias highlighted this the other day, and I ignored it because I thought it was a slip of the tongue. But here's Lindsey Graham, again, equating poor people with black people, or some such. A charitable interpretation says that Graham, in his discussion of Medicaid, is citing his state's black population because we tend to be disproportionately poor. But this would be like discussing Medicare by citing your state's sweater-knitting population because they tend to be disproportionately old. 

It's probably much worse--most sweater-knitters may well be on Medicare, but most black people aren't actually poor or on Medicaid. And so what your left with, again charitably, is a kind of mental laziness, and weak, mealy-mouthed, factually wrong conflation of black people and the poor. A lot of bourgeois Negroes, like myself, spend too much time being offended by this kind of conflation. In fact the people who should be offended are the white people Lindsey Graham represents.

The charitable interpretation rests on the invisibility of white suffering. It rests on the erasure of Clay County. It rests on the notion that the white poor are not merely the white poor, but white trash. It's a formula makes an anchor of black America, straps it to a larger population of poor white Americans and then drops them in the Mississippi. It's a con that asks large swaths of white folks to suffer poverty in shame and silence.

No black person can end this alone, nor should we have to. The NAACP shouldn't say a word to Lindsey Graham. We can not purify people. We can't stop those who are set on blinding themselves. Ignorance is the burden of the ignorant. You learn this when you live black--or you learn the penal system. It's time to spread the glorious news.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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