Color and Poverty

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It's pretty depressing, but I don't think I'll be getting to Nell Irvin Painter's book--A History Of White People--for another four or five years. One of the problems with writing a book of your own is that it forces you to maniacally focus on whatever questions you're trying to answer.  At any rate, here's an interesting, if haunting, clip of Painter discussing the future of the black/white in America. She basically says that black and brown people will always comprise a disproportionate number of the poor in this country. 

One of the interesting comparisons she makes is between Western countries founded during the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and those founded before. She notes that in the older countries there is bigotry--but it's a broad "us" against "them" bigotry that can be directed at anyone from Moroccans to Armenians to Turks to Jews to the Senegalese. In other words groups that could pass for white in America are "otherized" in Europe. 

America has shades of that same ethnic bias, and we're seeing some of it this summer, but the animus towards blacks is really at this country's roots. It was that animus which was enshrined in the constitution, and central to the earliest conceptions of American democracy. Watching my own son interact with the world, in a way that I did not, I've often felt that there really could be--at some distant point--a postracial moment, minus the requisite irony.

Painter argues that what's actually happening--and what will continue to happen--is that  a significant number of blacks are entering into the middle class and the elite. That's a success and should not be obscured. But you'll also see a significant, disproportionate number of blacks left behind. Moreover, whereas in the past, segregation forced us into one community, increasingly that won't be the case. For me, personally, the possibility of two black Americas is the nightmare scenario which disturbs my faith in the entire experiment. It's humbling to grow up with people who do better than you at school, and then watch them fall back for the most random reasons.

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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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