The Struggle Against Poverty Needs to Be a Collective Fight

The focus should be on transforming the oligarchy, not on lifting up any one segment of society.

A worker stacks canned food inside a food distribution center
A worker stacks canned food inside a food distribution center.

Juneteenth—the annual celebration of when enslaved people in Texas learned of their freedom—brought two hearings this year on Capitol Hill. The first was widely covered. The House Judiciary Committee looked at H.R. 40, a proposal to create a commission to study reparations for slavery and subsequent discrimination. Witnesses debated the utility and justice of pursuing financial reparations to right some of the wrongs that, past and present, have kept black people economically disadvantaged in the United States.

At the same time, the House Budget Committee held a hearing on poverty in America, which drew a fraction of the media coverage. In that hearing, the economic disadvantages facing African Americans were only part of the story—because less than one-quarter of Americans living in poverty are black.

Slavery, and the systemic racism that has disadvantaged blacks in its aftermath, cannot be forgiven or forgotten. But reparations are not the answer. We cannot fix these injustices by emulating the my-race-first policies that birthed it. While the suffering of blacks hits close to home for me, it also pains me to see someone of another race or ethnicity degraded by the way our country forces poor people to live.

When blacks demand that our poverty be alleviated, it’s simply a matter of one race prioritizing its path to living well, when we should be fighting for everyone to live well. Prioritizing the economic needs of those who share my ethnicity, while so many others are suffering along with us, is morally wrong. The struggle against poverty needs to be a collective fight.

“We are tired of the racialization of poverty, the partisanism of poverty,” William Barber II, a Protestant minister who is a co-leader of the Poor People’s Campaign, told the members of the Budget Committee. More whites live in poverty than people of any other ethnic or racial group; a higher percentage of Native Americans live in poverty than members of any other ethnicity. Poverty isn’t a black problem, but an American problem, Barber told the committee, just as he had told the nine Democratic presidential candidates who spoke to the Moral Action Congress convened by the Poor People’s Campaign in Washington, D.C., earlier that week.

The Poor People’s Campaign holds that it is a moral failure in a nation this rich, one that can afford to offer everyone a decent standard of living, that poor people cannot access adequate health care, food, water, or homes.

If I agreed with some scholars and pundits that this nation’s prevailing system is white supremacy, I’d say that African Americans have learned its lessons well enough to mimic its logic. But the prevailing system in the United States isn’t white supremacy, but rather, economic oligarchy. And too much of the discussion of racism adopts the language of oligarchy, offering economic ascension as an antidote.

While racial inequality is sometimes quantified in other ways—by the composition of the prison population, levels of education, or health—it is most often quantified by dollars, and how many one has. In 2018, the Equality of Opportunity Project released the results of a multiyear study of economic mobility. Most of its findings were about economic opportunity. People homed in on its statistics about black boys, who had much less of a chance of rising to a different economic tier than the one into which they were born, or of staying rich, than white boys. Less was said about Native Americans, who, the study’s statistics showed, were about as poor as blacks, or about Asian Americans, who had a better chance to rise economically than whites.

Reparations are often presented in terms that are meaningful within an oligarchic system: A long history of racist practices has created economic inequality between blacks and whites. Of this, there is no doubt. But this is not the racial wealth gap; it is merely a racial wealth gap. One goal of reparations is to close this gap. But that adopts the logic of oligarchy, instead of challenging it. More black people reaching higher wealth tiers, and then living in the cocoon those tiers provide? That’s not something I am willing to fight for.

During the hearing on poverty, numerous committee members recounted their humble origins. Representative Bill Johnson of Ohio told of going to 13 different schools in 12 years while his mother worked three jobs—picking cotton and tobacco, and doing anything she could. Jason Smith of Missouri talked about his grandparents’ home, a farm on which he worked that never acquired indoor plumbing. It was hard not to hear in these rags-to-Congress narratives an implicit critique—that, with hard work, any poor person could rise as they had done. But if escaping poverty’s degradations is linked to desire and ability, what does it mean for those who don’t possess the capacity to acquire the skills to obtain well-paid work? How should they have to live?

Barber and Liz Theoharis, the other co-leader of the Poor People’s Campaign, presented a “moral budget” to the committee. It aimed to show that the alleviation of poverty and its degradations is not only a moral demand, but that these goals make good economic sense.

Theoharis and Barber resurrected Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign in 2018, on the 50th anniversary of the march of the multiracial movement that King was gathering to lead to Washington. He was assassinated first, and Ralph Abernathy stepped in to take his place. Without King, the Poor People’s Campaign never really took off, and eventually faded away.

Barber and Theoharis relaunched it because the situation King sought to address persists: Poor people are still systematically degraded. With the Poor People’s Campaign, King aimed less at white supremacy than at the oligarchy. The principle behind the movement remains the same as it was in 1968. People of all races who oppose this system of inequality and suffering, and the demonization of the poor, must act as a single force.

Theoharis and Barber often remind their listeners that King was moving toward a more expansive multiracial movement when he died. King was focused on the oligarchic class—or “Bourbon class,” as he called it—and its promotion of a strategic form of divide and conquer, pitting poor blacks against poor whites. Howard University’s E. Franklin Frazier had written about this strategy in his popular book, Black Bourgeoisie, a decade earlier, in 1957. Other scholars before and since have pointed to the post-slavery origins of voter suppression in service of what the wealthy, white, land-owning class publicly called white supremacy. But they had a dual aim, ensuring that poor whites were not part of the supreme.

This is not to argue for an equivalence of historical suffering between whites and blacks, but to emphasize that white supremacy in the U.S. is a strategy, not a system. The system is an economic oligarchy, and racism is an extremely effective tactic for perpetuating it. And the debate over reparations confuses the system with just one of the tactics that sustains it.

Would we be speaking of reparations if people of all incomes could live decent, healthy lives, and if we moved away from quantifying success primarily by income? Reparations would address the financial ramifications of the racism that stymies blacks from “winning,” and knocks those blacks who have won back down. But they would not right the wrong of a supremacist society that is designed to create a class of winners and a mass of losers, and to do so, in part, by isolating aspirants from those they leave behind.

I switched away from the H.R. 40 hearings to focus on the debate over the more encompassing wrong. The focus should be on transforming the oligarchy, not on lifting up any one segment of society.

Reparations are a sideshow. We are living in the now, in which millions of people of all races and ethnicities are forced into degradation, ill health, and despair in this rich nation. Overturning that system is a goal that is not out of reach for a people who had the intellectual, political, and social will to survive slavery and beat back Jim Crow.