It didn’t take too long for a Leftist to object to the share of attention being given the black voters of Alabama who last week swung the election in favor of the Democrats. In his article, “The Doug Jones Victory Belongs to the People of Alabama, Not Just African-Americans,” Benjamin Studebaker asks, “How do we think we make the 30% of white Alabamans who did vote for the Democrat feel when we give all the credit for the Jones victory to African-Americans?” I don’t know? Maybe we make them feel that as a group they were significantly less responsible for neutralizing a fucking theocrat who at the time of the election had an octet of women accusing him of sexual assault and child molestation? Because that’s just what the white Democratic vote was in this case. It’s an observed, numerical fact. And insofar as media coverage has attributed Moore’s defeat largely to African-Americans, it’s just reflecting and expressing that general truth. The white democrats’ role in this particular special election was a helpful but empirically small accessory to the much larger black democratic vote. And if this faction of the Left that Ben represents involves becoming nervous and uneasy about white people maybe getting a bit bristly when that reality is pointed out—or if the suggestion here is that we be good little Leftists and observe the political orthodoxy that instructs us on how the only way our side can be electorally competitive again is if we omit any mention about the many ways in which African-Americans deserve particular attention, then I say that the coalition is fraudulent and disingenuous. If we can’t even rightly credit black people for the basic fucking miraculousness of what they were able to accomplish last week in Alabama—particularly in spite of all the barriers that state has put in place precisely to render the black vote inconsequential—without getting all squeamish and worked up over how that mere acknowledgement might chaff at whites’ egos, then the Left shouldn’t be surprised when black people take a pessimistic view of the political project and assume that other interests precede and rank theirs.
Because that’s what people like Benjamin Studebaker are in fact saying when they shush other people for talking about black people: that the coalition only holds together insofar as that particular history of African-Americans, and its legacy, is suppressed or understood as necessarily ancillary to the allegedly uniform condition of suffering among poor people in the U.S. That condition, though, is not uniform; and there’s plenty of information out there to dispute the idea that it is or ever was. To take Alabama alone, Lowndes County—which recently made international news for the area’s hookworm epidemic—has a 4.1% white poverty rate compared to the black poverty rate of 34.5%. In Perry County, the white poverty rate is 8.1%; the black poverty rate, 32.7%. Wilcox County is the poorest county in the state, and the county with the starkest difference of poverty rates among whites and blacks, which stands at 8.8% and 50.2%, respectively. Similar numbers are found in Alabama’s Marengo County (5.6% for whites and 40.8% for the county’s black residents). And lastly, Winston County, which has the state’s highest white poverty rate (23%), is still almost three times less than the county’s black poverty rate (63.2%).
All of which is to underscore just how obtuse a statement is like the one Studebaker makes in the article when he writes that Alabama is poorer “not just because of [the] large African-American population [but] because even its white people are poorer.” And while that’s obviously true, the fact that a supposedly committed egalitarian can regard the markedly pronounced levels of black poverty as being of a kind with the state’s white poverty should signal a crude and deliberate attempt to completely minimize the particular justice claim that African-Americans have in this country.
You can’t look at Alabama as just poor. The quality of that poverty is brutally different with respect to black poverty, and it’s different because of a very specific reason, which, as Kristina Scott, director of Alabama Possible notes, is “the legacy of slavery.” Nonetheless, Benjamin Studebaker would have us believe that “We can talk about [the causes of Alabama’s white poverty] . . . without in any way reducing our concern for people of color both in the south and around the country.” Well, it seems to me that—given the sharply differentiated figures between white and black poverty—talking about white poverty in isolation—or even talking about poverty in general—is necessarily limiting one’s concern for meaningfully addressing black poverty. And this isn’t just in Alabama. In all but one of the nation’s top ten states with the highest poverty levels, black poverty rates are double—and in many cases almost triple—that of white poverty.
So rather than Benjamin Studebaker asking us to pause and reflect on the potential for injured white feelings when we process basic numbers and reasonably identify African-Americans as the source of the Moore defeat, he should ask himself how he’d feel if he was one of the 73% of Lowndes County residents whom a study by Baylor College of Medicine and Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise recently reported “had been exposed to raw sewage washing back into their homes as a result of faulty septic tanks or waste pipes becoming overwhelmed in torrential rains.” It would be hard to imagine Ben Studebaker not finding a different and perhaps more nuanced appreciation for the situation of black poverty if his own feces wasn’t rapidly and expeditiously shunted to a place far, far away from him via an efficient and well-functioning plumbing and sewage system. If it, instead, resurfaced just out in his front yard. Or if not him, then his family or his friends or his neighbors. Because that’s black life in Lowndes County, Alabama.
At the very least, he should spend some time worrying about how a lot of those poor white people who voted for Moore and Jones—those people who’ve also been “disadvantaged and exploited by our economic system”—have historically used the footholds afforded them by federal anti-poverty programs to get further the hell away from poorer black people. Maybe he should worry about how race-blind programs in an age of widespread black generational poverty as a result of slavery and Jim Crow and redlining and mass incarceration might promote and facilitate that behavior rather than solve it.
And that’s not me engaging in what Ben calls an “intellectually and politically lazy tendency to ridicule and bully white southerners.” That’s the fundamental reality of America’s class structure. Some of those Jones voters—and maybe even some of those Moore voters—might very well be decent and good-hearted and non-racist people. Maybe. But I guarantee that all of them who are poor don’t like the condition of poverty and don’t like being around people who are at the very bottom of the social order. And what that means here in America is that they don’t like being around the black people who’ve been relegated there for hundreds of years. And—goodheartedness be damned—the minute those white people can get as far away from black people and their proximity to the social bottom as their finances will allow, they will.
And this is where the political imagination of Leftists like Ben Studebaker—for all of their thorough and incisive analysis of the catastrophes wrought upon the poor—appears to seize up: at the critical point of triage. They name the disaster. They describe the tyranny of a system developed to further enrich those who control it. They readily apprehend the crisis and the urgency of intervention. But beyond that, the conceptual response becomes cautious and sober. And the overweening concern about the limits of electoral possibility—which tends to manifest in a need to dishonestly frame the crisis as something that hasn’t inflicted its damages within the working class in a massively uneven and racialized way—already begins to corrode a politics of meaningful justice.
By ignoring the differences between white poverty and black poverty, it preserves the basic racialization of the class structure, even as it proposes to be able to offer the only means to dismantle it. And by actively trying to focus the conversation away from black Alabaman voters, like those in Lowndes County who came out to carry Doug Jones to victory, what you’re effectively looking to do is deny them something they can now cash in, politically, to maybe get some specific assistance that might help actually narrow the poverty gap. Until that happens—until the poverty rates in America are actually brought more closely together to resemble one another—the enduring disparity of the economic situation between the races will fail to be solved by universal policy alone. At best, that sort of policy—without inbuilt reparations for African-American Descendants of Slaves—can provide only a transposition of the current social arrangement, in which an interval of inequality would still exist between the races, only at a slightly different pitch. Those of us in the Left who profess a genuine commitment to justice should be very critical of, and even indignant with, that arrangement, since as long as there is a bottom stratum of society made up of black people, the conditions for meaningful equality among this country’s citizens cannot rightly be in place.