Courageous Conversations about Race and Poverty?

I Voted

“Why do you keep trying to reason with those people?” It is a question I’m asked repeatedly by my liberal friends on social media when I attempt to engage in a discussion with relatives and childhood friends who support Donald Trump.

Why? Because I believe that well-meaning liberals who dismiss the concerns of poor whites and call them ignorant might as well be the warm-up act for the next Trump rally. Our refusal to acknowledge their concerns has helped set the tone for Trump’s stage appearances.

We bear at least some of the responsibility for the current political climate because we have so little understanding of those who disagree with us. We congratulate ourselves for constructing arguments that elicit cheers from the people who already agree with us, even though they earn jeers from the people we most need to convince.

If what we want is to bring about change, we have to stop talking at our opponents and start talking with them. All of us know that we need to have honest conversations about race in this country. The problem is that to engage in a dialogue, we have to first hear each other. Too often, we see ourselves as engaging in courageous conversations that aren’t really conversations at all. We lecture our opponents from a stance of moral superiority—calling out injustice—without trying to understand why they refuse to hear us.

In my work I have often sat at the table with educators, largely white, who care deeply about race and equity. The people who facilitate these conversations refuse to allow poverty to play a part in the dialogue about the achievement gap because they feel it obscures the institutional racism that makes education ineffective for so many of our children of color.

I don’t disagree with them. In my district, some children of color who are not achieving come from upper middle class families. That they do not achieve their potential has almost everything to do with institutional racism. I’ve taught a number of children of color whom I had to convince to stay in an advanced class in spite of the fact that there are few or no students who look like them. This is a systemic problem—one that we have made progress in addressing.

But the more urgent problem is that many of our children who are not achieving are living in extreme poverty in one of the wealthiest counties in the nation. And when I sit in conferences with educators, I’m usually the only white person at the table who grew up in poverty and whose family sometimes had no choice but to accept government assistance.

When poverty isn’t a factor in the conversations, we’re missing a key part of the problem for our children who are not achieving and for our adults who end up living at or just above the poverty line. Poor white children and adults end up being totally omitted from our discussions of possible solutions, and it’s no wonder they’re angry. We fertilize the soil that gives root to their anger and leave them ripe for the harvest at election season. Politicians—largely wealthy white males who speak from a position of white privilege and power—easily garner their support when they feel that no one else even acknowledges their plight.

These white people aren’t always ignorant, as many educated liberals would like to believe. Surprisingly, many of the highly educated forget a basic concept of psychology that most of them learned in high school or college. In their own lives they operate at the top of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and forget that those people who must struggle every day to have their biological needs or safety needs met have little tolerance for those in the comfortable position of being concerned only with achieving self-actualization and fulfillment.

Whites who work hard in low-wage jobs to put food on the table for their children live in fear that they’re one catastrophe away from poverty themselves. Some of them respond as my mother did—by reminding their children that there are others who have even less. She rarely responded with anger to our circumstances, instead telling us, “Finish your dinner. Don’t you know there are children starving in India and China?’ I remember distinctly how my siblings and I cackled at dinner one evening when one of my brothers, tired of hearing that question, responded, “Well then, why don’t you box these beans up and send them to China?” The fire in her eyes as she stared him down pretty quickly silenced our laughter.

Not everyone responds as my mother did, however. And now that we are so much more aware that there are many hungry children in the United States, we ignore those who respond in anger at our own peril. We need them to understand, as my mother made her children understand, that where white children are living in poverty, children of color are usually living in even more dire straits.

My second grade teacher, a black man, and his wife, a former West Virginia Teacher of the Year, knew this. When Jane Dillard, a high school science teacher, was asked in 1998 to serve on a federal panel to address low expectations for minority student achievement, she had this to say in the final report:

They aren’t getting a fair and equal chance. And not only are the minority children being overlooked, but the poor whites are also. . . . They’re not encouraged to go to college. They’re made to feel as if they can’t do anything but maybe cook and wash out or clean hotels, or maybe sweep.

The other panelists’ comments are unsurprising. An African-American pastor reported that the youth in his congregation were often subjected to insensitive remarks by teachers. An elementary school principal commented that everyone—from politicians to parents to school staff—had “very low expectations for poor children, especially poor children with yellow, brown, or black skin.” One well-meaning high school principal commented that at his school, the staff tried not to look at color or financial status—that they tried to be fair to all students.

Federal law reinforces this view by forbidding teachers access to information about individual children who are receiving meal assistance. When teachers get performance data on individual students, every factor except poverty is listed on the report. In a small town where everyone knows who is poor, this doesn’t present a challenge, but in large school systems, teachers are forced to make often incorrect assumptions based on a student’s appearance.

The problem with this attitude is that if we’re blind to the racial and economic factors that are causing our children and our citizens not to reach their full potential, we will never be able to bring about change. As a society, we have to acknowledge and engage in meaningful conversations about the many ways our disenfranchised citizens are denied access to privilege. We must face these challenges head-on in order to root them out and lift our society to a better place. When we refuse to talk about poverty, we allow those whose power and privilege come from wealth to abdicate their responsibility for the health of our society and allow them to pit minorities and poor whites against each other in order to hold onto their power and privilege.

Our insistence on looking at issues through a single lens prevents us from having productive conversations that move us forward. I can’t begin to count the number of times that I’ve sat in a roomful of liberals and have heard someone say, “We’re preaching to the choir here. How do we get this message to be heard outside this room?”

To engage in meaningful dialogue we must try to believe that most people with whom we disagree have at least some measure of goodness at the core. If we can’t at least try to approach one another from that standpoint, we will never be able to move past the anger and stereotyping that keep us swirling in the storm of our nation’s history.

When I think about my friends and colleagues on all sides of these issues, I know that all of them want what’s best for themselves and the people they love. Yet even we have difficulty engaging in honest and open dialogue about race and poverty. But I have hope because I know their hearts. It is only when I read and hear comments from people I don’t know, and especially those that are said anonymously in social media, that I tend to feel hopeless.

All of us are guilty of labeling or dismissing those we don’t understand. When we do, the discussion almost always devolves into anger. Some of us then make up avoidance rules—proclaiming that such subjects are not appropriate in polite company. Neither of these approaches is productive.

I refuse to believe that this is a storm we cannot weather. But the casualties will be fewer if work together to rescue our most vulnerable and build a better world from the debris of our past history.

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