In July, the Minneapolis Star Tribune ran a particularly insightful commentary by Dr. Carlisle Ford Runge. In his essay “Black or white, the poor are trapped at the bottom,” Runge, the Distinguished McKnight University Professor of Applied Economics and Law at the University of Minnesota, explores the issue of poverty across racial lines and how these realities help to inform current American social and political attitudes.
Runge cites two key academic studies along with recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics that support what social, economic, and political scientists have come to call the “Great Gatsby Curve.” Comparing the United States with a dozen other developed counties, this curve is essentially designed to determine the probability someone will live out their life in the same income strata into which they were born.
In noting that Black Americans are much more likely to live in poverty, Runge suggests that the fact the majority of the poor in America are White has helped unscrupulous characters foster an even deeper divide in race relations by pitting poor people against one another. The unfortunate reality of it, according to Runge, is that “The poor — both white and black — are trapped by the Gatsby Curve on the bottom, looking up with little to hope for and much to fear.”
This last statement by Runge is what I would like to focus on. This column has repeatedly looked at the rampant racial disparities that exist in Minnesota in spite of its reputation as one of the most livable states in America, if not the most. These disparities are attributable to a number of factors, not the least of which is the persistence of structural racism.
Yet, as we know, the majority of those who are living in poverty whether in America or here in Minnesota, are White. This doesn’t change the fact that African Americans or other people of color are significantly more likely to live in poverty. It should, however, demonstrate that ultimately poverty knows no color.
This was not something that was lost on leaders in both the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements, especially in the mid- to late-1960s. Toward the end of his life, Malcolm X began to speak to the issue of class along with the theme of racial equality. He further elevated the discussion by his focus on the issue of human rights above that of simply civil rights.
Perhaps Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. did more to shape the discussion than anyone in his legendary April 4, 1967 speech “Beyond Vietnam” where he addressed what he called the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism. In the ensuing months, Dr. King began to formulate his bold vision for a “Poor People’s Campaign,” which called for human and economic rights for poor Americans regardless of race or ethnicity.
Some of the more radical leaders of the era, including Huey P. Newton, James Forman and Fred Hampton, also emphasized the importance of class justice in addition to racial justice. I believe that we must continue to utilize this wisdom in our struggle against both racism and poverty today.
Although it is disturbing, Runge paints a necessary portrait of poverty and race relations today when he writes, “The bitter truth is that America is not (and perhaps never has been) a land of opportunity for the poor. For those trapped on the bottom, the fruits of poverty — hatred and violence and demagoguery — are not surprising at all.”
While I find it difficult to take issue with his sentiment, which underscores much of today’s reality, the optimist in me believes that poverty can and must be conquered. I further believe that the historical conditions that have in some ways sought to separate poor Whites from poor people of color can and also must be overcome. The War on Poverty requires all of us to work together to ensure that those living in poverty, regardless of race, have the opportunity to chart a course toward self-sufficiency.
As Dr. King famously wrote in his 1967 book Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, “The curse of poverty has no justification in our age. It is socially as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization… The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty.”
Clarence Hightower is the executive director of Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties. Dr. Hightower holds a Ph.D. in urban higher education from Jackson State University. He welcomes reader responses to 450 Syndicate Street North, St. Paul, MN 55104.
Dr. Clarence Hightower is a visionary leader with more than 37 years of nonprofit
experience in the Twin Cities. He is the current executive director of the Community Action
Partnership of Hennepin County, one of the largest anti-poverty organizations in the area and the state’s largest Energy Assistance program. He welcomes reader responses to email@example.com.