Archive for Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Who speaks for America’s poor?

June 11, 2008


A few words about white trash.

I've always found that term offensive, its ubiquity notwithstanding. I have a number of reasons, but the most important is that it is a gratuitous insult to the white poor. Of course, they are one of the few groups remaining one can insult with relative impunity.

Granted, Vice President Cheney did not actually use the term "white trash" in the "joke" he attempted last week at the National Press Club in Washington. He didn't need to. It was there, understood, without being spoken.

The remark came in a discussion of the Cheney family tree. "We have Cheneys on both sides of the family," he said. "And we don't even live in West Virginia."

Get it? Ha-ha-ha. I mean, you know how it is up there in the hills and hollers of that state where the population is 95 percent white and the median family income is $10 thousand below the national average: Cousins marry cousins, brothers bed their pipe-smoking sisters. Pardon me while I slap my knee.

The comedy stylings of Dick Cheney drew bipartisan condemnation from West Virginia lawmakers and Cheney quickly issued an apology, which is good enough as far as it goes. Still, it's too bad there does not exist - at least, not to my knowledge - a national organization, an NAACP for poverty, as it were, that could provide us with context, help us see Cheney's "joke" not as an isolated episode but as part and parcel of a national pattern of neglect, if not outright scorn, for the have-nots among us.

Who speaks for the poor? Who raises a voice for them when their babies are born smaller and with lead in their blood? Who makes noise on their behalf when their schools turn out illiterates and their children are diagnosed with a higher rate of developmental disorders? Who cries out in their name when violence stalks their streets and schools and living rooms? Who says, "Wait a minute!" when their lives are reduced to caricature by media, or else ignored outright, which, in a very real sense, is the same as saying those lives do not exist.

No one speaks up because we have yet to develop language to encompass the whole of the issue. Oh, we talk some about black poverty or Hispanic poverty. Less often do we speak of white poverty and even less than that do we simply talk about poverty, period.

So that the poor become a scapegoat for budgetary red ink, object of Barack Obama's clumsy conjecture, punchline of Dick Cheney's joke, but seldom, John Edwards' candidacy notwithstanding, are they seen as people with valid concerns and inherent dignity.

If the poor ever recognized this, got mad about it and began to coalesce irrespective of race, they could realign politics as we know it, require the nation to grapple with, and construct remedies for, their suffering. This was Martin Luther King's last dream, the one he was fighting to redeem when he was killed.

Too bad we have not, since that day, found the imagination, vision or courage to go where he led. The poor among us retreat instead into the easy comfort of tribalism, black with black, brown with brown, white with white, unable to conceive they might have common concerns that transcend melanin and ancestry. They divide themselves, and thus render themselves inconsequential so that those above in aeries of wealth and power can rest easy, unthreatened by demands for change.

So Dick Cheney's apology is nice and all, and it's good that West Virginia lawmakers stood up and demanded it. But you know something? At days's end, all of it is politics and none of it answers the paramount question of who speaks for the poor.

Or better yet, when do the poor finally speak for themselves?

- Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. He chats with readers from noon to 1 p.m. CDT each Wednesday on


Corey Williams 9 years, 10 months ago

"He voted against confirming ... Clarence Thomas in 1990."That doesn't mean he's racist still. He might be, but that isn't proof. If you look at how vocal Clarence has been since he became a supreme, you could say he was smart not to do so.

kugrad 9 years, 10 months ago

Restore Reason, if you think of Robert Byrd as white trash, you sir are a moron. Robert Byrd is a more intelligent man than you could dream to be. The KKK reference is beneath you and obviously a ridiculous characterization of Byrd. We all make mistakes in life, at least he learned from his.

canyon_wren 9 years, 10 months ago

Uh, windlass--what is the point of your list? Are those supposed to be "poor" people? Am I missing something you intended to say? Everyone one on that list could be rich OR poor. Please clarify for me.

kansas778 9 years, 10 months ago

It all depends on how you define being poor. Compared to other industrialized countries, our "poor" live like middle class Europeans. They have IPods, cell phones, cars, microwaves, and generally have more square footage of living space. They have plenty to eat and in fact tend to be overweight. However, when compared with the stereotype of the rich American portrayed on TV, then yes, they don't have Hummers, $1000 purses and 60 inch TVs.

ndmoderate 9 years, 10 months ago

I really don't think Lott's comment was "merely a joking reference," MNBTY.And for the record, Byrd is not a man I will defend, as I'm not familiar with when and to what extent he "repented" of his earlier actions and beliefs. He will be gone from the Senate soon enough.

Corey Williams 9 years, 10 months ago

Yes, because the democrats were the racist bunch up until the sixties. Hence the term "southern democrat". The republicans were always the ones that weren't racists. At least not to the extent that the democrats were. What party was Lincoln in again? Oh, right.

canyon_wren 9 years, 10 months ago

Good comments, restore! I really agree with you about "white trash" (or any other "trash") being more a matter of attitude than economics. Some of the trashiest people I know have (and waste) lots of money. Thoreau said, in reference to the poor of his day, that it was often "a matter of taste and not of misfortune."The trouble with Pitts' column is that he encourages the poor (black, white, brown, etc.) to join forces and overcome. That is just another form of polarization--which is what people like Pitts don't approve of when it is directed at them. Why not just say ALL people--rich poor, "of color" or colorless--should give serious thought to whatever injustices are being committed and work to correct those that ACTUALLY exist and are not just imagined.

ksdivakat 9 years, 10 months ago

Of course restore, you must add George Bush to the white trash list, as it doesnt get any trashier than that!

Corey Williams 9 years, 10 months ago

"Then here comes Trent Lott (who I really never was too crazy about) and made a comment that barely implied a certain politicians politics could have made a difference:..and lord on high!!! He was finished politically."Of course he was finished. He said:"I want to say this about my state: When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either."In 1948 Strom Thurmond the presidential candidate said:"I wanna tell you, ladies and gentlemen, that there's not enough troops in the army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the (insert profane reference to blacks here) race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches."So you still say that Trent "barely implied a certain politicians politics could have made a difference"?

james bush 9 years, 10 months ago

Bleeding-heart whiners are so sympathetic to the poor.............well maybe just pathetic is more appropriate. The government is taking over as the poor's source of charity....... maybe a product of the growth liberal do-gooder graduates of the KU School of Social Welfare who are enlisting in the democrat party. What this country needs is a good marxist president.

bd 9 years, 10 months ago

The US Goverment represents the poor whites!(foodstamps,welfare/disability checks )

georgeofwesternkansas 9 years, 10 months ago

Who speeks for the poor?This presidental election will cost $1 billion. How much did poor Americans donate?? No one speeks for the poor.

Corey Williams 9 years, 10 months ago

"Blacks were moving to the north in droves back then and surely you've heard the term "Southern Democrat". And by the way, these were words from a then Southern Democrat party leader 60 years ago."Actually, I brought up the term "southern democrat" about four hours before your post. And even if they were spoken 60 years ago, Trent's "joke" brought them back to the forefront."...yet others on the left dip Strom Thurmond, a well-known repentent and dead Republican for something he said AS a Southern Dem 60 years ago-in the grease:: and also Trent Lott, a Republican for merely making a joking reference."I looked and looked but couldn't find anything talking about how Thurmond "repented" his racist past. Maybe you could enlighten us on that? The last I heard he was a bigot his entire life.

dirkleisure 9 years, 10 months ago

Godot (Anonymous) says:Call to all conservatives.. Join me in my strike. Without us, the JW forum will devolve to the level of liberal speak. Cease posting on the LJW forums.

hornhunter 9 years, 10 months ago

This comment was removed by the site staff for violation of the usage agreement.

Godot 9 years, 10 months ago

I am late into this thread, and do not have time to read all the posts. If I repeat, I apologize.Pitts, your team, the Democrats, have been in charge of the universities that turn out the teachers and the principals and the superintendants and the teachers union for the last 30 plus years. It takes just one generation to accomplish a change in culture. If you want to blame any one source for what has become of education for the poor and the disadvantaged, lay the blame directly at the feet of the Democrat party.

1029 9 years, 10 months ago

"Take, for example, that I'm cut from the cloth of a Republican family, and intelligent they are - usually employed in the Armed Services, usually see the world, and, more often than not, have the best ways and means to a better life than most. Their kids are smarter than average. I, for one, have no more than six years of school; grades 1 through 6, that's it."Better life than most? (what about the 6th grade education, though?) It sure doesn't sound like the author's parents set him up for a "better life than most". Or, perhaps the author is just unaware of the lives of most of the other people in this country. I don't know...I don't mean to attack anyone about not being educated, but this is all really sad. Furthermore, of republicans: "Their kids are smarter than average."? Huh? This is a voter speaking, people. People who are voting are thinking this way. No wonder the republican ideology still exists and republicans can still win elections despite the disasterous consequences their ideas have on society. (Please don't call me a democrat when you criticize this post, though. Democrats have their problems, also, but at least their intentions are noble) "If you want to blame any one source for what has become of education for the poor and the disadvantaged, lay the blame directly at the feet of the Democrat party." I hate to defend the democrats, but seriously, this is an extremely stupid comment. Maybe if people realized that nice things (good schools) cost money (tax dollars), then this country's education system would be better. Maybe if the country put more of a premium on education than flexing military might... (Why is that people are proud of being from a military family?)....I don't know.....Sorry to single you out, windlass. Don't take it personally--I think it's great that you are reading the newspaper and responding with opinions (even though I disagree with them). Anyway, that's all I have to say today.

alwaysright 9 years, 10 months ago

I'll tell you who doesn't speak for the poor, THE STALINIST DEMOCRAT PARTY. Everything they do winds up hurting the poor. The great society, go to the inner-city and have a look. The U.S. Department of Education, failure. And the list goes on and on. In fact I dare anyone to name one thing that the Federal Government has ever taken over that has been good for anyone. What I don't understand is how the actual poor in this county, who have primarily leftist policy to blame for their circumstance, continue to vote for leftists who only want to keep them in bondage. It's really very cruel what the left has done to the poor, and all in the name of power. Wake up America.

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