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 www.MiamiHerald.com.