What's wrong with these headlines?
Combating the Poverty Crisis in Black America
African Americans: The State of Disparity
In 1999 Martin Gilens wrote in “Why Americans Hate Welfare” that:
- 65 percent of poor Americans shown in network television news are African American.
- 62 percent of poor Americans shown in newsmagazines are black.
- In surveys, over half of the public says most poor people are black; only one out of four say most poor people are white.
- In reality, African Americans make up only 29 percent of the country's poor.
Today, this gross inconsistency, between people’s racialized perception of poverty in the United States and the actual diversity of experiences, persists and continues to undermine the movement for economic justice.
Being Mindful of the Gap
People of color and people with limited financial resources are disproportionately oppressed by the wealth gap. Mind the Gap! recognizes this fact and aims to keep it central to the campaign. We also realize that these communities have historically been mislabeled (e.g. calling people welfare queens, referring to things, people, and behaviors as ghetto, and assuming a person’s class based on his or her race) and abused by racism and classism. Thus, we believe it is imperative that racialized- and class-based statistics be presented in a way that avoids perpetuating negative stereotypes.
Statistics and facts are powerful and essential tools for inspiring change. However, failing to confront the stereotypes that race- and class- based information may foster immediately limits our movement for economic justice. It may characterize the wealth gap as a problem only afflicting people of color with limited financial resources. Or as an issue that is less pressing or irrelevant to white people with greater financial means. This promotes false images that ignore the extent of inequality, alienates certain groups (e.g. wealthy people of color or white people living in poverty), and further marginalizes people of color and people with limited financial means.
Language is power. What we say informs what we do and how we frame things determines who will join the conversation. If certain people are further marginalized, stereotyped, or disempowered by our language, the movement for economic justice is inherently limited in its ability to creatively and comprehensively find solutions.
Mind the Gap!’s goal is to use the power of statistics and facts that highlight the wealth gap’s racial and class disparities, without perpetuating negative stereotypes. We are guided by several principles, outlined below. These may also be helpful to you as you Spread the Word about the wealth gap and its disproportionate impact on people of color and people with limited financial resources.
We hope you keep these suggestions in mind and send us your own ideas for other ways to challenge racism and classism.
- Identify people and communities as people and communities first. For example, people of color, people with low incomes, people experiencing poverty, communities with limited financial resources, people with disabilities, etc. Do not identify people as “Blacks,” “disabled,” “poor,” or “lower-class.”
- Do not conflate communities of color and low-income communities. First, people with low-incomes are of all races. And secondly, failing to distinguish between race and class ignores the diversity of experience among communities of color, especially in terms of class.
- Challenge the myths and stereotypes.There is no “deserving poor.” Discuss the fact that disparity and poverty plague certain communities in spite of the fact that people in poverty often work 2-3 jobs, are fiscally conservative, and have strong family values and an enduring entrepreneurial spirit.
- Highlight the assets of communities and individuals. Don’t limit the conversation to the negative conditions that people are subjected to: Also share the stories of innovation, achievement, and resilience.
- Focus on the positive of a statistic. Disparity asserts many negative realities for people and communities with limited financial resources. Acknowledging these realities is important and powerful. But also, when possible, emphasize the ways people and society could flourish if disparity were reduced. For example, don’t just say that the average African American family owns $95,000 less in wealth than the average white family. Also state the potential for African American families if the gap were reduced; families could afford four years of a public university’s tuition for two kids, and tuition for public medical school—the increased access to education would have real and significant improvements on families’ lives and the whole of society.
- Speak from your own experience and invite others to do the same. The best people to talk about the ways the wealth gap impacts people of color and communities with limited financial resources are people of color and people with limited financial resources. Don’t assume that everyone wants to share their stories, especially from a race, class, or other specific perspective, but provide and advertise a space for people to do so.
- In addition to providing a space, make it welcoming. To truly be welcoming requires effort, restructuring, and persistence-- especially if the space has traditionally been dominated by a privileged race or class group. Do not assume that a person, particularly if they are of the space’s minority, is quiet or silent due to disinterest. Your efforts to be welcoming must create leadership and decision-making opportunities for people of color and for people with limited financial resources.