The new war on poverty

Lori Latrice Martin | , Ph.D. | 12/16/2011, 11:39 a.m.

The "War on Poverty" represented an ambitious effort on the part of Lyndon Baines Johnson to create a Great Society in which men, women and children would have their basic needs met. Whether the war on poverty was successful or not has been highly debated.

On the one hand, poverty has in no way been eradicated. On the other, Johnson's efforts produced many programs, initiatives and much needed services for many Americans today.

Currently, there is a new war on poverty, of sorts, and it has little to do with eliminating poverty. This new war on poverty is essentially a war on the poor. It is an effort to criminalize, dehumanize and demonize poor people. Nowhere has this been more evident than in recent comments by individuals like Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich.

Gingrich has made disparaging statements about the economically disadvantaged, including suggestions that most do not work nor have any interest in working. He has said and suggested that there is a culture of poverty that is being transmitted from one generation to the next. This is due, according to Gingrich, to the fact that economically disadvantaged young people do not encounter adults who work. Gingrich has gone so far as to suggest that poor youths should be considered for janitorial work in the very schools that are failing to educating them and relegating far too many to the bottom rung of the American social ladder.

Make no mistake about it, the picture of the poor Americans that Gingrich and others are painting in the collective imagination is not that of a white Appalachian woman with a child or an elderly white man from Middle America. The picture being painted is undoubtedly that of a person of color, specifically an African-American.

What evidence do we have? How could I make such a claim? "Poor" and "poverty" are terms that have often been used as proxies or euphemisms for Blacks. Although there are more whites living below the poverty line than Blacks, the representation in the minds of many, particularly Gingrich supporters, is that of a Black so-called welfare queen or Black male thug.

The fact that racial terms are not being used does not mean that race is irrelevant. Race, racism specifically, is so much a part of the structure and fabric of American society that it is not necessary to speak in racial terms to get one's point across.

The latest war on poverty seeks to divide Americans by race and class. It seeks to divide the Black population by class, too. By focusing on the poor, Gingrich and others are quietly saying, "Middle-class Blacks, we are not talking about you." Reading between the lines, they are saying, "We understand why you left urban areas for greener pastures." This divide and conquer strategy is not new, but sadly, can be very effective.

It is imperative that we all recognize this new war on poverty for what it really is. It is an effort to capitalize on the racial and economic fears of members of the dominant group to which such arguments have appeal. It seeks to capitalize on the ignorance that still runs wild among those who still believe in the dominant racial ideology of white superiority and Black inferiority. It appeals to the warped sensibilities of those whose mission in life and rallying cry is to "take back THEIR country." There are still those who believe that whites must, and should, dominate in every aspect of society, except, of course, in certain sports where Blacks have an alleged "inherent" and "physiological" advantage.

These sentiments, beliefs and philosophies are a threat not only to the poor and people of color, but to the nation and the many good people, regardless of their race or class, who find such nonsense offensive to their intelligence and to their common sense. We must recognize the new war on poverty for what it is-an effort to perpetuate a racist ideology and to return the symbol of American pride and nationalism, the presidency, to the dominant racial group.

Consequently, the 2012 election will be a defining moment in American history. It will be the year that the first Black president is elected to a second term or it will be the end of the first Black president's one term as president.

As you make your resolutions for 2012, resolve to become an informed consumer of information, a critical thinker and an engaged citizen. Share what you know with those who are not as enlightened. It's up to you. Borrowing from Mahatma Gandhi, "Be the change that you hope to see."