The racialization of poverty, crime, and ministry

Race Issues
by Anthony Bradley

Posted on Friday, March 4, 2016, at 4:04 pm

With all the talk of race and “mass incarceration” by Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, it is important to understand the context. The mass media images of American poverty in the 1930s versus the 1990s reveal a major shift in who Americans understand to be America’s poor. During the Great Depression, media images of poverty predominantly depicted the lives of poor whites living in small towns and rural areas across the country. By the 1990s, images of the poor in newspapers, magazines, and television shows were primarily of urban black people. This shift reflects a racialization of poverty that has resulted in Christians thinking inaccurately about race and poverty.

According to U.S. government data, whites in this country have always been the primary recipients of government welfare programs, they use illegal drugs at essentially the same rate as blacks, and they represent the largest number of America’s poor (42 percent white and 25 percent black). Yet from 1966 to 1995 there was a clear shift in the images of America’s poor in politics and the media: Ronald Reagan’s use of the term “welfare queen,” illegal drug use as “crack cocaine,” out-of-wedlock births, Hillary Clinton’s use of the word “superpredator,” the “War on Drugs,” the “War on Crime,” the unemployed and sexually promiscuous “deadbeat dads”—all were primarily depictions of black men and women in inner cities. As a result of this proliferation of politically loaded and racially charged images, our country missed the mark on a number of fronts in recent years.

Although America has a long history of struggling working-class and lower-class whites, the mass media successfully reframed poverty, crime, violence, and fatherlessness after the civil-rights era as “black issues.” For example, evangelicals continue to confuse and conflate racial reconciliation with “urban ministry.”

Over the years I have consulted with several white suburban churches, and it is not uncommon for the default method of addressing issues of past racial injustice to be writing checks for creating programs for urban youth, planting inner-city churches, hosting “inner-city” vacation Bible school programs and Bible clubs, and setting up “mercy ministries,” as if by doing so they are making progress on racial healing. But these initiatives do not necessarily, if at all, advance racial reconciliation. They do, however, advance care for those on the margins of society who also happen to be black. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why some whites are frustrated by blacks who continue to talk about racism following decades of significant levels of white philanthropy and government programs. These socially conscious whites had good intentions but wrongly believed that by addressing inner-city issues they were simultaneously addressing race issues.

The largest consequence of Christians believing the racialization of poverty and crime, some could argue, is that the plight of the lower-class and poor whites is largely ignored. For example, there continues to be very little attention paid to the needs and concerns of lower-class whites in the justice and poverty initiatives within evangelicalism. And rarely does mass media show the nation this demographic. It is almost as if white people struggling with hard lives are invisible in America.

As long as American Christians keep poverty a “black”—and now Latino too—issue instead of a race neutral issue, they remain complicit in sustaining the prevailing false narrative that continues to stereotype inner-city black men and women as America’s greatest poverty and crime problem to solve through the criminal justice system. If this false narrative is perpetuated, middle-class whites will continue to plant themselves in urban settings in an attempt to model the rule-abiding citizen whom blacks should emulate while ignoring and alienating struggling whites who live in poverty and who are largely invisible in modern America.

Anthony Bradley

Anthony is associate professor of religious studies at The King's College in New York and a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty.

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