Rethinking Race and Poverty in the Global South

Rethinking Race and Poverty in the Global South

By Barbara Ellen Smith

Vol. 20, No. 2, 1998 pp. 3-4

The borders of the South are collapsing. The forces of globalization are reconfiguring demographics, workplaces, and-not just in Miami or Atlanta, but in Tunica, Mississippi; Big Stone Gap, Tennessee; and Kannapolis, North Carolina.

Among the most significant of these changes regards race: increasingly, we no longer confront a singular divide between Black and white, but a multivalent complex of “new” and “old” races. People from diverse nations and cultures are relocating to the South; those from Spanish-speaking countries find themselves newly identified as “Latino,” and are the fastest growing minority in many areas. Others from the many nationalities and ethnicities of Asia further diversify the racial demographics of some states, becoming “Asian American.”

This is not to suggest that the historic legacy of African-American exploitation and poverty is no longer significant; quite the opposite. The new racial configurations could undermine Black voting strength and the fragile political coalitions that have been built in some areas. They threaten to inflame overt racial antagonism among white Southerners as well as Black, who see their neighborhoods and workplaces increasingly populated with new racial groups, especially Latinos. They raise difficult political questions about who should be eligible for minority set-aside programs, affirmative action, and other race-specific remedies that were designed to address African-American disfranchisement and dispossession.

In Memphis, Tennessee, for example, where Black political power is recent and bitterly won, the African-American mayor met several months ago with a newly formed group of Latino business leaders. They sought access to the minority set-aside program for municipal contracts. Mayor W.W. Herenton was, to say the least, not receptive to their proposal.

Globalization of the South also carries profound implications for the origins and racial character of poverty. For more than three centuries, the South’s political economy has depended on the racialized exploitation of Black labor – whether as slaves, sharecroppers, or workers limited to bottom-rung jobs in the system of Jim Crow. One of the most perverse, cruel ironies of this post-Jim Crow, post-industrial era is the elimination of that longstanding (although racially subordinated) incorporation of working-class African Americans in the South’s economy. Now we see the deracination of working-class Black Southerners from any legitimate and secure economic role at all. Since 1950, the proportion of African-American men who are not in the labor force has risen by more than 50 percent in the South. Increasingly, the problem is not the discrimination of a rigid job ladder that relegates Black workers to the bottom rungs, but the operation of a global economy that pushes Black workers off the ladder altogether.

The far-reaching implications of globalization challenge our most basic concepts and assumptions about race and poverty. They require us to rethink even the words we use to discuss these twin issues.

“Race,” for example, has acquired a fixity that these global forces undermine. Not only do we tend to think of race as referring primarily to Black and white, we also think of it as a self-evident characteristic that we all possess in one form or another. But the processes whereby new races are at this very moment being created remind us that race is not inborn. “Native Americans” from the Yucatan do not define themselves as Latino or Hispanic – but they ironically become so through the processes of racialization at work in the United States. Their experiences, and those of the many other immigrant groups new to the South, reveal that race is not fixed and obvious, a product of birth, but something we make and re-make every day.

These processes of racialization and diversification also remind us that white is just as much a racial category as Black or brown. To be white is not to be merely “normal;” it is to be racially privileged. Being white can include unemployment, homelessness, sex discrimination for white women, and a host of other systematic disadvantages; on the matter of skin color, however, it involves unearned power and privilege. As long as we conceptualize race as an unfortunate label that applies only to African Americans, or even to diverse people of color, we fail to recognize it as a dynamic social relationship in which all are implicated.

Finally, these reconfigurations make it clear that race does not create fixed and monolithic groups. Even as globalization dispossesses working-class Southerners of all races, the new international division of labor rewards those knowledgeable workers who have the requisite education and skills. As a result, the gulf of class widens within racial groups.

Gender also is emerging as a more recognized distinction. The problems and opportunities facing women and men of the same race are not the same. Black women are not being thrown into prison at nearly the rates of Black

Page 4

men; conversely, Black men are not stigmatized as lazy welfare queens. Among Latinos, immigration appears to be heaviest among adult males, who are separated from their families-a pattern with many social implications for the Southern communities where they live. The overall point is that complex intra- as well as inter-racial dynamics and divisions are increasingly evident.

Globalization also requires rethinking our understanding of poverty in the South. Despite the momentous forces at work redistributing economic opportunity and disadvantage all over the world, our thinking about poverty is small, even petty-trapped in a language of pathology and an associated politics of blame. We have so individualized and moralized poverty that the fundamental issue-lack of economic power and resources-has been eliminated from the national debate.

We have arrived at the bizarre point where single motherhood has become both a synonym for poverty and an emblem of moral deficiency. This is not to deny the obvious arithmetic: two wage-earners will tend to make more than one. The point is that marital status and other morally-loaded individual attributes are used to characterize the poor as a whole, distinguishing them from upright, tax-paying citizens (and the truly rich who, as we all know, work very hard, always pay their taxes and never sleep around). Through this topsy-turvy logic, marital status has come to function as a stand-in for economic, or class status.

The issue is not moral inequality, however, but economic inequality. Indeed, we might do well to stop using the term “poverty” altogether, for the concept has been so appropriated by a right-wing definition of the issue. Poverty is a descriptive term that has come to connote an individual misfortune or deficiency that has nothing to do with those who are better off. But people are poor only in relation to those who have greater wealth; indeed, in some cases, people are poor because other people have great wealth. We should perhaps speak instead of economic inequality or, in some instances, class inequality.

When we conceptualize the issue as economic inequality, we begin moving toward an analysis of social relationships and root causes, rather than a description of misfortunes for which the poor are routinely blamed. We move the level of analysis away from individual characteristics, toward regional economic forces that are increasingly linked with those of the globe. How else are we to understand the presence of Somali refugees in the low-wage work force of rural Mississippi’s casinos? Or the new forms of disfranchisement and dispossession experienced by Mexican immigrants who work in North Carolina’s poultry plants under a cloud of suspicion and insecurity regarding their legal status?

Naming the problem as economic inequality also moves us away from an exclusive political focus on the ensemble of anti-poverty programs that are a fading legacy of the New Deal and Great Society. As long as our political energy and analysis concentrate on the terrain of social welfare, we risk missing the larger landscape of economic policy where much of the real action takes place. Defining the issue as economic inequality makes it clear that we need to address free trade, monetary policy, the tax structure, minimum wage – all the meat and potatoes of national and international economic policy.

Globalization is transforming the nature of race and poverty-indeed, the very character of the South itself. That does not mean that we can no longer speak of the South, for our distinctive past ensures that we will be dealing with the legacies of Southernness for some time to come. However, we are in the throes of momentous flux and instability. Global change raises troubling new questions, but it also signals new possibilities for intervention. Immigration and diversification open up the fixity of the Black-white divide, creating new potential for coalition-building. Growing economic inequality suggests new possibilities for class-based movements. A global future is upon us. What will we make of it?

Barbara Ellen Smith is director of the Memphis Center on Women at the University of Memphis.