At the Intersection of Race and Poverty

Sosamma Samuel-Burnett, J.D.
Founder, G.L.O.B.A.L Justice

When I was in law school, I had the privilege of working at the Institute on Race & Poverty.  IRP was focused on issues that were found at the intersection of race and poverty.  IRP recognized that while race and poverty were concerns independent of each other, when they intersected, it raised a different and more complex set of concerns. I appreciated that perspective as a law student, but as a professional and a community member, the realities of that perspective have deepened over time.

The United States like most countries in the world have segments of our population that live in poverty.  While the American version of poverty may look different than what we might see in Africa, Asia or Latin America, it is still a significant concern for our country.  Why poverty exists, how it impacts individuals and communities, and what we can do to alleviate poverty are central questions for how the government and community interrelate on topics such as health care, unemployment, welfare, etc.

Race relations also have been a central concern for the United States throughout its history.  A key debate during the formation of our nation was the recognition of Black Americans as equals.  In later years, the bloodiest war we have ever had, the Civil War, raged over the debate to end race based slavery.  The later Civil Rights Movement sought to end race based discrimination and disparity that were the vestiges of the previous era of slavery and racial inequalities. 

But racial issues are often intertwined with socio-economic issues.  Race relations are fundamentally affected by the context and conditions that surround them.  In Baltimore, Ferguson, and other locations that have been struggling with race based concerns, they are also struggling with crime and poverty.   The prevalence of crime and poverty have a bearing on the incidences that have arisen in these communities, including recent issues with police.  In such communities, the presence of police and attitudes both of police and about police have an inextricable connection to the socio-economic issues of the areas they police.  Certainly profiling is a problem and brutality is not acceptable in any context, but a potentially higher incidence of crime and violence may increase the likelihood of tensions or perhaps responsive violence.  And, in many such communities, police and other officials are in the same racial group as those in the community, so the idea of racial tension may actually be less about race and more about authority.

As such, at the intersection of race and poverty, especially within the context of Baltimore, Ferguson, and other communities that are predominately poor with a concentration of a racial minority, attitudes toward “the establishment” and economic power may be as much if not more of a concern.  For example, in Baltimore, the recent riots and looting also targeted many stores owned by Asians.  The fact that one racial minority would target another racial minority seems hypocritical when we look at the issue under the lens of race relations.  However, when we intersect race and poverty, we realize the targets and tensions have a lot to do with actual or perceived economic strength.  The Black community in Baltimore may see the Asian community as prospering through their stores and may resent that prosperity in the broader context of poverty in the Black community.   

NPR recently aired an interview with a Baltimore resident sharing an example of this hostility.  This Black man indicated that he recently needed a white t-shirt for work, went into an Asian store and asked if he could have a shirt for work and that he would pay for it in a few days later.  The Asian shop owner did not agree, and as a result the man resented the shop owner and thought they were being unfair, even justifying the later looting of such a store.  Most would agree that the shop owner is well within their rights to refuse to give away a t-shirt without payment.  But in the broader socio-economic context, the result of the shop keeper exercising acceptable business practice was a backlash against them – a complex and troubling result that intermixes race and poverty tensions.

It is also worth noting that at the intersection of race and poverty, the issues in cities like Baltimore are also not limited to political representation since the political and administrative leadership in these areas are often also Black.  The tensions are less rooted in whether there is political representation as much as whether there is economic power and related social power.

Statistics certainly indicate that being Black, and particularly being a young Black man, in America is consistently challenging whether in the political, economic, or social contexts.  Generally they face a higher likelihood of profiling, disparity, and even violence.  However, the socio-economic status of many of these Black Americas also create an unsettling dynamic that carries responsibilities on both sides.  The impoverished urban and rural settings create a context where there is a greater likelihood of disparity, anger, and crime.  And in turn, those factors play a significant role in not only the community members’ attitudes toward police and authority in general, but also in a mentality that may perpetuate disparity, anger, and crime.

It is not enough for a Black American or any other American to state that there are racial divides. The situation surrounding the racial divide matters too.  Most people in America today do not consciously discriminate or consider other racial groups as lesser. But America’s history of racial discrimination and the socio-economic realities of many Black Americans today compound each other and often create a situation that is anti-establishment and entitlement focused, as in the case of the person asking for his white shirt without payment.  The conditions at the intersection of race and poverty have created attitudes that make Black Americans perceive the establishment as against them, and in turn resent or reject their authority.  Meanwhile the establishment or authorities, such as police, struggle with how to address lawlessness, tensions, and violence that are prevalent in these communities and perpetuated by the community and the media.

Regardless of whether the legal system addresses the concerns resulting from the death of individuals like Freddie Gray, the larger issues of what is happening in Baltimore and similar communities at the intersection of race and poverty is of much greater consequence and requires a harder look not only at perceived racism but on the conditions, attitudes, and behaviors that are perpetuated on both sides of the equation. 

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not imply endorsement by G.L.O.B.A.L. Justice. We are a faith-based, nonpartisan organization that seeks to extend the conversation about justice with a posture of dignity and respect.