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Bernie Sanders and the difference between black and white poverty

Bernie black and white

Photo via DonkeyHotey/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The Vermont senator’s comment during last night’s debate hit a nerve.

In the midst of a contentious Democratic debate on Sunday night, Bernie Sanders attracted some unwanted attention to his campaign when asked about “racial blind spots” and whether white people can effectively understand the plight of black people.

“When you are white,” the senator from Vermont began, “you don’t know what it’s like to be living in a ghetto, you don’t know what it’s like to be poor, you don’t know what it’s like to be hassled when you are walking down a street or dragged out of a car.” Sanders rounded out his intentions by reaffirming his commitment to “end institutional racism and reform a broken criminal justice system,” a life mission that Sanders supporters will fervently remind you extends to his past as a Civil Rights activist in the 1960s.

As many pointed out on Twitter, the quote sounds like Sanders is questioning the ability of all white people to understand the dire aspects of poverty.

And, as Jonathan Capehart of the Washington Post noted, the inverse of Sanders’ statement seems to imply that all black people have experienced poverty.

Sanders did earn himself praise from Black Lives Matter activist and Baltimore mayoral candidate Deray McKesson for his emphasis on discrimination in the criminal justice system.

The fact of racial demographics and poverty is whites have it bad—but blacks and Hispanics have it worse. The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation found that 10 percent of white Americans live below the poverty line—but so, too, do 26 percent of African-Americans and 24 percent of Hispanic-Americans. The factors that keep white people in poverty—lack of education, addiction, and a dearth of available low-skilled jobs—affect black people far more, fulfilling the economic maxim: “When Americans get a cold, African-Americans get the flu.”

Take, for example, the most recent recession beginning with the housing crisis in 2007-08. By 2009, when economists say the Great Recession had officially ended, the median net worth of a white household had fallen 24 percent, while that of a black household fell 83 percent. While the national unemployment rate acted as a thermometer for the economy throughout the recession, it typically failed to detail the struggles of African-American workers. At its peak, the recession forced the unemployment rate to 10 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But for African-Americans, unemployment topped at 19.5 percent and, in fact, has been consistently twice that of white Americans over the last two decades.

The factors that keep white people in poverty—lack of education, addiction, and a dearth of available low-skilled jobs—affect black people far more, fulfilling the economic maxim: ‘When Americans get a cold, African-Americans get the flu.’ 

Part of the reason for this was hinted at by Sanders during the debate when he said no white person has experienced life in the “ghetto,” a rather outdated and derogatory term for a high-crime, low-income neighborhood heavily populated by racial minorities. But there is a usefulness to discussing black poverty as a problem of geography, too. The Atlantic’s Victor Tan Chen writes about the “lonely poverty of America’s white working class,”  faulting the growing suicide and drug abuse rate among poor whites on the destruction of manufacturing jobs by unions and trade deals—the latter of which being a major policy standpoint of the most popular presidential candidate for this demographic, Donald Trump.

Poor whites, speculates Chen, might be more likely to fall into heavy drug and alcohol abuse than blacks or Latinos because “patches of the social fabric that once supported them, in good times and bad, have frayed.” For African-Americans, however, poverty seems to affect entire neighborhoods and communities at a time, not just households. A recent report from Rutgers University dubbed “The Architecture of Segregation” found poor black families are significantly more likely to live with and around other poor black families, while poor whites reside in the loneliness discussed by Chen.

The study analyzed census data to determine the demographics of “concentrated poverty”, or residential areas where the poverty rate exceeds 40 percent. In all of the 18 major urban areas analyzed, the percentage of poor blacks far exceeded the percentage of poor whites living in concentrated poverty. As the Washington Post notes, such socio-geographic trends worsen the “double burden” of poverty—the struggle of being unable to escape an impoverished or dangerous neighborhood combined with the daily suffering brought on by poverty alone.

This effect is likely familiar to the residents of Flint, Michigan, where Sanders and Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton held their debate Sunday night. The poisoning of its water and its residents by sheer government incompetence and disregard has prompted a national debate about water qualities in area besides Flint. According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than half a million children across the country have been poisoned by lead-contaminated water systems.

The thesis of any economic policy should obviously center on the minimizing of poverty wherever it may live and whomever it may affect. But doing so is impossible without recognizing the uneven and disastrous climb African-Americans are forced to make. 

And even here, the racial disparity continues. An analysis by The Huffington Post of nationwide lead poisoning data found a positive correlation between the rate of lead poisoning in a city and the share of that city’s African-American population. Lead in the water, like the weather, is clearly a problem for white populations, too. But the pressures working against African-Americans make it significantly more difficult for them to escape both the dilapidated infrastructure that worsens their water and the poverty that keeps them there.

Critics of Sanders are right to demand more public debate about the state of white poverty. This is especially true as drug deaths among white Americans continue to rise above all other demographics—though that conversation has largely left the presidential debates as soon as the campaigns left New Hampshire, where opiate addiction is a major issue. But so, too, is Sanders to remind us that African-Americans face a different, more adhesive form of poverty than whites. The thesis of any economic policy should obviously center on the minimizing of poverty wherever it may live and whomever it may affect. But doing so is impossible without recognizing the uneven and disastrous climb African-Americans are forced to make.

Gillian Branstetter is a social commentator with a focus on the intersection of technology, security, and politics. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Business Insider, Salon, the Week, and xoJane. She attended Pennsylvania State University. Follow her on Twitter @GillBranstetter.

Photo via DonkeyHotey/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Gillian Branstetter

Gillian Branstetter

Gillian Branstetter is a reporter and essayist who specializes in the intersection of technology, LGBTQ issues, and privacy. In April 2018, she joined the National Center for Transgender Equality as a media relations manager.