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"Comments on CAP Report:,"

by Michael R. Wenger July/August 2007 issue of Poverty & Race

I applaud the Center for American Progress for trying to put the elimination of poverty back on the public policy agenda. The report of its Task Force on Poverty is an important step in this direction.

But the report’s failure to acknowledge the critical intersection of race and poverty is deeply disappointing:
  1. Racism is never explicitly mentioned as a cause of poverty, which risks leaving the impression that the racial disparities the report enumerates have nothing to do with the legacy of our oppressive history or with persistent institutional racism today.
  2. There is no mention of addressing racism as a way to reduce poverty, which guarantees that the report’s recommendations will not level the playing field for people of color.
Failure to recognize that racism and poverty are inextricably intertwined has significant policy implications. For example, the report recommends ways in which to assist with prisoner re-entry, but it never mentions the mandatory sentencing policies that disproportionately and unjustly send people of color to prison in the first place. Similar examples of racist policies and practices must be addressed in education, employment, and access to homeownership and quality health care if we are to create equal opportunity for people of color. The preponderance of black faces in the gruesome post-Katrina pictures was no accident. Even President Bush acknowledged, at least verbally, that the legacy of our history of racism played a major role in the disproportionate impact of the disaster on African Americans.

We know the issue of race is fraught with emotion and is, thus, a difficult topic to discuss. And the report does make the point that its recommendations will narrow the racial poverty gap. Fair enough. However, unless we recognize racism as a root cause of poverty and propose specific steps to uproot it, we will treat only symptoms. The disease of racism will continue unchecked, and ending poverty will remain a distant dream.

Public officials shy away from the issue because they believe it alienates white voters. But a think tank like the Center for American Progress, by thoughtfully and forthrightly addressing the issue and providing data to demonstrate the continuing salience of race as a determinant of treatment in society, could educate the public that the civil rights legislation of the 1960s did not create racial equity. This could begin to change the racial climate, build a critical mass of support for directly confronting racism, and offer some political cover for public officials.

The Katrina disaster, by riveting the nation’s attention, created a window of opportunity—still slightly ajar, though closing fast—to talk more openly about the interconnection of poverty and race. We should seize what remains of this window to advance the racial dialogue in a way that does not blame people for past wrongs or ascribe racial animus to current policies and practices, but reflects upon our collective community responsibility to address past wrongs, as well as current, often subconscious, racist practices that persist in our institutions. As Rabbi Abraham Heschel has told us: “We may not all be guilty, but we are all responsible.”

Michael R. Wenger is Senior Fellow and Acting Vice-President for Civic Engagement and Governance at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies and an adjunct faculty member in the Sociology Dept. of The George Washington Univ. He formerly was Deputy Director for Outreach and Program Development for Pres. Clinton’s Initiative on Race. This article is drawn from his personal and professional memoir, “My Black Family, My White Privilege: A White Man’s Journey Through the Nation’s Racial Minefield” (iUniverse Incorporated, 2012), available in hb, pb and e format.

See in the Resources Sec.,the closely related short item by Sam Fulwood III, “Race and Beyond: Witness to Whiteness.”

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