We Need New Narratives on Black Poverty

Solutions Will Require Moving Past Negative Stereotypes

To make progress, African Americans and activists need to fight back against historical stereotypes of them being poor and unemployed, writes Joy Moses.

The media focuses too much on conflict between commentators such as Tavis Smiley, left, and the president on black poverty and not enough on solutions. (Flickr/<a href=KCTS 9 )" data-srcset=" 610w, 610w, 610w, 500w, 250w" data-sizes="auto" />
The media focuses too much on conflict between commentators such as Tavis Smiley, left, and the president on black poverty and not enough on solutions. (Flickr/KCTS 9 )

This weekend President Obama addressed the Congressional Black Caucus to suggest a unified agenda to reduce black unemployment and poverty. This was after a couple of weeks of ongoing media focus on divisions among the Congressional Black Caucus, the president, and outside commentators such as Tavis Smiley and Steve Harvey over the amount of time the president spends talking about economic challenges currently facing African Americans. Maybe it’s the media’s need to highlight conflict, present things in black-and-white terms, and constantly frame everything around the next election. But whatever the reason, the media’s magnification of infighting eclipses a constructive discussion of the problem and solutions—you know, all the other stuff the CBC and commentators were talking about and those carefully laid out policies offered by Obama on Saturday. And it highlights a bigger and long-lasting problem in this country about how we talk about black poverty.

First of all, the media is missing the fact there is consensus among these groups. The president, Congressional Black Caucus, and a broad range of progressives agree that we need to pass the American Jobs Act, which stands to benefit a broad range of Americans. This includes African Americans, who are faced with a 16.7 percent general unemployment rate, and 32.9 percent of African American youth are out of work. With those kinds of numbers we should be pushing legislation that creates jobs for youth, subsidized jobs, new jobs that rebuild infrastructure and schools, incentives to hire veterans (2.6 million of whom are black), and antidiscrimination protections for the unemployed. This is of course a little less sexy than the media’s obsession with who called who an “Uncle Tom.”

But moving beyond the agreement on jobs, larger questions remain that will take far more than sound bites to sort out. Those concerned about black poverty and unemployment (and poverty and unemployment far more generally) are frustrated about the lack of national attention to this issue. Some point the finger at the Obama administration for not talking about it enough, and the administration tends, in turn, to point to its successful efforts to increase black employment, the Recovery Act, and the recently proposed American Jobs Act.

But it’s short sighted to speak of the issue as if it’s something new or that the lack of a robust national dialogue is solely attributable to the fact that we have a black president. We have a long history of demonizing the poor and unemployed and associating both with being the lazy and unworthy “other” (urban black and Latinos). This took on new significance with the rise of certain media outlets and conservative organizations, such as Fox News and the Heritage Foundation, from the 1980s forward. This “other” narrative is a part of our American culture, and as a result, it influences the actions of politicians of all stripes and at all levels of government as well as other public figures, the private sector, nonprofits, and justice movements.

It’s not that people don’t care or that they aren’t doing anything to affect the issue. It’s more that they’re operating within the current cultural context, which is arguably shaped by:

  • Nasty racial narratives. It’s hard to forget Ronald Reagan’s creation of the welfare queen, a stereotype of a black woman on welfare who is too lazy to work and is taking advantage of the government. Today groups such as Media Matters are still documenting ways that media outlets subtly, and sometimes not so subtly, link antipoverty efforts to unhelpful stereotypes.
  • Generation gaps. The generation that remembers the 1960s, when a spotlight was placed on the effects of Jim Crow and the civil rights movement was at its peak, likely views poverty and the race-poverty connection differently than later generations. Those of us who work on these issues still have some work to do to successfully create and broadly sell new reasons for new generations to care and be invested in solutions.
  • A complicated past. African Americans have a complicated history. On one hand, we have achieved tremendous successes since the times of Jim Crow, in part attributable to government programs. On the other hand, we have an enduring history of higher rates of poverty and other bad outcomes—something that discourages us and possibly leads others to believe we are a lost cause.

Undoubtedly, many have thought long and hard about how to address these dynamics. And indeed it may be helpful to continue to pressure President Obama to use his national stage for this purpose. But given the challenges it’s doubtful that approach will be enough. A cultural sea change is necessary, and African Americans should play a critical role in this effort.

First, we should more aggressively reclaim our image. The stereotypes about poor people and poor black people need to go.

Second, we should move the nation toward Generation Next—finding new ideas that cause a broad range of people to care about black poverty and poverty in general.

Finally, we must untangle the complicated history of our struggle for economic justice and tell a new and simplified narrative—one that celebrates our progress while also acknowledging the need to do more.

In these ways we can contribute to a future in which we not only have a constructive national dialogue about poverty, but we are finding and implementing appropriate solutions.

Joy Moses is a Senior Policy Analyst at American Progress.

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Joy Moses

Senior Policy Analyst