Sen. Jim Webb and the Myth of Race vs. Class in America

Jul 27, 2010 | Updated May 25, 2011

As I have reflected on the past two weeks and the racial furor that erupted over the NAACP's Resolution, and Shirley Sherrod's firing from USDA -- I find myself playing over and over again something profound that Shirley Sherrod said in her now infamous video recorded speech. She said, "That's when it was revealed to me that, y'all, it's about poor versus those who have, and not so much about white; it is about white and black, but it's not."

I agree with the heart of Ms. Sherrod's sentiment, but I disagree that this nation does not still have a serious problem with "black vs. white." The events of the last weeks have reminded us all once again that race in black and white is still America's greatest unhealed wound.

In a recent op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, Democratic Virginia Senator James Webb opined that it is white Americans who are being left behind in 21st century America and not persons of color or those who suffered past government sanctioned discrimination. Webb writes: "Those who came to this country in recent decades from Asia, Latin America and Africa did not suffer discrimination from our government, and in fact have frequently been the beneficiaries of special government programs. The same cannot be said of many hard-working white Americans, including those whose roots in America go back more than 200 years."

Jarring words, strong words, but are they factually accurate words? I don't think so because particularly as it pertains to black people, race and class simply cannot be separated. White poverty has nothing to do with "race," it has to due with lack of access to manufacturing jobs, educational advancement, region of the country, and other what I call "benign" factors.
Black poverty, on the other hand, is concentrated mostly in urban areas, fled long ago by whites, and abandoned by corporations who once provided the very jobs that sustained whites up through the 1960s.

As the statistics herein (below) show, black poverty is persistent, odious and riddled with a number of social dysfunctions that poor whites (and others) simply do not experience on such a devastating scale. Black poverty is accompanied by crime, violence, broken families, generational single parentdom, and high incarceration rates. We simply do not see this in rural white communities (e.g., Appalachia, Mississippi Delta, etc.) where poverty is most persistent.

I agree with Senator Webb that the descendants of slaves (i.e., black people) were to be the sole beneficiaries of government sanctioned remedies for past discrimination, and that that other so-called minorities have benefited without having suffered historic discrimination. I disagree most vehemently with his assertion that "many hard working white Americans" have somehow been forgotten or left behind.

I think class in America has always been our great unspoken dividing line, but to suggest that this is something new is plain wrong and reckless on Webb's part. It is also very divisive in a political and cultural climate that has many white Americans feeling pushed out, discriminated against, and vilified for not agreeing with President Obama's policies.

The reality, however, when you look at the hard numbers is revealing: The US Census declared in 2008 that 13.2% of the general population lived in poverty: 8.6% of all non-Hispanic White; 11.8% of all Asian-American; 23.2% of all Hispanic (of any nationality) 24.7% of all African-American. Poverty rates are much higher for blacks and other minorities. More interestingly, when you look at race/ethnicity and family status among married families: 5.8% lived in poverty. This number varied by ethnicity with 5.4% of white persons, 8.3% of black persons, and 14.9% of Hispanic persons (of any nationality) living in poverty. Among single parent families: 26.6% lived in poverty. This number varied by ethnicity with 30% of white persons, 40% of black persons, and 30% of Hispanic persons (of any nationality) living in poverty.

Webb's claim that whites in America are not "a monolith" is yet another problem rooted deeply in our checkered racial history. The fact that "whites" are all lumped into one group in the census and other government forms (or in our collective national conscience) is a creation of whites themselves; just as are racial designations such as "Negro", "colored", "black", and "African American". Webb's article is completely void of historical context and reality when it comes to the disproportionate and devastating impact that "white preference" has had even at the lowest socio-economic levels of American life.

My point is this: White Americans are no doubt hurting too in this present economy. And I agree that white Americans work just as hard as black, Latino and other groups to make ends meet, raise their children, save for retirement, and have a slice of the American dream. My challenge with the Senator's premise is that he is simply playing the race card two years out from his own re-election by offering a wink and a nod to white Virginia voters who may feel exactly as Webb says they do in his piece.

Sophia is a regular contributor to She is author of the forthcoming book Black.Female.Accomplished. Redefined.