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White poverty and racist realities

| Wednesday, February 12, 2020

It is an abiding truth that poverty cuts across racial lines in the United States, and that racism cuts across class lines in the United States. Relatedly, a recent Viewpoint titled “White Poverty in Floyd County, Kentucky” about whiteness and poverty in our nation and on our campus simply missed the mark.

Let me backtrack a bit. I grew up as white, middle class, American, Catholic. During my first summer as a Notre Dame student, I participated in the SSLP at Casa Juan Diego in Houston, Texas, working with immigrants and refugees. Last summer, I spent some time at Nazareth Farm in Doddridge County, West Virginia, a home repair non-profit which addresses sub-standard housing through low-cost home repair and hosts service-based retreats for high school and college students. I enjoyed my time there so much that I’ll be spending next summer back at the farm through a second SSLP.

I’ve encountered similar poverty to the type that Buhr describes. I have repaired leaky roofs, and I’ve experienced the beauty of Appalachian hospitality. I’ve also worked with immigrants and refugees, and listened to the experiences of my black and brown neighbors at Notre Dame and in South Bend. All of these experiences have allowed me to reflect on my own whiteness, the privilege that comes with it and my conceptions of race and poverty in my country and my community.

If Buhr had considered the region of Appalachia entirely, he may have considered the existence and experience of black Appalachians. His description of the poverty he encountered in Kentucky neglects to recognize the reality that the same economic systems which harm white Appalachians also harm black Appalachians, and are often compounded by the violence of systemic racism. bell hooks, a professor of Appalachian Studies at Berea College in Kentucky, has dedicated much of her career to describing the intersectional experience of black Appalachian people. Hooks writes of the omission of black Appalachian history in “Belonging: A Culture of Place,” saying:

“Coming from a long legacy of farmers from rural America, I was initially consistently puzzled by the way in which the black experience was named and talked about in colleges and university settings. … No one paid any attention to the lives of rural black folks. … Yet somewhere in deeds recorded, in court records, in oral history, and in rare existing written studies is the powerful truth of our agrarian legacy as African-Americans. In that history is also the story of racist white folks engaged in acts of terrorism chasing black folks off the land, destroying our homeplace.”

Buhr’s column misses the mark because his encounters with primarily white poverty have in no way disproven or invalidated the experiences of racism of people of color in Appalachia or on our campus. Rather, Buhr neglects to even acknowledge the history of slavery, violence and exclusion of African-Americans in our country, and fails to recognize the reality of racism that persists as a result of it. Buhr fails to acknowledge that multiple systems of violence can exist in one society, and can interact to create different experiences of poverty and oppression.

If one understands the co-existence of systems of violence like poverty and racism, Buhr’s discounting of white hegemony on this campus falls apart. As we acknowledge the hegemony of whiteness on this campus, we do not discount the experience of white people living in economic poverty. Rather, we acknowledge that systems of violence can co-exist, and that racism is a real and present system of violence on our campus.

I agree with Buhr’s point that “the nature and telos of the human being is, quite simply, to be related in love.” Such a love mandates seeking justice for the oppressed — including those oppressed by systems of economic and racial injustice. As St. Oscar Romero preached:

“A civilization of love that did not demand justice of people would not be a true civilization: it would not delineate genuine human relations. It is a caricature of love to try to cover over with alms what is lacking in justice, to patch over with an appearance of benevolence when social justice is missing. True love begins by demanding what is just in the relations of those who love.”

Students in our community have been victims of racist incidents that have occurred on our campus. Because we are related in love, it is our duty to recognize and resist systems which harm our brothers and sisters, and to demand justice for those who are oppressed by such systems. Manipulating the experience of white people living in economic poverty in order to discount the reality of racism is a misguided, unfair and inaccurate assessment of poverty and racism, and constitutes a failure to authentically love our brothers and sisters who suffer under racist systems.


Mary Killeen McCans


Feb. 11

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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