Culture of Cruelty: How America's Elite Demonize the Poor

By Felicia Gustin
Mar 13, 2013

A conversation with anti-racist author Tim Wise 

Tim Wise is one of the most prominent anti-racist writers and educators in the United States. He is the author of six books including Dear White America: Letter to a New Minority and his highly acclaimed memoir, White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son. His forthcoming book is Culture of Cruelty: How America's Elite Demonize the Poor, Valorize the Rich and Jeopardize the Future (City Lights Publishers). Wise sat down with War Times to talk about the book’s focus that builds on his fierce critique of racial privilege to discuss a related issue: class disparity and a culture of cruelty that demonizes those in need.

Felicia Gustin: Tim, much of your work has focused on racism and white privilege though you've often looked at how these intersect with class inequities. Talk about how the idea for this book came about.

Tim Wise: In some ways, I think I’ve been moving towards this in the last three books I’ve done for City Lights (Dear White AmericaColorblind and Between Barack and a Hard Place) that included a fairly heavy element of class analysis. The argument that I’ve been making is that in many ways the problem now confronting white America is the indifference that white America has had toward economic injustice because it was perceived that the only people getting hit by that were people of color. So there was a certain ambivalence and that is now starting to catch up with white people with the financial crisis and the housing meltdown.

We’ve also noticed over the last year to 18 months in particular this very steady stream of dehumanizing, overly cruel rhetoric aimed at not just the poor but also the unemployed, people who are out of work for 26 weeks and need an extension on unemployment benefits, or 52 weeks. Sure, it’s been coming for a long time and we’ve certainly noticed it for years but we’re seeing more of this steady drumbeat  of rhetoric, of the takers vs. the makers; there’s the Mitt Romney tape during the campaign about the 47% of the American public who just don’t want to work.

You can hear this rhetoric regurgitated on Fox and on talk radio. There’s this constant stream of critique, not just about social safety net programs which had been critiqued by conservatives for years, but a real critique of the core humanity of people who need those programs, whether it’s health care, unemployment insurance or food stamps. It’s people saying things like people should be ashamed to be on food stamps, we should drug test them, we should make them jump through all kinds of hoops, we should make it harder for them, we should make them feel pain. Literally people saying these things. Or saying the poor aren’t really poor after all because they have washing machines and color TVs and microwaves. 

After hearing that for so long I just started to ask the question, why is it that the culture has come to this place when there was a period maybe 70 years ago, even 100 years ago at the turn of the 20th century, where it was understood that if there was any group that had bad values and pathological behavior, it wasn’t poor people and it wasn’t unemployed people, it was rich people. They were called robber barons for a reason. They were not venerated. They were not respected. They were despised. 

In the 30s, although it was very racially unequal, there was a general sense that when people were unemployed it wasn’t their fault that they were poor. There were systemic problems that needed to be fixed in the economy, and the only people who rejected that idea were the rich. Yeah they wanted poor people to work for whatever crappy wages they were offering, but every other average everyday person looked at the unemployed – at least the unemployed white man – as salt of the earth: hard-working, struggling against all odds.

Seventy years later we’ve come to a place where those very same people – including ironically, unemployed white men – are now being looked as dysfunctional, pathological, having the wrong values, being ‘takers’ not ‘makers.’ So I wanted to look at why. Not only that it happened but why it happened.

FG: And what did you see as the reasons this shift has taken place?

TW: I’ve identified three things. One is the racialization of poverty, that is, once we came to view poverty and need as Black and Latino, the less concern that white America had. There’s study after study that demonstrate that the more we view those needing social programs as people of color, the more whites have hostility for them. Lots of scholars have written about this.

The second reason is the sexist impulse, the feminization of poverty, so that the image of the poor shifted not only from white to Black or white to Brown, but from male to female. Instead of the unemployed hobo riding the rails looking for work in the 30s or the dustbowl farmer trying to hold it together in Nebraska, it was the single mom who was called in the 70s, the “ghetto matriarch,” having children she couldn’t afford and not even needing a man anymore, letting the state replace a husband. So there’s that whole male resentment and backlash that’s part of why the safety net programs were attacked and why the rhetoric has gotten so harsh.

And the third reason that is more modern and hasn’t been talked about as much is that popular culture sends these messages every day that reinforce a notion that is long standing in America – the notion of meritocracy, that anybody can make it if they work hard. That’s always been the reigning ethos of the country. But 80 years ago most people knew it was crap. During the Depression most people were saying,  “yeah whatever, we don’t really believe that and know it’s not true.” Now even though the evidence says upward mobility is less common than ever, the belief in upper mobility is greater.

And the only logical explanation that I can find evidence for is that you have a popular culture that everyday transmits signals through hundreds of television stations and dozens of reality shows that really anybody can make it because look, you’ve got people who are not particularly educated, not extraordinarily intelligent, don’t really work all that hard but they’ve got a reality show. You’ve got the guys with Storage Wars, Duck Dynasty, Hillbilly Handfishing, Honey Boo Boo. You’ve got people with a gimmick.

It’s not like Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous – these are lifestyles of the working class and mediocre but by God, they got a show. So it’s those constant symbolic images of upward mobility, symbolic images of success that don’t really comport with reality but reinforce these notions that if I just work a little harder, then I can make it.

Think about it. During the Depression, if you were poor or working class, you didn’t see images of upward mobility everyday. The media wasn’t as big as it is now. You were surrounded by other poor and working-class people. And likewise, if you were rich, you were just surrounded by rich people. Today you can be pretty poor or struggling but you might still have a television that will allow you a glimpse into that world and make you perhaps hate yourself or seriously doubt yourself or certainly doubt others who are even worse off than you.

So I think when you take these factors – race, gender and popular culture – and mix them together, you have this perfect recipe for this culture of cruelty, this indifference to suffering that in the long run –as I talk about in the book – is going to vitiate what little safety nets we have left and really jeopardize the economic health of the nation in the next 20 years.

FG: We’ve seen, especially in the last two elections, white people go against their own self interests, who are so hysterical that there is a Black man in the White House, particularly poor and working class white people who have actually sided with those class interests, opposing tax cuts for the rich, opposing health care for themselves, and ultimately believing that one day they too might be rich.

TW: Part of that is an old tradition, particularly among white struggling people, that’s been going on for 400 years going back to the colonies; an attempt to convince them that their real interests were with other whites even if they were rich whites, rather than with their Black and Brown brothers and sisters. And it’s worked with every generation to different degrees.

What was interesting during the Depression, one of the reasons there were such high levels of support for social safety net programs was precisely because people of color were basically excluded from them. So whether it was the New Deal programs, the jobs program, the FHA Loan program or later on, the GI Bill program from which people of color were routinely blocked - as long as you thought the only beneficiaries of big government looked like you it was all good.

But as people of color gained access through social movements, protests, and the civil rights struggle to some of those things that white people always had had, then the backlash happened and all of that confusing one’s interests and thinking of one’s interests in racial terms rather than economic terms became possible again.

Now, at the very moment when white folks find themselves, not in the state of the Great Depression, but in the worst economic situation since then, a lot of those programs are being cut to the bone and they still seem to gravitate toward cutting them even more. I think part of that is the longer trajectory of false consciousness that has been instilled by whiteness and by certain notions of masculinity.

Some of this is definitely connected to – and I write about this in Dear White America – the changing demographics and the changing culture of the country which leave white folks under the impression that just about everything that gets done is going to be about “taking from us” and “giving to them.” So that’s why they can say that health care reform, as mild and moderate as it is, is “reparations for slavery.” And even white folks who need better healthcare will fall for that and go, “oh my God, they’re going to give to those people who aren’t deserving.”

There’s a study that was done a few years back in ’08, that when white voters were shown the 10 basic key points of Obama’s healthcare plan and told it was Bill Clinton’s plan, 2 to 1 supported it. When they were told it was Obama’s, there was 2 to 1 opposition. So what is that? Same plan. But when they hear it’s Obama’s plan they either assume it really must not be about helping “us” or even a crazier thing which is, “I’d rather not be helped at all then have a Black man help me.” It just goes to show that that notion of confusing one’s interests can really be part of this racial conversation that we’ve been having for hundreds of years and haven’t resolved.

FG: With the emergence of Occupy movement, there were some powerful shifts that popularized the notion of a 99% and a 1%.  Granted there were issues within that movement in terms of racism, but that frame became pretty widespread in the national dialogue and in popular culture. What are you thoughts on this?

TW: I think that the thing that Occupy accomplished for those of us who talk about inequality is that it put that on the map of our political consciousness as a society in a way that had not been done in awhile. Yes, there had always been some of us who talked about those inequities, but for the most part those were third rail politics. You didn’t talk about inequality, you talked about opportunity, you talked about how we need to have better jobs and better income, better schools but you didn’t by and large frame it in the mainstream imagination as not just a matter of some people having too little but also some people having too much. And that was new for a national political conversation.

It even became a little piece of the presidential campaign. Not only did it prompt President Obama to talk, however limited, in a way he hadn’t before but I also think it ultimately prompted Romney to say the things he said and Paul Ryan to say the things he said about the ‘takers’ not the ‘makers.’

Interestingly, Occupy forced the conversation about who’s on top and who’s on the bottom and that forced the Republicans to out themselves as the party of the top and how we’ve got to stop those people who are coming to take what we’ve earned. So in a way, Occupy influenced the outcome of the election indirectly. That certainly wasn’t their goal and President Obama may not be a progressive on economic issues, but it is the first step in saying this is a conversation we need to have. I hope that with my new book and works by others who are trying to deepen this discussion that Occupy started that we figure out how to take what was this very germ of an idea that was brought to the American public and turn it into a longer, more steady and fulfilling narrative.

FGWhat is it going to take to shift things to an understanding of class solidarity?

TW: We’re going to have to invert the blame and get back to understanding who the people are with the truly bad values. It’s not the people who are poor. So we not only have to defend the poor and working class from those attacks by explaining the myths that are held about them and exposing them for the lies they are. But we also need to be aggressive in saying that the people whose values we need to worry about and whose behaviors are sociopathic and even psychopathic are the ultra rich, the super elite. They’re the ones with the bad values and here’s the evidence, the studies, the research that prove this. It’s about flipping the script on the demonization of poor people and holding the mirror up to those people who are the problem: the rich and the elite.

FG: How do you do that when the rich and elite own the media, Congress, prisons, the criminal justice system, etc.?

TW: They owned all those things 100 years ago too but there was still a counter narrative that existed among working people at the time. Working people didn’t have social media that they could try and counter it with. They didn’t have their own newspapers, radio and TV shows. They may have had little tabloids. The rich have always controlled politics and the media. If anything right now, despite the concentration of media power, there’s also a contravening trend which is that communities around the country – and granted there’s an economic division to this and a racial division to this and a cultural and language division – but there is more opportunity today I would say, for working class folks to counter those messages in ways that especially young people are hearing.

Young people are not getting their news from those media outlets that big corporations that have an interest in maintaining things own. Yes, internet companies and social media companies are owned by corporations. But young people don’t get their news from Fox or CNN or the New York Times; from any of these bought and paid for sources and they don’t trust any of the politicians. They know there is something wrong.

So the good news is that we have a whole generation now who are seeking out alternative forms of information. So if we’re thinking as organizers, we can stay one step ahead of those forces who are trying to limit and manipulate information, and counter it through music and through art and through alternative media and various sources of social media exchange on the internet. We can move the conversation in a positive direction and show that it is the culture of affluence and power that is to blame for America’s economic and social crises.

Tim Wise Photo Credit: Shawn Calhoun

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

Felicia Gustin has been with War Times since the beginning. She currently works at SpeakOut, a national organization working primarily with colleges, universities, and high schools and dedicated to the advancement of education, racial and social justice, leadership development and activism. She is a long-time activist in international solidarity, peace, racial justice and labor movements. She was a journalist for 10 years in Cuba and is currently working on several projects - an historical memoir and a poetry collection, among others.

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