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A prominent Black pastor says white poverty doesn’t get enough attention


Those who follow social justice issues know the Reverend William Barber II, a prominent pastor, a longtime leader of North Carolina's NAACP and one of the leaders of the Moral Mondays protests that gained national attention for their focus on state legislative actions seen by activists as racially discriminatory and harmful to the poor. As an African American pastor working in the South, some might think Barber's focus is primarily the concerns of Black people, but in his new book, Barber says that's wrong. He says this country's preoccupation with race obscures the reality and the needs of the tens of millions of white people in poverty. His new book is called, appropriately enough, "White Poverty," and he's here with us now to tell us more about it. Reverend Barber, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us once again.

WILLIAM BARBER II: Thank you so much. Glad to be with you this morning.

MARTIN: I wanted to start how you start. You start by asking if anybody wants to know why you, as a Black pastor, are writing about white people. You write, I cannot be a moral leader and only stand up for Black people. Say more about that, if you would.

BARBER: Well, it just doesn't make sense, and Black pastors have never been isolated. When you stand up for justice, you really care about all people, and I'm really concerned about redeeming the soul of persons and the soul of the country, so I don't - I've never understood how somebody could claim to be, say, for Jesus and not for justice or to have a one-track mind, and that's not the tradition I come out of. I believe that there are five interlocking moral issues - systemic racism, systemic poverty, ecological devastation, denial of health care, the war economy and the false moral narrative of religious nationalism - and to be true to my calling, I have to be concerned about all of them.

MARTIN: You make the point that in raw numbers, the majority of poor people in this country are white...


MARTIN: ...The number of Black Americans, and I take it you...


MARTIN: ...Think that most people don't know that. Why do you think that is?

BARBER: Well, they don't. I didn't know it until we called for a study to really examine the numbers, 'cause the government official poverty measurement is what I call a lie, and a damn lie. It's so low, it says we only have 30-something million poor people in this country, but the numbers are just wrong if you really examine poverty and low wages. You know, we did the numbers like I do my life - you know, I'm Black, I'm white, I'm Tuscarora, and that's all in my DNA, so let's look at everything. Whenever you demean Black people by showing a woman - Black woman with welfare and say that's the face of poverty, it's racist, it's demeaning of Black people, but it's also dismissive of tens of millions of white people. The fact of the matter is, 135 to 140 million poor or low-wage people in this country - 26 million are Black people, are poor and low wage. That's almost 60% of Black people, but 66 million are white, which is 40 million more than Black people in raw numbers, but 30% of white people. The bottom line is this is an American crisis. It's not an anomaly.

MARTIN: Well, how did it change from - so those iconic images we see of the Depression - of, you know, white men in bread lines and white Appalachian families, you know, struggling to make a living - to the face of poverty being Black? What happened?

BARBER: In that time, in the programs that were put in place, they meant most of them would only be available to white people. Gor instance, when social security was put in place, if you were in the agrarian culture or in the domestic culture, you couldn't even pay in or apply for social security. Well, that was mostly Black and brown people. But as soon as all of those programs began to be open to all people, as soon as you had the war on poverty that extremists hated and as soon as you had an effort, as Dr. King said in '65, to bring together the masses of poor Negro and the masses of poor white people, to bring together to create a voting bloc that could fundamentally shift the economic architecture - then you had efforts like the Southern strategy that deliberately focused on what they call positive polarization. And their goal was to divide intentionally, and the way they did it is they framed issues to suggest to many white brothers and sisters, you don't have because somebody else is taking from you. Somebody else is the problem. In other words, they offered them whiteness rather than health care. They offered them whiteness rather than living wages.

MARTIN: I would argue the reality - maybe it's an argument - that the reason that political leaders rely on these issues, what we often call wedge issues, is that they work. I mean, you talk about the fact that Kevin Phillips, for example, who was a Nixon campaign aide and a Republican strategist - the way you describe it is he said the secret to American politics was knowing who hates who, and he developed a Southern strategy to persuade Southern whites to leave the Democratic Party out of their opposition to the civil rights movement, and I think, you know, people sort of kind of know what the chapter (ph) - interestingly enough, Kevin Phillips actually recanted those politics...

BARBER: Exactly.

MARTIN: ...Before he died, but nevertheless, you know, the ground was laid. What do you say to people who say, well, it persists because it works?

BARBER: It persists because it works because we allow it to work. We give up. Most progressive projects just give up. For instance, in the South, one-third of all poor people live in the South, one-third of all white poor people live in the South, and many times, even in national politics, they're just written off. We tend to find ways around the South to get elected, when, in fact, right now, poor and low-wage people are the biggest swing vote in the country. They represent 30% of the electorate now, over 30%, in all states, so the point of the matter is our politics has actually abandoned a group of people, which is why what we must do is if Kevin Phillips could build a movement of division, we can build a movement of unity. And that's exactly what the Poor People's Campaign - A National Call for Moral Revival is doing. We're saying to poor and low-wage people, you have this power. The stone that the builders rejected can now become a chief cornerstone in building a new democracy. Let's declare we won't be silent anymore. Let's mobilize our power, and let's force these issues into the political conversation and the discussions and policies of this nation, and so moral leaders and poor folk and others are coming together. In fact, on June 29 of this year on Pennsylvania Avenue, we're having a Mass Poor People and Low-Wage Workers' Assembly Moral March to the polls, and then those same peers are working to reach 15 million poor and infrequent voters who haven't voted in the last election who can, in fact, be a major swing vote that can transform the political electorate in this country.

MARTIN: That is the Reverend William Barber II. His latest book, which is written with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, is "White Poverty: How Exposing Myths About Race and Class Can Reconstruct American Democracy." Reverend Barber, thank you so much for talking with us once again.

BARBER: Thank you so much. Blessings to you all.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILLIE EILISH SONG, "SKINNY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.