The preference for privilege over prosperity is a Southern pathology of age-old vintage. Race ideology came into play early in the region’s history, when white slavers persuaded the indentured servant class to identify with masters on the basis of skin color. And this solidarity in hate has persisted unto the present day as oligarchs and white workers unite together in support of the white supremacist Donald J. Trump.

Charles Barkley, a former basketball star and a thoughtful social commentator, once remarked that poor people are “like crabs in a barrel.” In his view, what white and Black poor people share in economic interest should triumph above racial differences, leading to social justice for all. This Tussling Crabs narrative is both comforting and common. Barack Obama, another incisive African American student of U.S. society, used the theory, and so often does President Biden.

The comfort in the Tussling Crabs narrative derives from its premise of potential racial harmony. Its purveyors seem to assume that Blacks and whites have the same fundamental interests. A defensible standpoint, this argument does contain kernels of social truth. For example, a leading progressive think tank found that raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour would lift wages by the greatest margin in Southern states, where racial strife is most prevalent.

But what if the Tussling Crabs narrative is too pat? While humans are not perfectly self-interested, behaviors that persist for long periods of time often do reflect calculated responses to social incentives. In this instance, a society established by white elites has created a structure in which racism has sinister rewards. Consider a comparison between whites and Blacks of equally modest incomes. The white poor are more likely to reside in good neighborhoods and to receive lighter criminal sentences for committing the same offense. The great addiction epidemic afflicting white America–the opioid crisis–is being treated as an illness. The Black drug scourge–the crack epidemic–was punished as a crime. For all its corrosive effects on the soul, racism has delivered privileges even to whites of the most modest economic circumstances.

Moreover, white people have agency. To say that racism is a cynical instrument deployed by an oligarchy to hoodwink whites into accepting their poverty is to exculpate white people from their responsibility to choose love. History brings us a striking example of a white Southerner who chose to abjure his previously racist views: James Longstreet. Once a Confederate traitor, Longstreet reformed his own morality after the war and became a vigorous supporter of Black civil rights. Both the jeering lynch mob and the penitent Longstreet represent parts of the Southern soul. The elite did not bewitch white men into joining killer mobs; that choice was theirs along.

To be clear, racism is not unique to any class of white people, or to any region. Chicago was segregated well into the early 20th century. And one Antebellum South Carolina slaver presumed to own over 1,000 human beings. But our concern today is combating inequity, and too many whites for too many centuries have rejected the cleansing light of human love.


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