If you would like to understand poor white folk, read Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. Many people from numerous ethnicities call poor white folk things like: Hillbilly, White Trash, Cracker, Redneck, Hick, Trailer Trash and so on. We do this because of a lack of understanding about what it means to be poor and white. In this country we often associate whiteness with privilege and rightfully so, but this privilege is generally not extended to poor white folks. They are often under-educated, work blue collar jobs that are becoming harder and harder to obtain and keep; there is a level of poverty and despair with which the majority of middle class America cannot associate. Understanding the violence in action and words, and yet the intense loyalty that comes from these folks is important.
I read this on the heels of reading Dream with Me by Dr. John M. Perkins. He was a civil rights activist in Mendenhall, Mississippi in the 1960s. He was beaten, imprisoned, and shunned for the work he was doing to be a blessing to black folks in Mississippi. His work is carried on through the CCDA (Christian Community Development Association). They work with the poor in the inner cities as well as poor, rural areas in the United States and beyond. In his book Dr. Perkins admits that if he has to do it over again he would have cared more for the poor whites. In his confession he says that the poor whites and poor blacks in this country have more in common than either group might imagine. As someone who loves racial reconciliation, this was a great wake-up call for me who lives in a predominantly white area, and many of those whites are dirt poor. Within a five-mile radius of me there are more whites living in trailer parks than there are total blacks. And I get to love both.
Getting into the mindset of poor whites and being invited to see a picture of what life is like in this environment, that is different than mine, is both eye-opening and humbling. Eye-opening because of some of the crazy stuff that happens and humbling because it gives folks more dignity and worth than I would usually assign to this group. Poor white folks are hard for me to love. I always figured that you could just pull yourself up by the bootstraps if you are white, while neglecting many of the factors that go into that life; mainly the despair and the love to pull one who is successful down. The shame of ‘making too much of yourself’ is compounded by friends who would say things like "What, you think that just because you are making more money now, that you're better than us?" Then the friends who you’ve know your whole life distance themselves. This would be hard because you lose your life and your history and everyone wants to remind you of it.
This book shows the reasons why it is hard to change your life. I think changing your life is hard, period. But if you start with major setbacks such as lifelong extreme poverty, it can be nearly impossible. It is hard to understand poor whites just as it is hard for a poor white to have the tools to not remain poor or at least some of the habits of the poor. Learning to eat right, spend money wisely, and not complain about your position in life takes a lot of work to overcome. Just as learning to understand without condemning those who are not like you, spending less and not complaining takes a lot of hard work.
This book was a great reminder of the difficulties that some have to overcome. There are some incredibly difficult scenes in this book, but it is reality for some. I pray to hear the voice of Dr. Perkins and live with instead of judge this certain part of the city I get to live in.