Poor Whites Need Jesus and Justice Too

Anthony Bradley
Dr. Anthony Bradley, associate professor of theology at The King's College in New York City and a research fellow at the Acton Institute.

If you want to hear crickets in a room full of educated, missionally minded, culture-shaping evangelicals, ask this question: "What are you doing to serve the needs of poor white people?"

A recent seminary graduate, who is white, asked me what he needed to do to prepare to plant a church in a small lower-class town that is 76 percent black and 21 percent white. He was rightly cautious after reading in Aliens in the Promised Land about Rev. Lance Lewis' call for a moratorium on white evangelicals planting churches in black areas because of evangelicalism's cultural obtuseness and patriarchal disposition toward ethnic minorities. Since most black communities in the South are already saturated with churches, I asked this young man why he was not interested in planting a church among the lower-class whites in his county. His response: "It had not occurred to me to plant a church among lower-class whites."

While urban, justice-loving evangelicals easily shame white, suburban, conservative evangelicals for their racially homogenized lives, both communities seem to share a disdain for lower-class white people. "Rednecks," "crackers," "hoosiers," and "white trash" are all derogatory terms used to describe a population of lower-class whites who have suffered centuries of injustice and social marginalization in America, especially from educated Christians.

Even though lower-class whites comprise the largest percentage of America's welfare recipients and the largest percentage of those living below the poverty line, evangelicals remain largely focused on poverty among African-Americans and Hispanics. The imagery conjured by "social justice" and "mercy-ministry" rhetoric is a collage of underprivileged African-American and Hispanic kids living in "da hood." When evangelicals are challenged to relocate to poor areas for the sake of the being "missional," small towns and rural areas with high concentrations of lower-class whites, like Springfield, Mo., or Troy, N.Y., do not normally make the list. While Christian colleges and seminaries across America are teeming with "urban ministry" programs, there is only one large, accredited seminary in America that has a degree program targeted specifically for rural ministry: Duke Divinity School in Durham, N.C., a seminary founded and supported by the United Methodist Church.

One common excuse for the lack of focus on white poverty is how disproportionately worse poverty is in black and Hispanic communities. There is no argument there. African-Americans have a poverty rate of 25.8 percent, Hispanics/Latinos 17.1 percent, whites 11.6 percent, and Asian-Americans 5.3 percent. But, in terms of absolute numbers, there are more poor whites in the United States than any other group. More than 19 million whites fall below the poverty line for a family of four, which is nearly twice the number of blacks. Therefore, whites account for more than 41 percent of the nation's poor, argues author Mark Rank in Chasing the American Dream. Furthermore, the Congressional Budget Office calculates that whites receive 69 percent of U.S. government public welfare benefits. In other words, when you hear words like "poor" or "welfare queen," which conservatives coined in the 1980s, the image that should come to mind is that of a single, white female.

The fact of white poverty raises new questions. For example, why are these 19 million people not reflected in the American evangelical discourse on poverty and social justice? Why do college-educated white evangelicals seem to have a preference for lower-class ethnic minorities in inner cities? Who are the pastors and justice advocates representing the needs of lower-class whites? In fairness, there are several churches and ministries serving in poor white communities across the country but their numbers pale in comparison to urban and inner-city efforts. Why is this?

Perhaps the root of the problem is that middle-class evangelicals are content maintaining the narrative that they have come to save the world's people of color from themselves. "American society is completely dependent upon a worldview that places white Christian-Americans at the top of the hierarchy, with African-Americans falling into the lowest place" observes Kirsten Hemmy, associate professor of languages and literature at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, N.C. This view of whites at the social peak, she says, is a part of "our collective imagination—informed by art, culture, media, and history" that is "just as important as reality." Hemmy also believes that evangelicalism's paternalistic history and condescension with people of color fuels disinterest in helping poor whites. "Poor white people should be able to fend for themselves, so mission work and ministry is focused on the black community, as though poor black people, because they are black, cannot fend for themselves."

"You can feel good about helping a black family in the projects, because you can easily identify a few basic problems and leave," says Robert Fossett, pastor of First Presbyterian Church (Presbyterian Church in America) in Greenville, Ala. "No one expects you to live there unless you are intending to gentrify the neighborhood and turn it into your own image. But when it comes to poor whites, i.e., 'white trash,' while there is also a deep cultural disconnect with white evangelicals—poor whites tend to be on the boundaries of towns and cities in rural populations. … The assumption is that poor whites are where they are because they are inbred, lazy, and uneducated, and they choose to live like this. And as everyone knows, you can't fix lazy, degenerate, immoral white trash. Besides, it's far easier to mock a trailer park than it is to plant a church there."

Fossett's comments, in fact, fit the long history of disgust and contempt educated whites have had toward poor whites in America for nearly 250 years. In Not Quite White: White Trash and the Boundaries of Whiteness, Matt Wray, a sociology professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, quotes South Carolina Anglican minster the Rev. Charles Woodsman expressing such contempt toward the white underclass in 1766: "They delight in their present low, lazy, sluttish, heathenish, hellish life, and seem not desirous of changing it." The so-called "white trash", says Wray, "reveals itself as an expression of fundamental tensions and deep structural antimonies: between the sacred and the profane, purity and impurity, morality and immorality, cleanliness and dirt." To be white in America was not simply a racial category.

"Whiteness" identifies a class of people who view themselves as culturally superior and more advanced than others like poor whites, blacks, Native Americans, and so on. White is something lower-class immigrant groups like the Irish had to become, as David R. Roediger explains in Working Toward Whiteness: How America's Immigrants Became White. To not live up to the cultural expectations of whiteness, regardless of one's actual skin color, was to invite utter disdain by the educated class. Including Christians.

According to Wray, by the 1760s, elites in the colonies viewed lower-status whites as a "distinct, inferior social group." From the 17th to the early 19th century, poor whites were lumped in with Indians and blacks as "immoral, lazy, and dirty." These stigmatypes were particularly fitting given the fact that lower-class whites worked, and sometimes even lived, among Native Americans and freed blacks. "Crackers," "white trash," "rednecks," and the like were considered objects of Christian mission because their perceived laziness was understood as a moral problem that led to their material poverty and corruption. Elites sought to redeem the lives of poor whites during the Colonial era by instilling in these lowly people the virtues of hard work, the Christian life, and good hygiene.

By the late 18th century, as landowning elites in the British colonies preferred African slave labor, Wray writes that lower-class whites found themselves "pushed aggressively and violently into the western trans-Appalachia frontier"—the upper Ohio River Valley, Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia. These poor whites were increasingly known as "crackers"—as first used in a 1766 administrative letter from Gavin Cochran, a Colonial officer, to the Earl of Dartmouth in Great Britain. Crackers are backwoods people who Wray says are known to be "ill-mannered, arrogant, treacherous, and cruel, stealing from Indians and propertied white colonists alike." Wray explains that "cracker" was not so much a term that stirred contempt, but a word that served as a clear cultural marker between God-fearing colonists and other not quite whites. Crackerremained in use through the Revolutionary era into the new republic and by the early 19th century was joined by the phrase "poor white trash."

Dr. Anthony Bradley, associate professor of theology at The King's College in New York City and a research fellow at the Acton Institute.

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