I've been thinking about two remarkably similar photos, one made by Contance Stuart Larrabee, in 1947 or '48, and the other by Finbarr O'Reilly, in 2010. (Scroll down to see them.) They've got me wondering: What is the color of poverty?
Ask Americans, and they'll probably tell you that poverty is black. For many Americans -- perhaps most -- blackness and poverty seem to go hand in hand. It's an old story. Nearly 15 years ago, Martin Gilens was already showing how "the black urban poor have come to dominate public images of poverty." The association of blackness with poverty is even stronger, of course, when it comes to Africa.
Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters: A man receives a monthly supply of food aid donated to residents of a squatter camp for poor white South Africans, at Coronation Park, in Krugersdorp, on March 6 2010. (Click directly on any of these photos to see larger versions.)
Can poverty be white? We associate whiteness with many things, but poverty generally isn't one of them -- wealth is. When confronted with the existence of impoverished whites, Americans tend to see them as anomalies -- among whites, who aren't supposed to be poor, and among the poor, who are supposed to be black. (For good measure, we label them "trailer trash" or "hillbillys" and blame them for the own misery.) Once again, the association of whiteness with wealth is even more powerful when we think about Africa, especially South Africa.
The ways in which we connect color to poverty and wealth help to explain why a recent photo essay by Finbarr O'Reilly about poor whites in South Africa has gotten so much attention. The subject clearly fascinates us. In different forms, it's shown up on the Reuter's new agency's photographers' blog, the New York Time's Lens Blog, and the Boston Globe's popular Big Picture photo blog. I've referred to it here and here. The photo above from O'Reilly's essay. Without reading the caption, it's hard to know what's going on. Blacks helping whites? That can't be right.
But, in fact, that's exactly what's happening. It's happened before, and Constance Stuart Larrabee was there to capture the moment.
Constance Stuart Larrabee: Johannesburg (South Africa) social welfare, poor relief, 1947-48. (Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution.)
What accounts for our fascination with South Africa's poor whites? Many people who commented on the Lens Blog and the Big Picture expressed surprise. They hadn't known -- couldn't have imagined -- that there are poor whites in South Africa, given the country's history of colonialism and white supremacy. The surprise in these two photos isn't simply about white poverty, however. It's also about black empowerment -- in 2010, the power of blacks, in a democratic South Africa, to succor whites; in 1947-48, the vastly more limited power of a black worker.
More importantly, I think, O'Reilly's and Larrabee's photos upset our notions about the nature of the world, about hierarchies, and about the roles people of different races are destined to play.
In truth, there have always been poor whites, even in South Africa. During the more than three centuries of colonialism and apartheid, South African governments and white public opinion viewed poor whites as anomalies, just as in the United States. Their very existence threatened the ideological structure of white supremacy. They were a political issue -- poor whites had the vote. Within the world of white politics, that made them either a problem to be solved or a constituency to be courted. When Larrabee made the photo above, she was documenting the efforts of governmental agencies to aid impoverished whites, during the run-up to an election in which the opposition party was furiously courting poor white voters.
Constance Stuart Larrabee: Johannesburg (South Africa) social welfare, food line, 1947-48. (Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution.)
Given the stark facts of life in South Africa, we might like to believe that this second Larrabee photo is truer than the first. It certainly reinforces conventional notions of black-white hierarchies. At the same time, it reflects the reality that the vast majority of poor South Africans have been black or brown. Even today, 60% of Africans and 38% of Coloureds live below the poverty line. But if we leave it like that, we're dealing with stereotypes. We're ignoring not only the social significance of poor whites, but also the historical importance of an older black middle class, to which so many early African political activists belonged (including the founders of the African National Congress), as well as the rapid growth of a self-confident and assertive black middle class, in the new democratic South Africa.
Poverty and wealth have no true color -- as O'Reilly's and Larrabee's photos remind us -- not in South Africa and not in the United States.
* * *
I've avoided the temptation to say that, in the United States, poverty is white. It's true, however, that there are twice as many poor whites as there are poor blacks. While a larger percentage of the African-American population lives in poverty, the sheer number of poor whites -- 24.1 million -- overwhelms the number of poor blacks -- 12.1 million. (Interestingly, there are also more poor Hispanics than there are poor blacks -- 14.5 million.)
Nevertheless, Americans insist on associating poverty with blackness. According to the influential study by Gilens that I mentioned above, the fact that blacks "dominate public images of poverty" is the result of "network TV news and weekly news magazines [that] portray the poor as substantially more black than is real the case." This needs to change, and photography can play a role. There are plenty of American Finbarr O'Reillys; maybe I'll write about them someday. I've already written about our own Constance Stuart Larrabees. They worked for the Farm Security Administration in the 1930s and '40s. You can read about them, here.