How do you explain the number of racial minorities living in poverty?


This is a question that comes up quite a bit in discussions about diversity. Below is a brief explanation of a large, multifaceted issue.

America is a capitalistic society, meaning there is private ownership of the means of production. As a result, two groups exist: the economic elite who own the means of production and the laborers who produce the goods. The goal of the economic elite is to make a profit, so they ensure that the laborers’ compensation is less than the amount of revenue earned from the sale of goods. Laborers depend on the economic elite for jobs, and the economic elite depend on laborers to produce goods.

Now enter technology, industrialization, outsourcing, and off-shoring. All of the sudden, production is moved to other countries and machines are doing the work that laborers used to do (for instance, have you been to a restaurant where you place your order via a computer in your booth rather than a waiter?)  As a result, there are far fewer jobs than laborers seeking to secure them.

Since there are more laborers than available jobs, competition develops. Which laborers are most likely to land the jobs? Does everyone have an equal chance? Research and statistics would say no. Devah Pager* conducted a study in which four male actors applied for entry level jobs using the same fictitious resume. Two of the “applicants” were Black and two were White. When all else was exactly the same, the White applicants received far more call-backs from employers of entry level jobs than their Black counterparts. Since the only distinguishing factor was skin color, it is clear that perceptions about racial group members (i.e., internalized biases) impact employment opportunities. Laborers who are members of privileged groups in American society (White, male, able-bodied, etc.) have a greater chance of landing one of the few coveted jobs. This explains why racial minorities, women, and individuals with disabilities are overrepresented among the poor.

It is important to note that the lack of available jobs is devastating for members of all social groups. There are many White laborers who are eager to work and utterly distraught by the lack of available jobs. Our economic system is in need of much repair. The importance of raising awareness about racial minorities in poverty, however, is to highlight the effects of internalized bias and prejudice on the system. If we fail to consider systemic racial oppression, we may erroneously come to the conclusion that members of racial minority groups cause their plight due to individual characteristics (such as lack of motivation, laziness, immorality, or another character flaw).

It is obvious that systemic privilege and oppression has a substantial impact on the relationship between race and poverty—and this concept is not new. James, the brother of Jesus, wrote about these issues almost 2,000 years ago. Rather than calling it privilege, however, he called it favoritism. Specifically, James wrote, “don’t show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” (James 2:1-4). In this passage, James taught the Christians of his day that favoritism in any form is an offense against our good Heavenly Father. Disadvantaging people due to their social class, their ethnic/racial heritage, their age, or whether or not they have a disability, is an egregious injustice. Likewise, showing “special attention” to members of privileged groups is a sin against the Savior who declared on the cross that all people are worth dying for.

As Christians, we must repent of our apathy around this issue. The fact that racial minorities are overrepresented among the poor should be a burden on our hearts. We must seek forgiveness for the internalized biases and prejudices that we harbor within ourselves. We must use our influence, gifts, and passions to work against racial injustice and advocate on behalf of the impoverished in service to God. Indeed, Solomon, the wisest man in history wrote, “He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God” (Proverbs 14:31).

So, let us return to the question: “How do you explain the number of racial minorities living in poverty?” Christians should be equipped to answer this question, and not only answer— but do something about it.

* Pager, D. (2007). Marked: Race, crime, and finding work in an era of mass incarceration. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press