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The poor whites didn’t really have anything going for them except their whiteness and the fact that blacks had to say “Yes, sir” and No, sir” to them. Since that was about all they had, they held on to it real tight. That’s why I developed a strong dislike of poor white folks for a while—they were the ones who did most of the damage to blacks in rural Mississippi. For example, the deputies who beat me in jail were poor whites. They had a little bit of authority and a black man to hate. I was one person who was lower than them in society, and they took out all their anger and fear and insecurity on me.

Many people in the black community weren’t really any better, though. I came from a family of bootleggers, who operated much like those who own a pawnshop today. Our customers were often the poor white folks trying to get some whiskey during Prohibition in Mississippi. It was a complicated situation, because we would give some credence to poor white folks to sell them liquor and get their money, but in reality, we resented them. Religious blacks also would pretend they liked the poor white folks but ultimately resented them too, telling jokes behind their backs and expressing hate for them. The truth is no one really liked the poor whites in Mississippi. They had almost no supporters, except the sheriffs, deputies, and Ku Klux Klan. The poor whites were even forced to have their own churches separate from the wealthy whites. While the wealthy whites went to First Baptist, First Methodist, or First Presbyterian in town, the poor whites had their own country Pentecostal churches. This separation fed their resentment, and often the pastors of these churches were leaders in the Ku Klux Klan.

The wealthy whites also used the poor whites as tools of oppression, making them overseers or guards or sheriffs charged with taking care of the dirty work to keep black people in their place so they didn’t have to. In reality, though, this just fueled the resentment between blacks and poor whites.

You might remember in 2008 when then-presidential candidate Barack Obama said that poor white folks “cling to guns or religion.” He was criticized for his politically incorrect comment and should not have made it, but he wasn’t all wrong. For a long time, poor whites like Old Henry and the guards at the Simpson County Jail had a strategy for feeling better about themselves. Having blacks beneath them made them feel superior, but those old ways are rapidly going away. Thinking they were superior was wrong—don’t think I’m saying it wasn’t—but I’ve gotten to where I can feel compassion for them because something they had (or thought they had) is slipping away from them.

Just because some whites use heinous, callous, and abusive language to describe black people does not mean that we, as black people, are justified in responding with racial insults of our own. I can understand how it comes about. We as a people have been beaten down so much that calling poor whites a hurtful name is almost a cry for dignity. I get it.

November
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Dream with Me: Race, Love, and the Struggle We Must Win
Dream with Me: Race, Love, and the Struggle We Must Win
Baker Books
2017-01-31
224 pp., $12.08
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John Perkins: I Wish I Had Done More to Help Poor White People