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But it is a backward cry. In a way, it’s an attempt to make poor whites feel the way we did when whites would fling racial slurs our way. But for us to do the same thing to poor whites that wealthy whites were doing to us only throws everyone into the same mud heap. A better way is possible. We all must have the compassion, wisdom, and mutual respect to rise above slander, slurs, and snubs to a place of love. What we ought to be striving for today is a new language of love and affirmation that will replace these hurtful slights. What if we started calling one another “friend,” no matter our race, politics, or economic class? Friends, I like that.

Brothers and Sisters

Until she passed away in early 2000, my cousin Teet and her husband, Hicks, lived out in the country. Sometimes, when I didn’t have anything pressing on my schedule, I’d go down and spend the day with them. Their house and the countryside were a retreat for me. Sometimes we would visit the local church, which distributed food to people in need. While the food was from the government and food networks, this simple operation was run by black folks at the church who had been part of the civil rights movement and knew how to address needs in the community.

Not just blacks came for food. Many poor whites came too. Sometimes when I visited the church, I would just hang back and watch the people come and go as they picked up food items. I always found the behavior of the white people quite curious. Their body language showed so much shame. One would almost think they were stealing the food.

I noted also that these white folks really didn’t have a voice or anyone in power to stand up for them—that they too were victims exploited politically by those in power. Many times the man of the family would not even go inside to get the food; rather, he would sit outside in the truck and send in his wife.

I wish that I had done more for this group of people. I’ve gone from almost hating them (when I was young and angry and they were bigoted and violent) to genuinely loving them as brothers and sisters. I think about how many poor whites respond to me so positively when I speak today. Often I can see a spark in their eyes. I’m truly sorry that I’ve neglected the needs of these neighbors of mine and have not responded often enough to the spark.

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John Perkins: I Wish I Had Done More to Help Poor White People