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The Dispossessed: America's Underclass from the Civil War to the Present.

The Dispossessed: America's Underclasses from the Civil War to the Present. Jacqueline Jones. Basic, $25. "Poverty has a history," writes Jones in her sweeping examination of poverty and its handmaiden, landlessness, in the United States. Poverty also has a color and a place. Today, most Americans would tell you that color is black and that place is the urban North, a broadly conceived territory that embraces not only Philadelphia, New York, and Trenton, but also Chicago, Detroit, and Washington, D.C. They'd be wrong.

Poverty in America is not mostly urban: A majority of the poor live outside central cities. Poverty is also white: In 1990, poor whites outnumbered poor blacks two to one, and black recipients of Aid to Families with Dependent Children were a minority. Poverty is also southern: The South has more poor than the Northeast and Midwest combined. Yet, Jones charges, Americans persist in directing their pity and fear at the urban black "underclass," a monster largely of their own imagination.

In this stoutly ideological work, Jones aims to explain who the poor are, and how they got there. By locating the origins of the black underclass in the upheavals wrought by the Civil War and by highlighting other poor groups such as laid-off whites and Mexican migrants, she aims to urge America toward a "class-based" politics instead of one that is founded on race.

These are ambitious goals, and they make for tough going. This book sometimes seems as interminable as injustice itself. Yet thanks to the breadth of Jones's scholarship, it is full of revelations--chief among them its examination of why poor blacks and whites have been unable to forge a permanent coalition based on their considerable collective interests.

The book starts by focusing on the primacy of land in American politics, beginning with the period immediately following the Civil War, a time when patterns of land ownership could have changed drastically but didnt.

Instead of handing freed blacks 40 acres and a mule, the federal government gave in to southern Democrats and returned most confiscated land to its original white owners. Up from slavery, blacks became sharecroppers--dependent on whites for housing, land, food, even farm tools, and physically proscribed by Jim Crow laws, Klan-type terrorism, and an annual contract system that kept cash out of their hands.

At the same time that blacks' movement was limited, it was also compelled. The bulk of the book is devoted to a study of "shifting": poor folks' habit of packing up and leaving one plantation for another in the vague hope that things might be better down the road. White landowners attributed shifting to unreliability--"niggers rove from place to place," sniffed one Texas cotton planter--but Jones strongly insists that to shift was not to be shiftless. Shifting, she argues, showed that croppers were industrious, doggedly independent, even idealistic.

Shifting, however, proved futile. Rarely did sharecroppers acquire land or even a measure of independence. By 1930, more than 60 years after Emancipation, 80 percent of all black farmers were still working somebody else's land. This, Jones says, led to the ultimate shift: the Great Migration of southern blacks to the cities of the North. But even there they were confined to the worst jobs, the worst schools, and the worst neighborhoods; racial covenants took the place of pass laws, and, Jones says, the ghetto took the place of the plantation.

But blacks weren't the only ones dispossessed and displaced by the war. "The story of the South's small farm owners in the late 19th century represents the intersection of the freedpeople's climb out of slavery and the poor whites' descent into tenancy," points out Jones.

The poor white man is crucial to Jones's argument. Ubiquitous yet ignored (in Dixie's Forgotten People, J. Wayne Flint calls him "the invisible poor"), the poor white offers sad proof that blacks had no monopoly on poverty. Even before the Civil War, whites were pushed onto the South's least fertile sand flats and clay hills, and deprived by slavery of a host of wage-earning jobs. It remains one of the great paradoxes of the war that these slaveless whites fought and died for a system that oppressed them rather than banding together with blacks against the planters; that paradox is intimately related to the questions posed by Jones in her book.

Increasingly, Jones writes, the relationship between poor and wealthy whites was not neighborly, but contractual. While blacks became sharecroppers, whites became tenant farmers who were viewed as mildly superior to blacks, but not by much. Here Jones begins her examination of the countless ways in which white labor was pitted against black. If subtle competition existed between the two groups before the war, it was the postwar economy that brought them face to face in the labor market. To their chagrin, whites often were subject to the same restrictions as blacks: When a white landowner declared that he didn't want "pistol carriers," "professional crap shooters," "quarrelsome men," or preachers on his plantation, he wasn't just talking about blacks.

Whites usually came out ahead--particularly when they moved off the farm to take wage jobs in phosphate mines, lumber camps, textile mills, and turpentine stills. At the Prairie Pebble Company, only blacks found their paychecks docked for "medical insurance." In lumber camps, blacks performed the heaviest work but were not allowed to cut railroad ties: "It is not well," explained one owner, "to encourage them to use the broadax."

Yet shoddy treatment of blacks often led to the same for whites. On plantations, abuse of blacks lowered wages and standards for both races. The same held true in the industrial sector. Frequently imprisoned for crimes real and invented, blacks convicts were rented out--cheaply--to do mining and construction work. "Some of the bitterest strikes in southern history," Jones points out, "pitted free men against convicted coal miners."

And if blacks were prevented from voting by literacy clauses and poll taxes, so were poor whites--who, Jones estimates, lost 25 percent of their voting power this way. (Whites were also lynched, though Jones does not mention this.) Whites, too, were subject to "transportation charges" that plunged them into debt before they reached a work site. In 1940, a rural sociologist wrote, "The labor problems of the two races have more or less converged."

It's no surprise, then, that whites also fled north--though, Jones points out, their move "lacked the political and moral urgency that elevated black migration to the level of myth and allegory." Jones traces their route from the hollows of West Virginia and Kentucky to Ohio industrial towns, quoting one woman who described what they were after: "Our own land . . . where we can keep every bite we raise an' don't have to be a moven ever' year." Yet they, too, found themselves mocked and reviled. Alongside signs saying "no colored" were those that said "no Southerners."

Throughout this ugly history, why didn't blacks and whites turn on their employers? Jones never fully answers this question, though she documents abortive efforts. One was the Populist Party of the 1890s, which briefly united black and white small farmers. The longest-lived efforts she cites came from the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations.

Jones blames the lasting failure of these initiatives on two factorss: the declining power of labor unions, and white America's abiding belief in the "otherness" of the black poor--its conviction that poor blacks are a subculture unto themselves. Yet her analysis seems incomplete and a little unclear, as is her conclusion that what America needs, now more than ever, is a politics based not on race but on class.

There may be merit to this argument, but Jones does not name her enemy. When she deplores a "prevalence of racial politics" in America today, is she referring to the David Dukes or the Louis Farrakhans? Or both? When she proposes a class-based politics, is she arguing for a Rainbow Coalition--or siding with conservatives who would make college scholarships and affirmative action programs dependent on class? The distinction is an important one, and she does not make it.

Besides which, Jones's scholarship seems to be at odds with her argument: Considering their history of ill-will and enforced competition, how easy will it be for poor blacks and poor whites to unite? She herself shows that whites have usually found it easier to hoist themselves out of poverty; given this, are we to ignore the lingering impact of race--and racism--entirely? Surely not.

"As for lynching," said one 19th-century Georgia populist, "I am opposed to it except in extreme cases." As long as this ambivalence lives on in whites, it's hard to envision a just politics (or policy) that discounts race. Perhaps Jones would agree. It's hard to know. One thing, however, is for sure: If there remains anyone who believes in the universal accessibility of the American dream, this book will serve as a powerful tonic.
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Author:Mundy, Liza
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1992
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