Nell Irvin Painter: When Poverty Was White





Nell Irvin Painter is the author of “The History of White People.”

CARRIE BUCK, or rather her last name, appears just once in the books of Charles Murray, the conservative sociologist and author of the recent work “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010,” his portrait of the decline of poor white Americans. To find it, you have to look through the endnotes for the introduction to his most famous book, “The Bell Curve,” in which he cites Buck v. Bell, the 1927 Supreme Court case that approved Ms. Buck’s involuntary sterilization.

It’s a striking omission, because her case highlights the historical blindness of Mr. Murray’s narrow focus on the cultural and policy changes of the 1960s as the root of white America’s decline. The story of white poverty, as Ms. Buck’s story illustrates, is much longer and more complex than he and his admirers realize or want to admit....

...Ms. Buck, sterilization, white poverty — this older history disappeared in the mid-20th century, when prosperity isolated the stigmata of poverty in black Americans....

And so when Mr. Murray faults poor whites’ morals today, he unwittingly joins an earlier tradition of blaming the poor for their condition, whether they be black in the 1960s or white at the turn of the 20th century....



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