The Poor Can’t Afford Not to Wear Nice Clothes
Why do disadvantaged people spend money on status symbols? For the same reason we all do.
Every time there is a national news story about a black shopper getting harassed in a store, there is a predictable backlash to the miscarriage of justice. We tend to move quickly from being outraged that it happened to critiquing why a black person was shopping there at all. Much like we interrogate what a woman was wearing when she was raped, we look for ways to assign personal responsibility for structural injustices to bodies we collectively do not value. If you are poor, why do you spend money on useless status symbols like handbags and belts and clothes and shoes and televisions and cars? One thing I’ve learned is that one person’s illogical belief is another person’s survival skill. And nothing is more logical than trying to survive.
My family is a classic black American migration family. We have rural Southern roots, moved north, and almost all have returned. I grew up watching my great-grandmother and, later, my grandmother and mother use our minimal resources to help other people make ends meet. We were those good poors, the kind who lived mostly within our means. We had a little luck when a male relative got extra military pay when he came home a paraplegic or used the VA to buy a Jim Walter house. If you were really blessed, when a relative died with a paid-up insurance policy, you might be gifted a lump sum to buy the land that Jim Walter used as collateral to secure your home lease.
That is how generational wealth happens where I am from: Lose a leg, a part of your spine, die right, and maybe you can lease-to-own a modular home. We had a little of that kind of rural black wealth, so we were often in a position to help folks less fortunate. But perhaps the greatest resource we had was a bit more education.
We were big readers, and we encouraged the girl children especially to go to some kind of college. Consequently, my grandmother and mother had a particular set of social resources that helped us navigate mostly white bureaucracies to our benefit. We could, as my grandfather would say, talk like white folks. We loaned that privilege out a lot. I remember my mother taking a next-door neighbor down to the…