An Open Letter to Anti-Racists on Global Poverty

Dear Anti-racists, 

Cheers to the earth-shattering defeat of Donald Trump, in whose electoral demise you played no small part. Your jubilation as this nightmare of a presidency nears its apparent end is every bit warranted. Joe Biden’s presidency will be far from perfect, but we can reasonably expect it to be better than the (primary) alternative that was on offer.

But I write you on a largely unrelated note, on a matter that you vaguely appreciate but that a series of political and social obscurations have conspired to hide from your view. That matter is global poverty. Four years ago, as we (rightly) bemoaned Trump’s ascent, and (rightly?) immersed ourselves in Jojo’s romantic life on The Bachelorette, and suited up in our snazziest outfits to celebrate the Summer Olympics in nightclubs, UNICEF quietly estimated that more than 35 million children—largely children of color—would die of preventable ailments by 2030. Millions have died since then. Compounding that “background” horror, which UNICEF anticipated even before the intervention of a global pandemic, COVID-19 is projected to force at least 88 million additional people into extreme poverty by the end of this year. These millions—many people of color, these—will be forced to subsist on $1.89 a day or less. 

I am discussing this with you because you—more than others—are attuned to the suffering of people of color in a world largely apathetic to their plight. You astutely observe that American institutions, currently constituted, are morally deficient, tending to protect our country’s wealthy and well-connected (most of whom are white) at the expense of the poor. But this astute observation need not—and should not—take us only so far as America’s borders (whose moral significance many of you already tend to doubt). Just as our government so often turns a blind eye to the suffering here, it neglects the hungry and sick who languish overseas. And until our government changes on this score, it is morally incumbent on all of us—on those of us paying attention, that is—to reach into our wallets to relieve suffering ourselves. 

If you are unsure as to whether we can actually do any good with our money, take comfort in the fact that vetted groups like GiveDirectly—among the most effective social action organizations in the world—reliably and cost-effectively deliver donated funds to the world’s poorest people. Recipients, in turn, generally use the funds for groceries, housing, and other necessities. Testimonials from these participants suggest that their newfound ability to make such purchases is nothing short of life-changing. Strategically targeted donations can make a difference after all.

But even so, you may say, this is not your issue. For your issue is racism, and the fact that Global Northerners watch as Global Southerners go hungry is not “about” racism. But you—an anti-racist—know deep in your heart that this framing is wrong. You, an anti-racist, familiar with the history of unequal distributions of welfare benefits to brown and white families in the United States, know that our country’s elite would not tolerate 35 million children’s deaths if the children in question were white. It is because the anguished are largely black and brown that so many people—whether or not they wish to admit it—feel comfortable shrugging off the staggering numbers with which UNICEF presents us.

If I am wrong, such that affluent Northerners wouldn’t lend a hand to the world’s poorest people even if these poor people were overwhelmingly white, then perhaps the world’s global poor are suffering, not from racism, but from poverty alone. But even if this distinction means something to those anti-racists who care about nothing but racism, why should it matter to you, a true friend of the marginalized? If your objective is to uplift black and brown people, then you should uplift them even if the problem that plagues them is not racist in origin.

Very well, you respond. But to donate money in the way I have described would be to turn yourself into an officious white (or Western) savior, a busybody presumptuously assuming the position of rescuer to assuage your guilt. This construal misses the mark, though. For if the problem with white and Western saviors is that they insert themselves into places where they are not wanted through activities that do not help much, then your donating funds to willing recipients who use the money for necessities does not make you a white or Western savior. Instead, it makes you—to use a word very much part of your lexicon—an “ally,” someone in a position of privilege lending a welcome hand to someone experiencing some social wrong.

Nor must—or should—your donation to the global poor emanate from a sense of guilt. There is, after all, no reason to feel guilty that you, through some twist of fate, ended up in the society of relative abundance that is the United States. To lend a hand, you need only feel a yearning for justice, for an economic arrangement that allows everyone in the world to eat comfortably before some live in opulence. 

Yes, that’s all well and good, but isn’t this approach to global poverty insufficiently revolutionary? Instead of quietly reaching into our pockets for money to give, you may insist, we should be out in the streets demanding the global adoption of democratic socialism and the gutting of those American institutions that immiserate the global poor. But you, a savvy strategist, know that no matter how hard we fight—and fight hard we must to effect change in the long run—neither democratic socialism, nor anarchism, nor any other radical “ism” is likely to materialize on a global scale by the new year. Thus, none of these “isms” will be adequate to uplift the tens of millions of people who will fall into destitution by 2021 if we do not write checks right now. 

Let none of this be taken as an indictment of your current and very important activism for a more just world. I wish only to invite you to augment your activism by taking a small but meaningful step for those whom much of the world has forgotten. If—as here—nothing less than justice is at stake, then we have no choice but to act.

Warm regards,

A Friend

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory