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Originally published Sunday, January 31, 2010 at 12:06 AM

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Leonard Pitts Jr. / Syndicated columnist

Contempt for the poor

Who speaks for the poor? Who takes a stand when they are exploited by employers and turned away by hospitals? As near as columnist Leonard Pitts can tell, no one does.

Syndicated columnist

If he'd said it of Jews, he would still be apologizing.

If he'd said it of blacks, he'd be on BET, begging absolution.

If he'd said it of women, the National Organization for Women would have his carcass turning slowly on a spit over an open flame.

But he said it of the poor, so he got away with it.

"He" is South Carolina Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, running for governor on the GOP ticket. Speaking of those who receive public assistance, he recently told an audience, "My grandmother was not a highly educated woman, but she told me as a small child to quit feeding stray animals. You know why? Because they breed. You're facilitating the problem if you give an animal or a person ample food supply. They will reproduce, especially ones that don't think too much further than that. And so what you've got to do is you've got to curtail that type of behavior. They don't know any better."

You read that right. The would-be governor of one of the poorest states there is likens the poor to stray animals.

And though it drew some newspaper notice, a riposte from "The Daily Show" and rebukes from Bauer's opponents, it never quite rose to the level of national controversy, as it would've had Bauer compared, say, women or Jews to the dogs one feeds at one's back door. The relative silence stands as eloquent testimony to the powerlessness and invisibility of the American poor.

One is reminded how earnestly shocked news media were at the poverty they saw five years ago when New Orleans drowned. "Why didn't they get out?" observers kept asking — as if everyone has a car in the driveway and a wallet full of plastic.

The poor fare little better on television. The Evanses of "Good Times" and the Conners from "Roseanne" aside, television has been heavily weighted toward fresh-scrubbed middle- and upper-class families for 60 years.

Politicians? They'll elbow one another aside to pledge allegiance to the middle class; they are conspicuously less eager to align with those still trying to reach that level.

Who, then, speaks for the poor? Who raises a voice when they are scapegoated and marginalized? Who cries out when they are abused by police and failed by schools? Who takes a stand when they are exploited by employers and turned away by hospitals?

As near as I can tell, no one does.

Unfortunately, poor people have never learned to think of and conduct themselves as a voting bloc; historically, they have proved too readily divisible, usually by race.

As Martin Luther King once observed: "If it may be said of the slavery era that the white man took the world and gave the Negro Jesus, then it may be said of the Reconstruction era that the Southern aristocracy took the world and gave the "poor" white man Jim Crow. And when his wrinkled stomach cried out for the food that his empty pockets could not provide, he ate Jim Crow, a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than the black man."

It takes some helluva psychology to get two men stuck in the same leaking boat to fight one another. You'd think their priority would be to come together, if only long enough to bail water. But the moneyed interests in this country have somehow been able to con the poor into doing just that, fighting tooth and nail when they ought to be standing shoulder to shoulder.

One hopes Andre Bauer's words will provide a wake-up call — in South Carolina and elsewhere — for people who have been down too long and fooled too often, that it will encourage them to organize their votes, raise their voices, push their issues into the public discourse. In America, one is invisible and powerless only so long as one chooses to be.

And the Bauers of this world need to know: Sometimes stray animals bite.

Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr.'s column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is: lpitts@miamiherald.com

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