I have been studying race, racism and its damaging effects for most of my adult life. And I have witnessed the “racial fatigue” of people who don’t have to consciously deal with race. They tell me that we are now. “post-racial” or “colorblind” (primarily because we elected and re-elected a man who is other than White to be president). So now the explanation for disparity and inequality is “class.”
Perhaps it is class in some other countries but in the US, race still matters and it matters a lot. I’ve just started reading Daira Roithmayr’s Reproducing Racism: How Everyday Choices Lock in White Advantage where she argues cogently that racial advantage is inscribed in our society and it is virtually impossible to eradicate. For example, she points out that a high income African American has less net wealth than a middle income White person. “As of 2009, Blacks had a median net worth (excluding homes) of $2.200, the lowest recorded for the last thirty years, where Whites’ median wealth registered $97,900, 44.5 times the median wealth for Blacks” (Roithmayr, p.3). The problem, according to Roithmayr is that the racial wealth advantage is passed from generation to generation and the “little things” we do help it to continue. For example, when a White person is asked to recommend someone for a job they recommend someone they know who is more likely to be White. The business, professional, and social networks we inhabit are often quite segregated.
Although the statistics are compelling I think it is the personal narrative that adds flesh to the bare bones of the numbers. In my own case I would have to say I have been “middle class” for more than forty years. Although I grew up in a working class household with a mother who was a clerk (high school graduate) and a father who was a laborer (3rd grade education), once I graduated from college and began teaching I entered the middle class. According to American social mobility mythology I have essentially “made it.” But, have I?
One evening after teaching my UNIVERSITY course (at a research intensive institution) I was waiting at the corner to cross the street to the parking lot. Suddenly a car of college-aged students sped around the corner and one yelled, “Go back to Africa!” My “middle class” status as a university professor did not stop that from happening. They did not yell at me because of my class status. The presumed insult (actually having been to Africa, I recognize what a joy it would be to “go back”) was hurled at me because of my race. Some will say the rantings of the young might be explained away as drunkeness.
On another occasion I was waiting in the concierge lounge of a hotel in a city where I had come to give the “Distinguished Scholar Lecture.” I was dressed in business attire and sitting on a couch reading a newspaper. Shortly after I arrived a White man poked his head in and asked with his distinctly southern drawl, “What time are Y’ALL goin’ to start servin’?” With raised eyebrows I let the man know that I had no idea when THEY would be serving but as a GUEST I was awaiting service also. He shrugged his shoulders and walked off. My class identity (well dressed, reading the New York Times) did nothing to keep the man from thinking I was “the help!”
Recently, two of my African American colleagues gave me a lift to the hotel where I was staying. The young men were in business suits and the driver was driving a late model luxury car. Soon after they let me out they were approached by a White hotel doorman/bellman and asked, “What company do you fellas drive for?” Their class privilege–both are university professors–did not trump their racial status. Even the illogical notion of 2 people driving 1 person did not cross the White questioners mind. All he could see was what he thought was the “natural order” of things. The only explanation for the two Black men being well dressed in a luxury car had to be their employment as limousine drivers.
Some interesting data about housing patterns by John Logan of Brown University suggests that even when African Americans earn enough to move to their suburban dream homes, those homes are more likely to be located in a segregated suburbia. African Americans, regardless of income, are more likely to be relegated to racially segregated housing because despite their ability to afford middle class housing, their White counterparts do not want to live with them. That is not a class difference–it is race. Even Black comedian Chris Rock says, “I make millions of dollars every year and am recognized world wide. My White next door neighbor is a DENTIST!”
I do not want to suggest that class has no impact on life experiences and quality. However, class is second–perhaps a distant second–to race in America.
Stay Black & Smart!