It’s Not Race, It’s Class…And Other Stories Folks Now Tell

BlackHousing2

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!

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6 thoughts on “It’s Not Race, It’s Class…And Other Stories Folks Now Tell

  1. Hi there. I don’t disagree with you at all. Redlining and steering still happens. Hate crimes are still very much a part of housing discrimination (see Jeannine Bell’s great book, “Hate Thy Neighbor!”) My book offers one of several accounts that seek to explain the big disparities in wealth, education, jobs, housing and political participation. I don’t make the argument that it’s class now and not race. Rather, I argue that class processes, when set against our history of racial segregation, do some of the work now, in addition to overt discrimination. I also argue that even if intentional discrimination were to end tomorrow, class processes would carry on much of the legacy of historical discrimination. Thanks for writing about the book, and for engaging it so seriously! Best, Daria

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  2. I’d like to share this with my school, the staff. This is a discussion we’ve been having for a long time, as we address the achievement gap. Powerful.

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  3. And let the people say Amen!!! Yes the daily microaggressions that I ( Black, Lesbian, Professor) experience, the “flesh on the bones” of my narrative are often due to my presumed race. At my university I have been “mistaken” for the janitor more times than I can remember and to add insult to injury they wear uniforms!!!! I would characterize it this way, social class has sometimes is the “wind beneath the wings” of racism, but so is homophobia, ageism, sexism, ableism, but RACISM is still the trump card- the “big joker”.

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  4. Pingback: Racism not Below the Surface in U.S., Still | the becoming radical

  5. Yes — Annette Landreu’s sociology book, “Unequal Childhoods” focuses on this exact issue. A lot of it comes down to the difference between situational vs generational poverty.

    (I came to the US as a penniless refugee, along with my parents and baby sister almost thirty years ago. We didn’t speak English, we had literally no money — and within a couple of years, were middle class bordering on upper middle class again. We all learned English, my parents passed their licensing exams and were once again a nephrologist and a pharmacist and that was that.

    As a kid, I was pretty judgemental about both other refugees/immigrants + US families who simply couldn’t manage to do the same thing — it literally did not occur to me until I was almost in college that being literate in Russian [or whatever your first language is] makes learning English pretty straightforward. It is anything BUT straightforward to learn to read/write in English if you were illeterate, unable to read/write in your native tongue.

    Or that a willingness to submit to the authority of a central government and everything that goes along with it — to trust the police and SN imperfect legal system; to believe that a piece of paper that said you owned your house meant you owned your house — and about a million other things you do because, well, that’s what you’re supposed to do.

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