5.01.2012

Race vs Class

My morning reading started with this week's Time magazine, in which you can find the commentary article "Inside the Racist Mind."  Yesterday, I read a friend's blog probing the same subject, specifically in response to this piece on Jezebel.com.  He takes significant issue with the author, and while I agree with him at points, I love this statement about the preponderance of racism in America today:
Modern racism lives in entrenched de facto inequalities, in coded language about "work ethic" and "states' rights," in silent negative spaces like absence and invisibility, and in Newt Gingrich's hair. And in irony.
She is arguing that middle-class white America is trying (and failing miserably) to prove a lack of racism through humor or what she calls "ironic racism," and while some of her examples (and most of her biting and oftentimes trashy language) weaken it somewhat, her larger point has merit.  My friend acknowledges the pervasiveness of racism in white America and mostly takes issue with the Jezebel author's superior tone, her implication that she is not just as guilty as those of her peers she is condemning.  He seems to be arguing that his acknowledgment that he is a racist, his openness to saying it out loud, is better than her attempts to point out the racism in others.

The Time piece talks about another white person who whispers "I'm a racist" while plumbing the psychology of prejudice and bias.  The author quotes Michelle Alexander's book The New Jim Crow (which I have GOT to read), saying:
Decades of cognitive bias research demonstrates that both unconscious and conscious biases lead to discriminatory actions, even when an individual does not want to discriminate.
I believe it is this tension between the unconscious and the conscious that my friend and the author of the Jezebel piece are fighting over, but the thing is, they are saying the same thing: we might not burn crosses on lawns, but they still flame up in our minds.

The problem is none of these articles are talking about the other half of the equation: class.  In our supposedly classless society, we still operate under the democratic ideal that every person in America has equal opportunity for equal success.  Bootstraps and picket fences and the promise of success through higher education - all proclaim the viability of this ideal.  However, if we want to see actual progress in the race issue, we must start proclaiming - and loudly - that it is a lie.  Even though a conversation about racism is volatile, it is nowhere near as dangerous as bringing class into the issue.  The reason these boys in Mississippi can claim no racism even as they are convicted of a race-based hate crime, murdering a man they called a "nigger," is because they have friends who are black.  The article puts it this way:
In the version told by Dedmon’s social circle, racial hatred did not bring them to Jackson so much as boredom and drunken teenage aggression, mingled with a kind of moral outrage at the shabbiness of life in the Metro Inn area. Yes, the people there are almost all black, and the white teens call them “niggers.” But that has more to do with their status than their skin; the undignified don’t deserve dignity, they say. “White, black, red, or yellow,” says the Bunyanesque friend from the car wash, who did not go to Jackson that night, “what I’m prejudiced against is stupidity. I don’t like stupid people.”
And by "stupid people," I believe he means those lower on the socioeconomic ladder than he is.  It's all about class.

Almost no white person would mind a black family moving next door if they were well-educated, middle-class, "respectable" folks; the s@#t would hit the fan, however, if that same black family was under-educated, under-employed, and did not conform to the status shared by the rest of the neighbors.  It is not race but class that divides us.  It is tragic that white people and black people alike associate education and "proper" speech with being white.  It is equally tragic that white people (and even some black people) associate poverty and crime with being black.  Neither assumption is true; both are what cause the conscious and unconscious biases that lead to discriminatory thinking.

The boy who ran over that black man in Mississippi did so not because he was white and the man was black; he did it because he was short, unsuccessful with girls, relatively poor and with few opportunities for upward mobility.  The black man he killed may have been taller than the boy, but he was not taller than the boy's truck, and he definitely came from a lower class area.  Hate crimes of any kind, in fact, any of the -isms we rail against - all come down to issues of power.  Who has it.  Who doesn't.  And how to keep those who have it from losing it.  When we are on the same footing regarding the power we do or don't have, we see each other as equals.  When we don't, the one with the power will often try to hurt the one without.

So, to my friend, to the author of the Jezebel piece, to all of us, I say: don't just say out loud "I am a racist" or "I am not a racist" and expect anything to change.  Instead, start lifting the lids on your own simmering pots of prejudice and privilege and start seeing where the class issue disrupts the balance.  Then, when Jezebel asks this question:
And therefore, if you really believe that all people are created equal, then when you see that drastic racial inequalities exist in the real world, the only thing that you could possibly conclude is that some external force is holding certain people back. Like...racism. Right?
you can answer: Wrong.  It is class.

6 comments:

  1. First, you write a much more cogent and coherent piece than I. Bravo, and I agree with most of your interpretations -- both of the issues and the contrast that I drew.

    One gut reaction to the Dedmon incident. I believe class is key; however, I believe a "low-class" black person is still lower on their totem than a "low-class" white person. That is, yeah, class matters, but race does too. That is, I simply don't believe Dedmon would have ever run over a poor white Redneck. Not in this context.

    Therefore, while class is a factor, the racism is the root cause, no matter what his black friends might think. (And if you let those black friends live two years in, say, Manhattan or Oregon and then thrust them back into Mississippi, I bet their opinions shift.)

    Class and race are both serious and heavy issues for us, and we have a long long row to hoe. And it's certainly worth debating whether class is in fact, or has become, the more incendiary of the two. Very well-written. Bravo again.

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    1. Thanks, Billy. I agree that Dedmon would never run over a poor White redneck, but that is because he is a poor White redneck. Equal footing.

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  2. Replies
    1. Thanks, Bob. I like this blog conversation thing. We should do it again sometime.

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  3. In your very well thought out post, of which there's so much to respond to, I have to sat this line spoke to me the loudest: "It is not race but class that divides us."

    May I confess to being bothered by poor grammar no matter if it's spoken by White or Black? May I say I can't abide cruelty or stupidity or selfishness no matter what is on the outside? I hate those things when I do them, too.

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    Replies
    1. Yes, Bellezza, cruelty transcends all boundaries just as kindness does.

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I love a good conversation, even (or especially) one that gets heated, so fire away! I try to respond to all in a timely manner.