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A Primer: Class and Race

September 18, 2014 Leave a comment Go to comments

Class and Race

This has been one hell of a summer. From Donald Sterling to Eric Garner and all the way through the continuing nightmare in Ferguson, there has been an inescapable stream of bad news these days. Dealing with so many harrowing situations in succession is bad enough, but all too familiar tropes have been popping like clockwork to make matters worse. I touched on the faulty Black-on-Black crime narrative earlier, but repeated prompting on social media has necessitated a deeper examination of another misguided theory: that in the present it is class, rather than race that is the leading factor in many of these miscarriages of justice. 

The argument, which is most frequently deployed in education debates centered around affirmative action is far from new. It’s the increased volume of these claims, from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s article on Ferguson (and I promise I’m not picking on him), to the response to Hawks’ owner Bruce Levenson’s comments that has forced me to respond. To avoid setting up a straw man, I’ll quote from Joel Kotkin’s column in the Daily Beast recently making the claim,

Instead the real defining issue—class—does not fit so easily into the current political calculus. In terms of racial justice, we have made real progress since the ’60s, when even successful educated minorities were discriminated against and the brightest minority students were often discouraged from attending college. Today an African-American holds the highest office in the land, and African Americans also fill the offices of U.S. attorney general and national security advisor. This makes the notion that race thwarts success increasingly outdated.

But at the same time that formal racial barriers have been demolished, the class divide continues to grow steeper than in at any time in the nation’s recent history. Today America’s class structure is increasingly ossified, and this affects not only minorities, who are hit disproportionately, but also many whites, who constitute more than 40 percent of the nation’s poor. Upward mobility has stalled under both Bush and Obama, not only for minorities but for vast swaths of working class and middle class Americans. Increasingly, it’s not the color of one’s skin that determines one’s place in society, but access to education and capital, often the inherited variety.

For the sake of fairness, there are a number of truths in that argument. It is true individual opportunities for racial minorities have never been greater; the fact that President Obama is a Black man is never far from this discussion. It is also true that income inequality in the United States by many metrics is among the most severe in the developed world and the highest it’s been since the great depression. Why then, am I dismissive of arguments that place class at a premium above even race as a barrier to success?

Because the hierarchical conception of oppression even among the well-meaning, is inherently flawed and simply doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. That approach, based on logic that is easily refuted by facts, is monumentally naive and (either unintentionally or willfully) ignores the scope and measurable impact of structural racism which occurs simultaneously with classism. Put simply, class is an important barometer but its force is demonstrably distinct from the tangible reality of race. The two often work in tandem, but heralding class as “the real issue” as opposed to racism, fails to account for the differences in each and serves as a further disservice to the specificity of the threat. 

The class divide is a crisis in and of itself, one that often goes unexamined in our society, but that’s just the problem. Open and quantitative discourse about the social mores of this country are exceedingly rare, and thus upon a surface level analysis it’s seemingly logical that classism would be the impetus for a plurality of unrest. In the midst of an economic recovery still too slow for those at the bottom, and experiencing the machine of capitalism at work, if nothing else, it becomes an easier sell. Class is something we can all see and share across identity lines, but it is the ease in which that assertion can be made that necessitates us to look deeper, and that’s the point where race neutral approaches ultimately fail.

The central hypothesis of the case for class, is that the effect of race on the achievement gap overall has reduced as we’ve advanced as a society, while economic inequality is on the rise. While often not dismissing the fact that racism still exists, the line of thinking posits that Americans have more in common based on their economic situation than even intra-racially. Heather Long in The Guardian makes the point explicitly,

But when you look at the data, the most pernicious problem in society today is the haves and have nots. Race plays a factor, but middle class blacks live fairly similar lives to middle class whites. Middle class blacks and whites work together. Their children have playdates and go to same prep schools and colleges. What you are far less likely to see is a lower income children of any race mixing with a middle or upper income child.

The data Long refers to is largely culled from a Harvard and University of California-Berkley study on class mobility based on how often children born into families in the bottom fifth of the income scale make it the top fifth. It found that “areas with greater mobility tend to have five characteristics: less segregation, less income inequality, better schools, greater social capital, and more stable families,” and that despite the narratives of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, large scale economic mobility has not changed significantly over time. These are all facts and I have no objections to the study itself. The findings are consistent with several others on poverty in the United States. The conclusions Long derives from it however are simply unsupported by data.

The problem with Long’s logical gymnastics is that they treat race and class as though they exist in a vacuum. Explaining that there are significant barriers to class mobility only tells half the story and ignores who is being left behind. Black and Latino citizens are overwhelmingly born into concentrated levels of poverty as a direct consequence of racism, and sweeping that fact under the rug while diminishing the impact of race is short-sighted. So much of class mobility as noted by the Harvard study Long cites, is based upon segregation and access to schools and capital in your neighborhood. The effects of housing discrimination have long been linked to race, and the advantage gained from unfettered access cannot simply be explained away by income.

The damage of concentrated poverty is not up for debate. Advocates of race-neutral policies (correctly) push for solutions to stacked privation as well. It is a blight to success and has a direct negative impact on access to education, healthcare, safety, transportation, food and jobs. It’s the erroneous belief that the class burden is equally applied across the board regardless of race that represents the point of divergence from agreement and fact-based reality. We’ve established that one of the central tenets of the class-first assertion is that poor and wealthy people have more in common with each other in their experiences and surroundings than based simply on race. The facts of residential concentrations of poverty quite plainly counter that claim.

Where Long’s Guardian piece (and many others) claim the gap between haves and have-nots differentiate the needs and experiences of those within the same racial group by class, noted sociologist Patrick Sharkey’s recent study on neighborhood poverty shows that is largely only true for white families. When examining the census data we find that 84% of black children born between 1955-1970 were raised in “high disadvantage neighborhoods”, compared to just 5% of whites, and for those born between 1985-2000 that value only drops to 78% of Blacks, while remaining unchanged for white children. Now that we can start to quantify phenomenons it becomes clear that the overwhelming majority of African-Americans (and Latinos) are starting out in neighborhoods which already reduce their chances of social mobility. Affluent Black and Latino citizens are living in remarkably similar neighborhoods as those who are impoverished. While they have some protections given their economic standing, by and large they are going to the same schools, are beset by the same environmental factors, and are victimized by the same circumstances of race. 

Sharkey’s research agrees with the Harvard/Berkley study’s indicators of mobility while noting, “neighborhood poverty alone accounts for a greater portion of the black-white downward mobility gap than the effects of parental education, occupation, labor force participation, and a range of other family characteristics combined”. The study ultimately concluded that white families were able to translate rising income into spatial advantage in ways that African Americans simply were not. The impact of racist housing practices make that impossible for the majority of Black people. In fact, racial minorities at every level (with the exception of the most affluent Asian Americans) live in significantly more impoverished neighborhoods than even poor whites. Thus even for upper class Black and Latino families the disparity between Black and white neighborhood poverty has little correlation with the average income level. John Logan’s 2011 Report on neighborhood census data touched on this in detail:

The question running through this analysis is whether low average black incomes account for the neighborhood income disparities, or whether segregation by race is the main mechanism... These figures suggest that the overall degree of neighborhood disparities for blacks in metropolitan areas are not much related to black income, but are due in large part to residential segregation. There is little association with Hispanic median income. The association with Hispanic isolation is not as strong as was found for black metropolitan regions, but the explained variance of .08 is still substantial. Evidently, other factors also influence neighborhood disparities for Hispanics. For example, it would be worthwhile to look for effects of immigration status, language assimilation, or education.

Yet the low incomes of blacks are not the main source of either residential segregation or disparities in the resources of the neighborhoods where they live. A central new finding is that blacks’ neighborhoods are separate and unequal not because blacks cannot afford homes in better neighborhoods, but because even when they achieve higher incomes they are unable to translate these into residential mobility. Residential segregation is not benign. It does not mean only that blacks and Hispanics, Asians and whites live in different neighborhoods with little contact between them. It means that whatever their personal circumstances, black and Hispanic families on average live at a disadvantage and raise their children in communities with fewer resources.

Segregation, driven on the backs of racist housing discrimination both historically and in the present insures that regardless of wealth levels, Black and brown residents are not afforded the same access to the expected class-level protections higher incomes should theoretically yield. That’s because oppression does not occur in a vacuum; even the advantages of financial capital do not serve as full inoculation from the structural influence of racism. As recently as 2006, during the height of Housing burst that crippled the U.S. economy, a Black or Latino family making over $200,000 was still more likely to be given a subprime mortgage loan than a white family making under $30,000. Quoting from the Atlantic, whose great work on housing and cities is invaluable, “Relative to comparable white applicants, and controlling for geographic factors, Blacks were 2.8 times more likely to be denied for a loan, and Latinos were two times more likely. When they were approved, blacks and Latinos were 2.4 times more likely to receive a subprime loan than white applicants.”.

A 2007 environmental justice study on toxic waste found that “Race continues to be an independent predictor of where hazardous wastes are located, and it is a stronger predictor than income, education, and other socioeconomic indicators.” It also noted that racial minority groups received differential treatment from government in response to remediation, findings backed by countless works over the years including the failure of the Fair Housing Act. The pernicious influence of structural racism obviously extends beyond effecting residential class discrepancies as well. It alters life chances for advancement all the way up the line from quality of educational access, to mentorship and research opportunities towards advanced degrees, job prospects, perceived quality of work, to overall earning potential. The picture also includes the rates of unemployment which are fairly consistently almost double for Blacks as that of whites regardless of the status of the economy. That of course says nothing of the discrepancy in incarceration rates which is a national disgrace

The more pressing question is how much the racial gap has closed at all. Many studies touting class as the greater imperative such as Susan Reardon’s focus only on income distribution levels when examining the rigidity of American class mobility. While the median Black and Latino family income was about 60% of the white median in 2010 marking a relative improvement, the differences in wealth (net worth, or assets minus debts) are astonishing. The median Black and Latino family’s wealth is only about 7% of that of their white counterparts. The advantage is so stark that households headed by white high school dropouts still have almost double the wealth as a Black family lead with by college graduate. This difference cannot be overlooked; even if families are bringing home the same income, the Black or Latino family is in a significantly more precarious position because they don’t have the added security of accumulated wealth that often goes back generations.

To head off objections now, this does NOT constitute a denial of the impact of poverty on white people, who according to 2011 census data made up over 40% of the nation’s total poor. Despite the fact that statistically whites are proportionally underrepresented, and Blacks and Latinos account for almost double their population shares, notions of white poverty are too often made invisible. Even phrases like “white trash” and “redneck” are harmful, not only because they are invectives simply for the crime of being poor, but they serve to depict poverty as distinct from whiteness. Jabbar makes a similar point in his article’s call to action noting, “The U.S. Census Report finds that 50 million Americans are poor. Fifty million voters is a powerful block if they ever organized in an effort to pursue their common economic goals.” This is often the more liberal argument of race-neutral rhetoric; the notion that rather than coming to a difficult understanding about the role of racism (and our complicity) if we focus on class, we can find common ground and come together. Certainly there are alliances to be made among the disenfranchised, but erasing the impact of racism (regardless of intent) and ignoring the complexities of the situation as an appeasement only serves to further alienate those affected by both.

“The two great divisions of society are not the rich and poor, but white and black; And all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals.”

– John C. Calhoun, 1848 on the Senate floor

I have used the Calhoun quote before, and I invoke it here not to set up a hierarchy of interests but to remind that societal structures rarely occur by accident. Our conventions were ordered within a particular context and thus must be confronted and torn down just as intentionally. The problem of rapidly expanding class stratification needs to be dealt with and with haste; but while there are a number of places class and race intertwine, we must not be lazy or naive enough to believe that we can use a single treatment to cure two distinct sicknesses. They are two distinct and equally real problems in our society, and we cannot solve the problems of poverty by ignoring race in favor of class, when many people are in the class they are in because of racism. The same for the record is true of class and gender, or those jointly injured by sexism and racism for that matter. The notion that intersecting oppressions can be solved with one-step approaches is never accurate and too often silences those who need to be heard the most.

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