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A Primer: Class and Race

September 18, 2014 1 comment

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 This makes the notion that race thwarts success increasingly outdated.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. 

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