“I think the issue is not about race, but about class.” How many times have you heard this said? A million? Lately I’ve been wondering why this idea is so often used, it seems, to evade conversations on race, racial disparities, white privilege, and white supremacy.
Presently I’m reading Gunnar Myrdal’s “An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy.” Myrdal is a Swedish economist, sociologist, and historian who published this text in 1944. It is an epic work which must have taken years to complete. In a section describing upper-class African-American feelings towards their lower class brethren, Myrdal points out that, at the time, many held class as more determinative of outcomes than race. In that moment, I realized why so many Anglo-Americans might agree.
If the differences in outcomes between white Americans and black Americans were based on race, because we cannot escape our whiteness anymore than they can escape their blackness, the other inescapable fact is that we, as white Americans, might be at least partially responsible for racial disparities.
However, if disparities are based on class rather than race, then that would be a different story entirely.
One of my early memories as a child is of the time I described my grandmother’s best friend as “rich.” This best friend was a widow whose husband had started a very successful chain of restaurants. My grandmother quickly corrected me, “We say, ‘She is financially well-off. Not rich.’” I learned it is impolite to say, and therefore somewhat embarrassing to be, ‘rich.’ Recently, in a Sunday school class at my church, a classmate described a friend who has lived a life of leisure yet insistently self-identifies as ‘upper middle class.’ In the same way that upper-class African-Americans preferred to not be seen as ‘black,’ I suspect something similar holds true for poor people who prefer to be classed as ‘lower middle’ or ‘working class.’ In the Sunday school class, I could not lay my thumb on why there is such a draw towards being ‘middle class’ in this country and away from being considered ‘rich’ or ‘poor.’ But as I said, in reading Myrdal’s work, I suddenly realized why white, middle-class people might feel as they do.
The reason white people want racial disparities to be about class rather than race is because if it is about class, then it is an issue of rich and poor rather than white and black. If I disguise myself anywhere in the ‘middle’, then I can feel absolved of responsibility because I appear neither rich nor poor. If there is a class issue, then it is someone else’s problem. If, on the other hand, it is a race issue, in America, we cannot not-be-white and therefore cannot not-be-responsible. To self-identify as white and middle class is to get out of jail for free. We wipe our hands and carry on being not-rich while other people suffer.
Another question I hope to come to understand in the future is, “Do we as white people emphasize our experience of poverty in our younger years to depress our experience of wealth in our later years?” Thus to balance the scales and cement our status as ‘middle class.’ Or, “Do we emphasize a narrative of upward mobility to demonstrate that if we can do it, anyone can and if someone cannot, then it must be their own fault?” Thus, to ascend above reproach.
Turning a gentle gaze and putting a shoulder to the plow. Won’t you?