Class Matters for Economic ProsperityWhen William Julius Wilson wrote The Declining Significance of Race in 1978, he garnered headlines. White America gleefully interpreted his book to mean that “race didn’t matter” anymore. Some African Americans treated him as badly as Islamic fundamentalists treated Salman Rushdie, pretty much calling him a traitor and a heretic and reading him out of the race.
Wilson’s book triggered an academic uproar, but the popular press treatment of his book was especially notable. The New York Times Magazine, for example, did a cover piece on race and class and used a picture of a Black man seemingly walking out of the very upscale Tiffany’s. Weeks later, the man pictured indicated he was just passing by Tiffany’s, not shopping. Still, it is interesting to note the easy way that symbolic stereotypes work.
This happened, of course, before ghetto-fabulous rappers made diamonds and Cristal champagne a hood cliché.
Nearly a quarter of a century after Wilson’s book was published, few would deny the increasing influence of the Black middle class. Now, with the welfare reform reauthorization sparking conversations about economic survival, few would deny the persistence of poverty among Americans, and disproportionately among African Americans. Some have argued about the unequal income distribution between African Americans and Whites. And most of us have danced around the question of class and the ways that it influences work, power and politics in the United States.
Thus, the work of Michael Zweig, an economics professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook is important. His book, Working Class Majority (ILR Press), explores the many ways that class matters and why it is important. This month, the Group for the Study of Working Class Life at SUNY at Stony Brook sponsored a conference, “How Class Works,” that explored the many ways an explicit recognition of class helps us to understand the world. The conference also focused on the issue of class and power, and the undercurrent of racial economic envy that often has undergirded race relations. In other words, poor Whites burned down Tulsa’s Black Wall Street because they envied African American economic success. Superior Black economic status was no defense against legalized and institutionalized racism in Tulsa.
Similarly, Ralph Nader made waves when he ran for president because he talked about class, not just race. In a Milwaukee speech he said, “It would be a mistake if we concentrate just on race and not class. They form a mutually reinforcing vicious circle, and although the most emotionally outrageous things come from racial issues, we have to connect them to the larger picture of class issues.”
Right on. In the same speech, though, Nader asked, “Do Black residents of (wealthy) Scarsdale get abused by the police? No. When people have economic power in a community, they get their calls returned.”
While Nader was right that economic means often can buy a better deal for some African Americans (think O.J. Simpson), he was mistaken when he asserted that Black folks in Scarsdale don’t get hassled by the police. Indeed, most African Americans have a police story, whether they are a corporate CEO or a homey in the hood. Thus, an exploration of class is often a complicated one for African Americans.
However, African Americans aren’t monolithic. With the persistence of poverty, and the set of economic changes that has been wrought by globalization and the proliferation of technology, class differences between African Americans will become even more apparent. But, it is possible to talk about class in America without suggesting that class matters more than race, or vice versa. Indeed, asking middle- and upper middle-class African Americans which is a greater influence, race or class, is like asking an African American woman whether she looks at things through a woman’s lens or through a Black lens. Instead of making implicit or explicit choices about race and class, it makes sense to study the intersection between race, class, gender and power.
If you don’t think class matters, consider Enron and the respectful way its leaders were treated by Congress when they testified at hearings. Imagine that any other kinds of criminals, who caused major economic losses for thousands of people, would be so courteously treated. Or, consider regulations that say people who live in public housing can be ejected if their relatives are drug addicts. Are members of Congress ejected from their posts if their relatives are drug addicts? Do corporate CEOs have to give up their positions because they have addicted relatives? Indeed, the entire concept of zero tolerance seems specially targeted toward the poor and working class. For others, there are always exceptions.
If more of us used class as a filter for explaining socio-economic issues, then the way class shapes certain legislation becomes clear. Zweig is to be commended for keeping the class issue alive. African American leaders and researchers could learn well from his approach as we forge 21st-century solutions to race matters.
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