Among the numerous privileges with which I was endowed, being white and male were two. Helpful as they were, I don’t think they were determinative in smoothing my way to worldly success. After all, many white males never get economic traction. Unlike them, I was born healthy in body and mind to highly educated, well-to-do parents who cared for me, signaled to me their high expectations, and enabled me to meet them by sending me to the finest schools.
Cornel West often says that, in the U.S., we look at class through the lens of race. Despite assertions I’ve heard here, it’s perfectly acceptable to talk about race as long as we don’t sound racist. What’s not acceptable is to talk about class. In many situations you won’t object if I tell you I’m white, but I can’t imagine a situation in which you wouldn’t be offended if I claimed to be upper class. I could claim I’m upper middle class. That would be OK. Anywhere in the middle class is OK. Not so upper class or lower class. In the U.S. we can’t identify ourselves as the former because by mutual consent it doesn’t exist, and we can’t identify ourselves as the latter because it’s shameful.
One rubric under which we now talk about race in places like Ashland is White Privilege. I doubt that such discussions are occurring in Youngstown, Ohio or Huntington, West Virginia. Not many white people in the Rust Belt or Appalachia feel privileged. Nor would it cheer them up to be told that the average African American is struggling more than they are struggling. Would we want it to?
To find comfort in one’s misery by thinking that at least one isn’t black characterized the blighted time and place in which I grew up. In the deep South during the '40s and '50s, race always trumped class. No more. The black people a laid-off coal miner is most likely to see are Oprah Winfrey, Lebron James, Will Smith and Barack Obama. They made it in America; he hasn’t, and he feels aggrieved, not superior. A poll released last October by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, NPR and Harvard reported that 55 percent of U.S. whites feel discriminated against by race.
Even though they are mistaken, it’s worse than useless to try to convince them otherwise. By continuing to emphasize race in the public forum, liberals deepen our national divisions and thus play into the hands of the monied class. Only by emphasizing economic inequality can progressives redirect to its proper cause the sense of victimization that now cuts across race and ethnicity, and forge the solidarity that can change U.S. politics. That was the vision of Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition, but not the Democratic Party of the past 50 years.
Beyond political practicality, realizing the role of class would amend our analysis of the role of race, because the two are interrelated in complex ways. For example, Ashland is overwhelmingly white not because it has remnants of its racist past (though it helps to take cognizance of those), but because lower-income folks simply cannot afford to live here. If we want to promote racial and ethnic diversity, we must promote class diversity, which means building affordable housing.
And maybe, just maybe, the day will come when liberals would no more call a poor white person a r--n--k than they now would call a black person a n----r.
— Herb Rothschild's column appears in the Tidings every Saturday.