Wednesday, June 20, 2012

It's Not About Race, Part III

Ok, this is not about Rutgers (even though my blood is boiling at the way South Jersey politicians are trying to sneak in their ill-conceived merger plan under the guise of a "joint governing board" between Rutgers-Camden and Rowan.  Do they think we're idiots? Don't answer that.)

It's just that sometimes I feel as if ideas, like wolves, travel in packs.  You hear something somewhere, and then the next day you hear it again, and the day after that, one more time.  Almost like the thought, or theory, or opinion is roaming around the psychic universe, just waiting to attach itself to your consciousness like a magnet to a refrigerator door.  So that's what happened to me for the past little while with the phrase, "It's not about race."  It seems like every time I turn around someone is telling me that something is not about race.  A very famous novel, known as a "classic" that is supposedly anti-racist, turns out, in one person's opinion, to be not about race after all.  Discrimination, it turns out, is not about race, it's about culture, or class, or geography.  Young people of color no longer find race to be an important part of their identity. Instead, they think about age or culture. The interesting thing is that educated, progressive individuals are among those making these pronouncements.

Well, I'm here to say that in my opinion, it is about race.  Discrimination is not ONLY about race, but to separate race from social class in this country just doesn't work, since past individual and institutional racism played a large role in solidifying our current inequitable class system.  We all know that white people were allowed to advance and accumulate capital, in the form of education and real estate, for example, at the expense of people of color.  For whites, it was ALL about race -- so much so that the Supreme Court felt it necessary to rule on who was allowed to be white and who wasn't. Funny that now so many whites want to declare that race is no longer important.

Yes, there are poor white people, too.  Robin J. DiAngelo, a university professor, writes about growing up poor and white and thinking that even though she knew she was poor, "I also knew that I was not Black. We were at the lower rungs of society, but there was always someone on the periphery, just below us" (53).  And while scholar Annette Lareau, whose study of the impact of social class on child rearing practices is described in the book, Unequal Childhoods, claims that "seeing selected aspects of family life as differentiated by social class is simply a better way to understand the reality of American family life" (236), she also notes the role race plays in the lives of families of the same economic class. Take, for example, the Brindle family.  Led by a single mother who has struggled with substance abuse, the family can barely make ends meet and depends on public assistance. They are as poor as the McAllisters, one of the black families in Lareau's study.  Yet, there is a difference. While the McAllisters live in a drug infested housing project populated by African Americans, the Brindles "benefit from the racial segregation that exists in city housing" (87).  In other words, they live in a safer,  more economically integrated white neighborhood that has better access to public services, including schools.  They may be poor, but their whiteness works for them to keep them from the bottom rung of society.  The Brindles can know in their hearts that it could be worse -- at least they aren't black.

So when I hear from other whites that "it's not about race" I have to wonder what's going on here.  Denying the salience of race in American life get us whites off the hook, doesn't it? It allows us to continue along our merry way, shunning affirmative action initiatives as "reverse discrimination" and claiming ourselves as the victims of racism whenever we lose out on a benefit we thought that we deserved.  It's a great racket, really, brilliant if I may say so.  Spend centuries oppressing anyone who is not in your elite skin color club, restricting their resources to the degree that they can't afford membership even if it were offered to them.  Then change the rules and declare that membership is open to all who can afford it.  It's not our fault if they don't work hard enough to join.  It's not about race, you see.


DiAngelo, Robin J. "My Class Didn't Trump My Race: Using Oppression to Face Privilege." Multicultural Perspectives 8.1 (2006): 52-56.

Lareau, Annette. Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.