Race and Class in America

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Portrait of a New Orleans hurricane survivor.[Clayton James Cubitt]

It’s kind of a no-no in America to talk about class. Our country’s supposed to be classless — this is one of our great national myths. Yet in each of our Monday conversations about race so far, the question of class rules has come up. It’s a challenging, uncomfortable conversation that, with your help, we aim to take head-on this Monday.

Here are some of our questions, and we’d like to know how you’d approach them: Katrina put undeniable images of New Orleans’s extreme poverty on the nightly news, but how and where does class show up in your own neighborhood or town or city? Can we untangle the differences between being poor & black or poor & white or poor & Hispanic? Are race and class inextricably intertwined, or is it possible to tease them apart? Does race trump class or does class trump race? Where and how do we even start talking about all of this?

Dalton Conley

Professor of Sociology and director of the Center for Advanced Social Science Research at NYU. Author of Honky and Being Black, Living in the Red.

Grew up white in an otherwise black and Hispanic housing project on Manhattan’s lower East Side.

Debra Dickerson


Author,The End of Blackness

Clayton James Cubitt


Blogger, Operation Eden

Grew up poor and white in New Orleans. Went back after Hurricane Katrina to help his mother and younger brother get back on their feet.

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Philip Turner, 62[Clayton James Cubitt]

I started this blog as a way of chronicling the things that I have been going through, that my mom has been going through, that my family has been going through, that the poor people in the community have been going through since Katrina hit. I started documenting the emotions that were turning up. For my own sanity, I started documenting what I was seeing; what had happened to the landscape of my child hood, to the landscape of my mom’s hopes and dreams. I wanted to document the poor people. I needed to do this for me, as a way of processing what has happened–what is happening–to these people. That’s what I need to do as a photographer, I need to witness these things and share them.

Clayton James Cubitt

At the moment this picture was taken, Philip’s earthly possessions consisted of a large lady’s bike he called his Cadillac, a small bag of clothing, a nine iron, and a half-gone twelve-pack of beer.

Clayton James Cubitt
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Tom Page, Pearlington, MS[Clayton James Cubitt]

cubitt portrait 2

Alva McKay, 44[Clayton James Cubitt]

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Billy Gray, 57, Pearlington, MS[Clayton James Cubitt]

I’ve taken a lot of portraits in the field. I’ve photographed people standing among the rubble that was once home. I’ve shot people waiting in line for four hours, in the scorching heat of a parking lot, to get a FEMA claim number. I’ve shot portraits of people at shelters and distribution points, places that I would consider to be more of a “studio” environment. The people who I’ve photographed are certainly not used to having a professional photographer taking their portraits in a respectful, dignified way. A lot of them were too shy to pose. They felt that they looked too bad: they didn’t have good teeth, they weren’t clean, they weren’t dressed well enough to have their pictures taken. They are used to having their mug shots taken, they are used to having a cousin take photos of them at weddings or at funerals, but that’s the extent of how they are photographed and documented. They drift through life largely anonymous.

Clayton James Cubitt

The recurring theme that I see in these photos is the despair that I see in their eyes. They’re casting about for what the future holds. They were barely making it before—it’s a very poor area of the country –they were struggling to survive and to live before Katrina hit. This has really stamped them into the mud. You can see it in their expressions. That’s what’s responsible for that look. There’s barely a shred of hope left. They have no idea how they are going to survive.

Clayton James Cubitt

This is Ricki. She’s homeless. And poor. She’s been waiting in line in a Kmart parking lot for three hours, no shade, scorching summer. She’s been waiting to get her FEMA claim number. She’s heard they’ve been giving two thousand dollars in aid, but she’s worried because they will only direct deposit it in bank accounts, or mail her a check. She’s worried because she’s poor, and doesn’t have a bank account to direct deposit into. And she’s worried because she’s homeless, so she can’t get the mail the check might be in. Ricki is only 32. When I asked if I could take her picture she was worried she’d look bad because she hadn’t done her hair. I told her she was beautiful. And I meant it.

Clayton James Cubitt

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  • Nico

    I have long been bedeviled at how casually racist our society in America is. How many black people do you actually know? I lived in NYC for years on the Lower East Side, arguably one of the most radical collections of people in America today, and yet it was notable for the absence of blacks or hispanics. I worked in several of the finsest restaurants in the city, including Osteria del Circo and Le Cirque, Union Square Cafe and Chanterelle and the hispanics I knew there worked as busboys or dishwashers and there was a vast divide (economic, cultural, lingual…) seperating them from us. At the end of the night, they rode the train to the outer boroughs and we went to Williamsburg if we left Manhattan. In the front of the house, on the floor, I only ever worked with two black waiters, both gay, and both culturally very removed from their heritage. One had not spoken with his family in several years.

    I don’t believe that we can seperate race and class in this country. The are inevitably conjoined. We are racist because we are classist and classist because we are racist. A serious argument has never been made to attempt to fix both at once. America could claim that it is not racist because we have Bill Cosby and the Fresh Prince on televisiion. We have black people on national television! But these are reified shows made safe by their context, not by the truth of their subjects… We don’t show poor people on television, escept to pity them and as human interest stories. Thats why Katrina was so shocking. The storm literally flushed out the hidden poor that we have chosen not to see. New Orleans is not alone. Flush out the South Bronx, Rosbury, South Central and you’ll see the same thing. Flush out any community in proximity to Wal Mart and you’ll se the same thing. We have hidden the poor away… You should get Barbara Erenriech (sp?)…

  • avecfrites

    People familiar with the adoption world can testify that almost all kids, if given a chance, can succeed. Seeing adopted kids do well, over and over again, brings home that the country is all but throwing away millions of poor people for no good reason.

    And we all internally know that the enviroment makes the difference. Try to imagine your own precious kids born into poverty. They wouldn’t succeed on their own. You know your kids need you to succeed; that’s why you take parenting so seriously.

    Knowing that kids need help to succeed, and that almost all kids can succeed, how can we justify not helping them? How can we ignore kids in poverty, some hungry, without decent healthcare? What are the psychological, political, and social barriers to addressing poverty? Who gains from convincing us to ignore the issue? Any issue of what can be done to address poverty must include a discussion of the interests actively working against addressing it.

  • jc

     It is obviously a matter of whammies.Most modern societies are hierarchies with architecture, ie. vertical structure, as opposed to horizontally structured societies such as anarchies (without vertical structure) based on equality of members, almost always primitive in the view of hierarchies. This society is a well established materialistic hierarchy, the higher echelon of which, the wealthy or materially well off, always considering themselves superior to the less well off almost by definition if not by ability and character. The upper class feels superior to the upper-middle class who feels superior to the lower-middle or working class who feels….. etc. Each “class” has an order of magnitude greater whammy than the next higher class.

    By the same token each darker shade of one’s skin has an order of magnitude greater whammy than that of the next lighter shade.

    Hence poor people have a much bigger whammy than rich people, and dark skinned people have a much bigger whammy than light skinned. And, of course, compared to rich whites, poor blacks have to contend with a BIG, DOUBLE WHAMMY.

    You can debate till the end of time, if you want, as to the reason for this, but regardless of what you conclude, nobody really cares. Regardless why, THAT’S THE WAY IT IS.. Of course, you can also pick any reason you want to change it. Go ahead and do it and you’ll find nobody cares why, just so it changes.


  • LeeJudt

    I am sorry, but I find the guest’s comment a little too tendentious.

    I am white and not exactly middle class (not a home owner) and didn’t have all those advantages he says all white people have.

    Lots of white folks are in my position.

    When I hear comments like the ones by your guest I just turn off the radio because I know he is not speaking to me.

    • Justa_Thawght

      LeeJudt I understand exactly what it is you’re trying to say.
      But if you feel you really don’t have any advantage in this country as a white person, then you should be more than willing to hypothetically change your race to a dark skinned black if it was possible, since it wouldn’t make any difference, right?.
      So if it was truly possible, would you change your race to black? Why or why not I would like to ask??
      Same question for any white person on this blog!

  • Potter

    This was a great show! The best of the series. The guests were very good- Debra in particular. I think you are getting further in than nibbling around the edges the more you go on. I mean the less intellectual you are about this, the better.

    I do think class trumps race. And class, the class of these discussions is all about money and priviledge, not the class, the natural class, the dignity that people have, all people have. Many people who are poor, have a lot of class. But maybe that is another subject. I think we are talking about “getting ahead”, whatever that means. I loved what Debra was saying about not letting anyone put themselves on her or tell her about her worth. When a person feels that way about themselves, that’s a measure of dignity and it is a component of class,

    the only kind of class that counts.

    How tied up with money is class?

  • LeeJudt

    One can always count on Potter for the heartfelt and lachrymose summary that summarizes nothing.

    My real problem with the show is that it confused two sources of poverty in America today: personal ability and personal motivation. Race in an of itself doesn’t even begin to explain the causes of poverty.

    The reasons are quite simple. First there is poverty in every country and within members of the same race.

    Second, many African Americans have been doing very well indeed.

    That most people are average in intelligence a fact brought up in the program is true. Yet most people are also motivated to go to work and not wait for handouts.

    Some are not, and among those folks you will find the most heart felt cases of poverty. I feel sorry for their children and the rest of the society should step in and help those children.

    One other point:

    speakers very glibly talk about “the rest of the world.”

    What does the rest of the world mean? Surely not India, or Africa or China were the poverty rate is obscenely much higher than in the US. Now these countries along with Indonesia and the Arab world constitute “the rest of the world.”

    Of course, I left out Europe a small corner of the world were the people had a huge Empire and lived very well of the rest of the world.

    That Europeans have a more equitable social system is true. It’s also true that those countries have a host of problems that will in the near future change their social welfare system. Either that or these countries will not survive past say 2075.

    So let’s not glibly speak of “the rest of the world.”

    We have problems here, yes. However, they can be addressed with demagogic appeals to “race.”

    The concept of race does not begin to explain poverty in America. At best it’s one factor among many others.

  • bw


    I am embarrassed to listen to the same radio show as you.

    actually I am embarrassed to live on same planet as you

    I recall you being quite vocal on some other shows about how the staff was not paying attention to things that spoke to you.

    do you have any sense of how closeminded you are???

  • Raymond

    Finally getting caught up on the Monday series …

    On why so many do not escape the constraint’s of class: I notice no diversity in the class of the guests … all educated, successful, and confident, even arrogant.

    Does ROS think those who have not overcome the constraints of class, say the younger Cubitt or Conley, or the Dickerson before Harvard, have nothing to contribute to the conversation? Perhpas so and perhpas understandably. But then …

  • LeeJudt

    “I am embarrassed to listen to the same radio show as you.

    actually I am embarrassed to live on same planet as you”

    You are full of embarrasments aren’t you, Benjamin Walker?

    Actually, your emotional deficiencies don’t interest me.

    If there is a country that you think deals with the issues of “race and class” better than we do, I’d like to know what it is.

    Otherwise feel free to move to Iceland a so called egalitarian society.

  • LeeJudt

    “On why so many do not escape the constraint’s of class: I notice no diversity in the class of the guests … all educated, successful, and confident, even arrogant.”

    That’s often the case do good liberals often feel more comfortable talking about poor people than letting the poor speak for themselves.

    I found the whole concept of poverty as expressed on the program unreal.

  • Potter

    An observation about class: Some people (due to emotional deficiencies?) have to put others down before they elevate themselves.

    We all have deficiencies, yet we all do not do that number.

    The second meaning of class, in the sense of “having class” applies. This is about having dignity and respecting the dignity of others.

  • LeeJudt

    Potter twattle:

    “An observation about class: Some people (due to emotional deficiencies?) have to put others down before they elevate themselves.”

    Nonesense, a show about poverty has an obligation to speak about the subject in an objective manner and not to assume that everyone will agree or should agree with the shows subjective and indeed emotional content.

    It does the poor no good if they are objectified as helpless creatures who need pity and love instead of a real help.

    “We all have deficiencies, yet we all do not do that number.”

    This isn’t about you, Potter, dear.

  • Potter

    LeeJudt: No it’s not about me. Your quote of me was about you but it works in a larger context. Why do you make it about you? Why do you have to put me or anyone down, say something nasty to me or about me or anyone else before you say anything else you want us to consider?

    Is that really necessary? Does anyone want to hear what you have to say when you start off that way?

    I don’t. I am not interested in your points after you do that number.

    Actually you should be suspended from posting here, in my opinion, for bad behavior.

  • sk

    Wonderful series. Keep going. Search for that “new paradigm”.

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  • curious

    I have followed Dalton Conley for some time and respect his work but he did make an error in his discourse. Chris Rock is wealthy, but he is not necessarily a member of the upper class, so you can not necessarily say that race is a factor in white’s willingness to switch places with him. Colin Powell or Condoleeza Rice are probably poorer than Chris Rock, but are members of a higher social class. See http://www.socialclass.org to download a model to define the class of individuals from a more methodical perspective.