Race and Class

This “rethinking” program for Monday, September 19 will be the first of our new Monday series, in which the key premise (initially, for sure) is that nobody we know sounds very compelling on this old nexus of race and class in America.

Bill Clinton’s “race conversation” didn’t go long or deep enough. A lot of the post-Katrina commentary shows just how tired the old reflexes are. We will not be arguing for or against Big Government or George W. Bush’s heart. The invitation is out to callers and guests who can deal with a good deal of confusion on an old, intricate nest of realities, and who can voice their disappointments, doubts, rages and reversals in fixing on “the problem,” much less “the solution.” We want to hear minds in evolution, and thinkers we never met before. Suggest your best.

You can subscribe to a podcast of every Race and Class show here:

Rethinking Race and Class, 9/15/05

With Marcellus Andrews and Leon Wynter

Rethinking Race and Class: John McWhorter, 9/26/05

Continuing our post-Katrina conversation about race and class in America, with the black conservative John McWhorter, an inventory and maybe an argument about what’s worked and what hasn’t over the last 40 years.

Race and Class: Glenn Loury, 10/3/05

Our series rethinking race and class continues, retracing the path from Black Power, the shout, to Katrina revelation of black powerlessness in the Superdome. Where we say all men are created equal, what’s to be done now to make it so?

Race and Class in America, 10/10/05

In our continuing series on race in post-Katrina America, the intricacies of class — the realities, the rules, the built-in benefits and hidden costs — at the tangled intersection of money and melanin.

Racial Inequalities in Healthcare, 10/24/05

The healthcare color line. In our ongoing conversation on race and class, how do we explain the persistently separate and unequal access to doctors and hospitals, or the startling disparities in health overall?

Race and Class: The Artists’ Take, 11/29/05

They may be today’s James Baldwins, Billie Holidays and Langston Hugheses: the contemporary artists tackling race in their paintings, videos, writing and performances. It’s the artists’ turn in our weekly conversation on race and class.

Race and Class: Hip-Hop, 12/12/05

Hip-Hop. It’s more than music, it’s the big cultural movement of the last 25 years… in black AND white America. From the Bronx to the Dirty South, it’s time to get crunk and put on your bling.

Black Men In Crisis, 3/27/05

Black Men in Crisis: In our ongoing conversation on race & class, can we understand why black men are still left behind? Why is it that more than fifty percent don’t finish high school? Or that incarceration rates are seven times higher for black men than they are for white men?

Black Men In America: Behind the Numbers, 4/03/06

Black men behind the numbers. Last week, in another race-and-class conversation, we looked at big-picture statistics. Now we get to the stories: of schools and prison, worklife and family. Stories that put a voice to the crisis, and some that question it.

Race, Class and Prisons, 4/17/06

Race and class behind prison walls in America. For two million incarcerated adults and their families, prisons are not just punishment. They’re social insitutions that build, bend, and extend the fault lines that of the world we all live in.

Race, Class and Racism, 4/24/06

Tracing the roots of racism. Something we’re born into? Something we learn? Ingrained or inculcated, what would it take to break a cycle as old as we are?

The Day After Prison, 5/01/06

There are two million people behind bars in America today. Consider: what happens when they come back to the street? It’s a question that 650,000 people ask themselves every year.

The Hidden Histories of Slavery, 5/17/06

The British uber-historian Simon Schama starts a new round with the best-kept secret of our Revolutionary War: that when slaves in America heard “give me liberty or give me death,” many of them ran to fight with the redcoats against the slave-owners.

Ralph Ellison’s America, 5/01/07

Ralph Waldo Ellison: new light on the now canonical novelist of “Invisible Man.” Think of him as the Jackie Robinson of our high culture, and consider whether his integrated America of endless possibility has been affirmed or lost.

Update, 9/19

I was happy to hear by email today from one of my best, the economist Glenn Loury, ever an intriguing work in progress, recently relocated to Brown University. As always Glenn is a model of candor, smarts, modesty and at the same time emotional and social urgency. He writes:

“Rebuilding” is, of course, not just about bricks, mortar and a regional business development plan. It’s also about relationships, communities, and “imagining” a city afresh — imagining the city with poor people as an integral part of it. This is unlikely to happen without concerted political effort, and it is an act of imagination that the Bush administration will be especially poorly equipped, and disinclined, to undertake. (As one local Republican politician has been quoted to say (paraphrasing): “We’d been trying for decades to clean-up public housing in N.O. without success. Now, in one fell swoop, Katrina has managed to achieve that…”)

All of this raises genuinely profound questions: What was the “essence” of New Orleans? Who’s city was/is it, anyway? Wasn’t part of the “charm” of the old city it’s grittiness, which in turn rested on the presence of person’s about whom most of us have ambiguous feelings (fear, sexual allure, fascination with the risque, the grotesque, the forbidden…) Wasn’t there an “above board” and an “under the table” aspect of N.O. — as with any city for that matter — that is unlikely to appear in any urban planner’s portfolio, and that will be difficult explicitly to recognize/acknowledge (“ah, let’s see now, where will the hookers, hustlers and panhandlers hangout in the restored urban landscape;” and, “exactly how should we recapture the ‘charm’ of communities full of poor people while avoiding their socially undesirable ill-effects…?” etc.) Remember, that great and much touted American cultural achievement, jazz, emerged in part out of music that was performed for the entertainment of patrons at the flourishing bordellos of turn of the 20th century N.O…

In sum: neither the stake that poor black people had in the old N.O., nor their entitlement to a place in the new N.O., is well-proxied by their ownership of real estate, their insurance policy claims, or their political clout in this redevelopment and evacuee assistance project. (E.g., the Bushies now see a chance to impose every hair-brained social reform scheme that the Heritage Foundation or Manhattan Institute can come up with (vouchers this, enterprise that…) under the guise of ‘helping’ the dispossessed. Dems ought not to allow this to happen. But then, they would need a coherent alternative vision of social reform, wouldn’t they…)

Therefore, without the insertion of some explicit political values into the rebuilding process — values which affirm the aforementioned stakes and respect those entitlements — without such values, these folk will not be represented in the soon-to-be newly imagined city…

Glenn C. Loury in an email to Chris Lydon, 9.19.05
Update, 9/20 2:00 pm

We got a couple emails last night from bloggers who have been writing about Katrina, race and class.

Sociology professor Rowan Wolf, who writes at his Radical Noesis blog, says:

I think that what is least understood about race in the United States is its institutionalized nature… Unfortunately, as a society we have defined “racism” as personal prejudice rather than part of cultural ideology and social practice. One area that starts challenging some of this is discussions of privilege.

If you are unfamiliar with that concept, privilege is an unearned “right” given to some groups simply because of their status. It operates at both an individual and collective level. It has been made invisible in many ways in US society, by defining privilege as the norm. For example, it is considered the norm to be treated courteously by customer service people. However, that may well not be the case if you are not white, nor white and obviously of the middle class or above…

If you start at Katrina and New Orleans, institutionalized racism is everywhere. The past of displaced share croppers – and their movement two urban areas, certain underlies both the demographics of New Orleans, and the disproportionate number of those left behind…

Rowan Wolf, in an email on 9/19/05

Marc Davidson, a preacher who writes at Branch In the Vine, writes:

Here is what I would like to see:

  1. What are bloggers that are white saying about significance of race and class in the slow response to New Orleans?
  2. What role is religion playing positively and negatively vis-à-vis race and class with concern to New Orleans in Katrina’s aftermath?
  3. Where are blacks and whites coming together on this issue, and where are they pulling apart?
  4. How are non-whites and non-blacks responding to what happened in New Orleans?
  5. What is happening with the black and white Christian communities in Houston and the rest of the country that seek to help the evacuees? Are they working together well to assist the displaced families? How are racial politics impacting those who wish to help…?
    Marc Davidson, in an email on 9/19/05


19 thoughts on “Race and Class

  1. Here’s what I got off the top of my head about 30 minutes after accepting the gracious invitation to be on “Open Source�. I expect to clean it up and move it forward in the conversation.


    Rethinking race and poverty is rethinking two problems.

    One is the disproportionate burden of poverty borne by blacks and Hispanics.

    The other is our society’s inability to identify poverty, or even working class status, with whites. This inability is rooted in the false, socially constructed concept of black-white identity itself.

    The traditional “Great Society� solutions to the first problem have been discredited politically, philosophically and economically, to an extent, in critiques from the left as well as the right. Yet there remains a strong emotional investment in them, especially within African-America.

    The issue of the the second problem has been suppressed in our national political discussion since shortly after the Depression. In recent times, attempts to revive it are slapped down with the charge of inciting ‘class warfare’.

    In times of race ‘crisis’—like after riots or a disaster like Katrina—everyone, even conservatives of various stripes, is ready to throw sympathy, money and other resources at relieving the ‘unjust’ misery of poor black people. The exact nature and perpetrators of the injustice are mercifully unspecified. Why? because it is much easier to apply a very visible band-aid when the symptoms of the ‘black problem’ flare up than to be ruthless about finding it’s cause and curing it.

    Of course, the very visibility of the band aid that makes well-meaning, better off whites feel good about themselves breeds resentment among the less better off white majority, who are also increasingly socially and culturally insecure. With no acceptable way to voice their resentment, and blocked from identifying with their own class interest (problem 2) they are easily exploited politically by the interest of the wealthy in reducing taxes and other restraints and regulations on capital. As a result, the political will for government solutions, and the means for funding them, are further eroded, and the cycle stays vicious.

    Rethinking race and poverty must be about breaking the cycle in the paragraph above at the point most vulnerable to attack. I’m not sure where it is, but it’s somewhere along this perimeter.


  2. I think you come very close to the problem this country faces in your paragraph that states:

    “With no acceptable way to voice their resentment, and blocked from identifying with their own class interest (problem 2) they are easily exploited politically by the interest of the wealthy in reducing taxes and other restraints and regulations on capital. As a result, the political will for government solutions, and the means for funding them, are further eroded, and the cycle stays vicious.”

    As a normal white American male I feel completely unattached from what we could call our political bourgeoisie. Right, left it makes no matter the middle class has become a pawn in the prize fight for the lucrative treasures that await our various echelons of government. As I spend 40-60 hours a week working my tail off to put food on my table, pay my rent, try to save money for a home I become more guilty of the apathy that strangles our country. How do I balance trying to do the things I need to do to eat, and fight the scourge of that is called our representatives in government?

    Capitalism alone is an obvious failure, it creates such waste, and is so destructive to both humanity and mother earth that we must look to reformulate our mission as Americans, as humans. We must look for ways to lift everyone up in order to make our country and world an acceptable place to live.

    Down deep though I do not believe we are so deviant as to be systematically racially motivated, I believe it boils down to a more selfish, and survivalistic mode that does not lend itself to social activism. The goverment and its members have siezed upon that. Until we take that opportunity away we will continue to succumb to their folly.

  3. I was only able to listen to the first 20 minutes of the show last night, but the arguments sounded very old to me. Can we stop “rethinking” race and poverty and start making concrete suggestions for what to do?

    I am an (upper) middle class white person with a lifestyle that allows me to take at least one vacation a year, live in a nice 3 bedroom home in a good but pricey neighborhood with good schools, and the luxury of not having to worry about unexpected expenses like car repairs wrecking my budget. It is a nice life, not unduly extravagant by American standards. There are plenty of things I still want, like new furniture, a cleaning person to come once a week, so I can spend less of my weekend cleaning, new plants for my yard, tickets for shows and perfomances that I don’t budget money for just yet. So what do I need to do to address the issues of race/poverty?

    How about having people on the show who have suggestions for what to do? Like Geoffrey Canada.

    You want to make the case for reparations? Great. How much does it cost and how does it work?

    Lastly, I grew up in New York City, and anyone who wants to talk about race and class issues without acknowledging the self defeating actions and bad choices that are made every day by poor people – such as having children at a young age that they are unable to support financially or emotionally – is not of interest to me at all. Bill Cosby is 100% right. .

  4. Based on my experience I think we need to frame the issue of our Humanity, our common need for sustenance and nurture. we need to learn to live together on this fragile earth our island home, and every time we frame the issue in terms of race or class we affirm discrimination.

    I we frame it in terms of our humanity, warts clay feet and all, we would be better off. Forty years ago this past summer I came home from working in Georgia with SCLC. I was clobbered by the Klan on the court house steps, arrested on a capital charge for inciting the incident, and had to replace the transmission of my car on the side of the highway on the way home because the mechanic who serviced my car drained the oil from it.

    I am as appalled by the recent passage of Georgia House Bill 244, as I was when I view the events of March 7, 1965, two months before I would be able to vote—that led me to volunteer.

    When I finally got home to San Diego, I was taken to meet with a group of business men who were going to buy and integrate an apartment building. The proposal was to call it the Bi-Ray. I saw that as focusing on divisions even though the purpose was to bring them together. I suggested Multi-Ray, Poly-Ray, better yet No-Ray—except Hope. No luck.

    Differences are what we all have in common and respect for them all can bind us together.

  5. I listened to this show and actually became a little frustrated. I must admit that I will not pretend to fully understand what black people go through. I grew up in a 100% white Minnesota town. As I grew up and lived in big cities I worked with and hired many people who happened to be black. There was a group that worked hard and a group that didn’t. The color of their skin didn’t matter. I didn’t think of anyone as black or white, just who was there to get the most done and who wanted to get it done.

    Over the last 10 years, I hear the same problems coming from the black community. Over and over again. Nothing changes. The same message. I never see a real unity in the community, willing to include those around them who support the cause, whatever the color of their skin. I see the spokesmen/person of the community Louis Farrakhan who, every one knows, hates white people. I see Jesse Jackson who counsels presidents on their extra love life who is doing the same thing himself. Then I see Barak Obama who seems to be a great man, leader and potential presidential candidate.

    On the show I heard someone on the panel say that blacks need to dump the democratic party. I think that is exactly the comments that work in reverse, now you are alienating a group of people who do care. (I am not saying the leadership of that party acts the way the party members wish them.) The black community should be doing the exact oposite. The black community needs to change their leadership and strengthen their leadership role in a party with people that actually care and give them some opportunity.

    I am a liberal and I care and I want the party to be inclusive to all and I want the country to be united and I want equal right to all regardless of race and I want this country to be safer. Don’t we want the same thing?

    If a company hired a CEO and he/she increased profits by 1% over 20 years, she would be fired. It is time you fire your leadership. Look at how ‘W’ destroyed the unity in this country. That was the only way he could push through his agenda. I am not suggesting we lie to the country, we unite as a party instead of being so incredibly divided.

  6. I listened the other night – they wanted to take my call, but ran out of time. I found the comments by “Mike” – the Cape Cod former foster child appalling – the myth of the black welfare generational slacker just doesn’t seem to die! My thoughts on the program, and the issues: Having grown up in a project in Boston (mixed but notorious project; I’m white by the way) during the Great Society years, it seems to me that we have broken the social contract with the nation’s poor – black and white. What I see is that the poor are indeed much poorer than I was, with significantly fewer resources available for good health, education and models and means to exit from poverty.

    I agree that the culture in which we can all have cell phones, color tvs and leased vehicles makes it harder for the poor to identify with/ solidify behind the class issues and social policies that are designed to keep them poor. I find it extremely frustrating that the poor do not VOTE their pocketbooks – large sectors of our population don’t vote at all, and many blacks feel that there’s nothing in the political system for them. For poor whites, the rich elite right (almost all white) has seemingly successfully seduced the white poor into voting – over and over again – for policies and politicians who have no interest in bettering their lives.

    So, as we discuss race – and, I hope class, over the coming weeks, I’d like to know what thoughts panelists have on how we motivate people to vote – first AT ALL – and then, to vote their real economic interests – because we all know that more tax cuts for the rich are not benefitting the poor.

  7. Yes bigE! The only thing the poor have going for them (of any race) is their numbers. Let’s face it they have absolutely no political clout as it stands now. The poor can be identified as: christians, muslims, asians, blacks, hispanics, immigrants, elderly, unionists, non-unionists, pro-abortion, anti-abortion, pro-flag, don’t-give-a-damn-about-flag, pro-pledge, pledge-wha?, military, pacifist, activist, drug users, anti-drug, gamblers, anti-gambling, drinkers, tea-totalers, pro-law&order, pro-rights, want-more-cable-channels, can’t-afford-cable, etc.

    About the only thing they all have in common is disenfranchisement and that’s never been a sufficient a moral base for a revolution in the past.

    But let’s suppose the poor somehow rally around some cause celebre and start marching in the streets. Is this country even capable of listening any more? Will we be marching with them or aiming our water cannons at them?

  8. I haven’t had the chance to look back over the archives but I assume you guys know about local orgs like United for a Fair Economy, etc., doing lots of excellent work on these issues. I used to work in this field, if you don’t feel uber-connected already I’m happy to list some folks who’d be good to talk to. Also, my old advisor at Brandeis, Prof. Gordie Fellman, has a great take on class and its larger context.

  9. “But let’s suppose the poor somehow rally around some cause celebre and start marching in the streets. Is this country even capable of listening any more? Will we be marching with them or aiming our water cannons at them?”

    Since the last post up there ATC had two pastors on on one show, one from Atlanta one from Philly I think. IIRC it was the pastor from Philly who had crashed the NT all around the lamppost. Maybe there’ll be a reaction against the “abundant life” rs who try to justify cheap resource extraction for us and low, low wages for them. It’s a long road but they do continue to go with the program.

    The other cause might be a reaction against scapegoating. The world seems full of it. Do I remember this correctly–does the Iranian prez deny the holocaust?

    Also, as portrayed by NOW last night you have these guys like GA’s Senator Staton who have IMO come out with the weirdest justifications for obstacles to voting one can imagine. Perhaps there’ll be a reaction against this. In the long run, when you take away the vote…you’re subtracting attributes from a class you want to scapegoat.

    Or there might be reaction against meritocracy.

    Or maybe we’ll all learn how to patiently talk sense to the abundant lifers.

  10. To be fair to NOW they did let Senator Stanton speak his rationale for the photo ID requirement law. Ostensibly according to his account of course he was not supporting restriction of access to voting.

    I am not convinced.

  11. Until about mid week a rundown of the NOW show I mentioned in the post before last can be found at http://www.pbs.org/now/

    For podcasts see “NOW on Demand” bottom right; or for gen info on this show in the future use the search…for: “Election insight 2006″

    This show’s transcripts (9/1) should be up around Thur


    GA Representative Alisha Thomas Morgan (D – Atlanta) [Cobb County]

    spoke very insightfully on this show…and very directly to the vote disenfranchisement issue. I’m going to check to see if her radio talk show will stream.

  12. The Georgia bill is on appeal now. If the state will deliver free ID’s to each GA resident than I think it is a great idea. Why should anyone object,unless it is their desire to see voter fraud continue.

  13. I start with the disclaimer that I only caught bits and pieces of this program. What I did hear, however, seemed to miss some fundamental points on the nature of our economy. So often in such discussions the focus is on things that individuals can do to “get ahead” or “raise themselves out of poverty”, etc. I think this misses that fact that our economy is structured in such a way that we depend on having people filling those low wage jobs. If one person gets ahead, someone else will need to work that dead-end job. What if everyone had at least a master’s degree? Then we’d have people with master’s degrees flipping hamburgers and picking up trash. The question to me is how to redistribute wealth and power in our society so that the worst jobs are not so bad. As a consequence probably the coporate execs would have to give up some of their fabulous wealth. Of course such proposals are typically labelled class warfare in the U.S….

  14. Or we could stop letting illegal aliens come into the country. They take these jobs for low wages. If companies did not have such a cheap source of labor,they might raise the wages of these jobs,making them a bit more desirable for the American worker.

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