At the Corner of Race and Class
Every once in a while, a number of discussions in my personal blogosphere converge. In this case, it’s the discussion of race and IQ that I restarted and continued, and which has attempted to take over Greg Laden’s Blog for the last couple of weeks, the discussion of the racist connotations of “redneck” by bikemonkey being overwhelmed by the discussion of “redneck” as a classist term, Will Shetterly’s ongoing critique of the antiracist community’s failure to deal with classism as an underpinning of racism, and Eric Michael Johnson’s deconstruction of social Darwinism. It’s time to say a few words about the intersection of race and class.
There’s a long history, in “the West,” of race being defined as much by division of labor and property as anything else. Jews weren’t just separate from the majority population because of their religion, but also because they held money outside the church or the crown and because they didn’t hold property that could be easily confiscated. Hired labor on farms in the New World, whether they were French or Irish, became distinct races from those who owned the land. Native Americans didn’t share the manifest destiny of the race that wanted to own all that land. Being factory labor made Poles a different race than the owners. Migrant farmwork made Mexicans distinct. And, of course, there was slavery.
Slavery required more work to explain, because the difference was bigger than between haves and have-nots, but explained it was. Lectures, articles and the occasional book pounded away about all those stunning–fundamental–differences between “us” and “them.” Contrasting the recent and not remotely universal literacy of parts of Europe with its lack in Africa, ignoring the memory and linguistic requirements of oral histories. Focusing on clothing as a moral rather than climatic issue. Comparing polygamy unfavorably with monogamy, which never spoke of infidelity. Over all, talking about all the things those dark people didn’t, wouldn’t, couldn’t understand and accept as superior about an industrialized society they’d never seen.
Slavery went away, eventually, taking longer than it should have because so many people believed, as people do, the relentless drum pounding. But the economic situation changed very little, so the drums pounded on.
It’s useful to look at those who heard those drums before making an argument, parallel to the racist one, that the worth of these people is determined by what they believe. There is always the existence of the drums to be considered. They were created to make an unconscionably exploitative economic tactic palatable to people of basic decency. They beat to keep people from realizing that what was happening could happen to them, to stop the exercise of empathy that’s a requirement of human morality.
And the people who hear the drums are much closer to the exploitation than they realize, because the other purpose of the drums is to tell those who have nothing, “Well, at least you’re not them.” It isn’t stupidity that makes people in the lower classes believe racist propaganda, although they are often deprived of the education that would make the illusion harder to maintain. It’s that untenable proposition of losing the one thing they’ve been given. “At least….”
Nor are they wrong. Fixing class inequalities would go a very long way toward mitigating the effects of racism. It is probably the single most effective action that could be taken. In socialist states, it does go a long way. But it doesn’t go all the way, because the drumbeat isn’t all about class.
We don’t have slavery any longer, but collectively we do have these ingrained messages about the abilities of blacks. How could we not? The drums have never stopped, despite what those who are currently beating them would like us to believe. There was never a time when the only messages out there were those of equality. There was never a time when those who beat the drum were all out of power. Never.
As a consequence, those who set expectations for children being socialized, students being educated, workers being hired and trained and managed, still contain many people hearing those messages, whether they want to or not. So do police deciding what is criminal, lenders and landlords and insurance agents deciding what is risky, publishers and critics and audiences and neighbors deciding what is art and what is noise. So do the general press of people deciding what is “normal” and what is “odd” or just “different.”
Not all of them, no, but we come across enough people in a position to make a difference to our lives that it doesn’t have to be anywhere near all of them to have a large collective impact on people’s lives. Even if we greatly mitigate or disable the class system, there is real, worthwhile work to be done in fighting racism. We can look to our socialist neighbors and see the drum still being beaten, if perhaps a little more weakly. We have to take it apart.
But we may not be able to take the drum apart without addressing class. As I noted at the start, it was economic interests that built the drum. If you follow the race-IQ discussion, you’ll note that the entire edifice is calibrated to questions of work and class. As long as classism stands, the arguments of inherent ability will be plausible to far too many people, and the problem of blacks in poverty will be used to justify itself. Just as racism has always been used to justify poverty.
Racism and classism are not competing issues, except in the minds of those who demand we focus on only one. Historically and in the modern world, they are tied tightly together, and in order to fix one, we will likely have to fix both.
This entry was posted on Monday, January 11th, 2010 at 2:03 pm and is filed under Stephanie Zvan. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.