April 20, 2017
Filed under Opinions
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Class is a tricky subject in the US, particularly since it is considered impolite to acknowledge it exists. Surveys show that most Americans, excepting only the bottom 20 percent and the top two percent of income earners, believe themselves to be middle class. Now, in the Trump era, class is often used to silence disc u s s i o n s a b o u t race. It is not unc o m m o n to hear people point to the white working-class as a way to erase and ignore accounts of racial oppression. The truth about the interaction between class and race is, like most things, more complicated.
Class — like gender, sexual orientation or race — is an experience and identity that informs and is informed by one’s other experiences and identities, and that indicates a relation to power. Racial oppression and economic oppression are intimately linked. So it is unfortunate when mainstream media pits them against each other, arguing over which of them is “the real issue.” Many forms of racial oppression are economic — white flight in many places depressed housing prices which in turn has led to lower property taxes being collected in these areas which led to lower-quality education in many poor Black neighborhoods which, in turn keeps income levels down and dropout rates up — more on that next week! Likewise, rural working-class people experience similar depressed property prices that coincide with underfunded educations and that make it nearly impossible to move to economically prosperous areas. The median home price in Nebraska is $147,000, and the median home price in San Francisco is $1,147,000 — literally $1 million more than half the houses in Nebraska. This makes it almost financially impossible to move from a place of economic stagnation to a place of economic prosperity, which in turn makes it harder for people from these areas to gain access to high quality education and higher incomes. In this case, however, there is economic oppression, but not racial oppression. Property prices are depressed but not because of white flight. It is important to look at the real mechanisms of oppression, both economic and racial, and how they inform each other, not how they contradict each other.
Class, while often invisible to those who fit Middlebury’s wealthy mold, is also very much at play on Middlebury’s campus. Middlebury is a unique place in terms of class; it is a generally liberal campus, but it is also a campus where 23 percent of the student body come from families that make over $650k a year, where 70 percent of the student body come from families in the top 20 percent of earners, where the median family salary is $244k, where more than half the student body pays $65k+ in tuition out of pocket, and where only 14 percent of the student body comes from the bottom 60 percent of American earners. By contrast, we live in a county with a median income of $55,000 — not at all below the national average but significantly less wealthy than this campus.
That was a lot of numbers, but the idea is that we are living on a campus where extreme wealth is normal. What feels “middle-class” at Middlebury is probably upper-class to the rest of the world. This is not a crime, but it is an opportunity. By remaining silent about class we normalize Middlebury’s wealth and marginalize the experiences of less affluent students. By talking about it and organizing around it, we can effect change.
Since Trump was elected, people have been asking how to use their privilege to organize effectively. Mobilizing money is one of the most concrete forms of leveraging one’s privilege for social justice — whether that be donating to HOPE VT (Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects) or divesting from fossil fuels or actively racist companies. Making money move can make a difference. It is also a way to make our campus more economically friendly, particularly if we can institute wealth redistribution among students and put more college events on a graduated pay scale.
In the coming weeks, I will write about the mechanisms of racialized economic oppression, the classed nature of white normativity, and critiques of philanthropy. If anyone is interested in mobilizing wealth, learning more about class in a way that is coherent with anti-racist ideologies, having open and honest inter-class discussions, wealth redistribution, impact investing, fundraising, personal divestment and/or any other way we can organize around class for social justice go to go/ middmovingmoney to learn more or email [email protected]