We Need to Complicate Dialogue About Race and Class

By Edward O'Brien, Middlebury Student

As I discussed in last week’s column, racial oppression and economic oppression are intimately linked. This week, I want to look a little more closely at the mechanisms of racial and economic oppression to understand their overlap and their divergences. Can white people be oppressed, and if so, how? In what ways is it different to be poor and Black than it is to be wealthy and Black?

To explore these questions, it is important to analyze specific mechanisms of racism and classism. Too often, these conversations get stalemated because the same buzzwords are thrown around without much substantiation. So let’s dive into it.

I will start with racialized economic oppression. A long-time driver of wealth inequality is the racial wealth gap. White families have had centuries to accrue wealth whereas Black families in this country were contending with legal segregation until just a few decades ago. Black workers have  not been paid the same rates and not allowed the same kinds of jobs as white workers, barring them from economic prosperity. In fact, white inheritance is a key driver in the perpetuation of unequal wealth distribution. This, of course, begs the question: well, what about now? That was the past. Don’t Black people today have just as much opportunity as white people? Well, no.

Perhaps the one of the strongest examples of racialized economic oppression is our public education system. Put simply, our public schools are funded in part with property taxes. Wealthy towns can raise taxes to fund their own schools (and make themselves exclusive to all but the wealthy) whereas poorer school districts face budget cuts and are largely at the mercy of fluctuating (and seemingly ever-shrinking) federal funding. Thus, to put it simply, rich students receive rich educations and poor students receive poor (read: poorly-funded) educations. This may seem at first glance to be a purely class-based issue. The history, however, is more complicated. Certainly, lack of access to education based on wealth is a form of classism shared by historically white, poor neighborhoods. For people of color who moved to northern cities, however, it is also racial. Take Roxbury, a district of Boston, for example. Historically, Roxbury was a white, Jewish neighborhood. When Black people started moving to Boston from the south, however, there was massive white flight.  Today, only 8.1% of its population is white, and it is the poorest district of Boston. When white people fled, housing prices dropped because those with money saw it as an undesirable place to live — because of its new racial diversity. It is fair to say then that the very presence of people of color deflated housing prices, which in turn denied people living there a quality (or at least well-funded) education. Thus, Roxbury represents racialized economic oppression — a place where the experience of economic oppression was a direct result of racism.

But what about when a Black person gains financial resources? Then, arguably, they can afford to live in nicer neighborhoods or to send their kids to private school, thus ensuring an easier path to colleges and a promise for further financial return. In this way, a wealthier Black person might escape one form of oppression. Though this might, too, come at a cost for the family, who would likely be moving to a much whiter area. The example of wealthy people of color gives us an opportunity to think about race and class both alongside one another and separately. Wealthy people of color are not subject to this kind of economic struggle, but they still face racial oppression. People have conducted experiments that repeatedly prove this to be the case. One experiment dressed a Black man up in a suit and dressed a white man to look homeless. They found that, when entering hotels and other businesses, the Black man was several times more likely to be stopped and searched by security than the white man. This is one of many studies that substantiate claims of racial profiling that can lead to higher rates of police brutality and other instances of discrimination. Therefore, while wealthy people of color escape economic oppression, they still endure racial oppression.

In the same way, white people do not experience racial oppression, but can experience class oppression. It is different to be white and to have access to high-quality educations, to have inherited wealth, and to live within a system that sees you as racially neutral than it is to be white and uneducated, with little social mobility, and poorly-funded schools that make higher incomes unattainable. It is a different experience to be a computer programmer in Silicon Valley than it is to live in a trailer park in Middle America. In fact, many poor white people experience the same economic oppressions as do poor Black people — the difference being that white people do not experience it because of their race. Instead, white people face economic oppression because of a system that perpetuates existing wealth distributions — providing the best access to education, health care, and social mobility to those who are already wealthy.

Economic and racial oppression interact, and the evidence suggests that in tandem, they are particularly significant. The median white family in the U.S. has a wealth of $111,000 and a household income of $56,000. The median Black family has a wealth of only $7,000 and a household income of $35,000. Almost 14 percent of white households make over $100,000 per year whereas only 8 percent of make over $100,000 per year. In contrast, 8 percent of white households make under $15,000 per year whereas 22.4 percent of Black households do. Oppression is not theoretical — it is real, demonstrable, felt and lived experiences that are, all the while, interconnected and complex.

We must complicate our understanding of class, because it cannot be disentangled from race, sexuality, or gender. It informs and is informed by these power structures. When discussing oppression, we must address specific mechanisms or we will talk past each other. We must move forward with nuanced and complicated understandings of  class and race, and their relationships to gender, sexuality, and ability in order to combat oppression holistically and compassionately.

If you want to engage more with a comprehensive understanding of class, go to go/middmovingmoney or send an email to [email protected]

Edward O’Brien ’17 writes the mechanisms of racial and economic oppression.