Race, Class, and Prejudice

Debra Dickerson, the author of The End of Blackness and An American Story, has two very interesting essays in Slate on the subject. The most recent, “First Class: Is it possible to raise rich kids who don’t have a sense of entitlement?” discusses the social and emotional struggles of an up-from-poverty black woman who has achieved wealth and success (her) and is now raising two biracial children.

Feminism and class consciousness have always come more naturally to me than race consciousness. Born in 1959, I was insulated from the most direct racism by the overt segregation blacks faced, even up North, but trapped under the thumb of any black person who peed standing up. In other words, whites weren’t the reason my brother was forbidden from cleaning up his own messes or why my mother slaved around our house until late in the evening—still in her pink waitress uniform—while my father puttered in the basement. Male privilege within the black community was, and remains, oppressive.

And the chasm between professional or light-skinned blacks (God help us if they were both) and us “cabbage and cornbread” broad-nosed Negroes was equally pronounced; these “seditty, high falutin’ ” blacks were as determined to segregate us from them as were whites. Our shared blackness never trumped gender or class. Few whites were in a position to exploit or despise me the way black men and the black elite were.

But now, not only am I sleeping with the enemy, I’m singing it lullabies and scheming to get it to the head of every line. I’m like those World War II vets who bemoaned our lost valor and patriotic unselfishness but then turned around and helped their own sons shirk duty in Vietnam. I’m going to have to find a way to reconcile my reverse snobbery with invoking, on my children’s behalf, the old boys’ network I’ve worked my way into.

I’m desperate to prevent them from becoming the kind of privileged snots with that disgusting sense of entitlement I saw in too many of my trust-funded classmates at Harvard Law School. Their (white) grandfather is tenured at a public Ivy. Their mother writes books and is on television. Dad’s an architect. My son’s godparents are Harvard muckety-mucks. My infant daughter’s are journalism big shots—can you say early admission to an Ivy, snazzy internships, and eenie-meenie-minie-moe-ing between cushy first jobs? I scheme and freelance so as to squirrel away money for them so they can have all the ski trips and concert tickets that their mother never had. And yet even as I do so, I begin to wonder if, on some level, I’ll come to despise them.

Her previous piece, “Racist Like Me – Why am I the only honest bigot?,” observes that even the most tolerant people often view the world through a racist (or homophobic, or gender biased) lens.

In a way, I’m arguing for class warfare to replace racial warfare. Class conflict makes sense; it keeps the powerful from riding roughshod over senior citizens who can’t retire from manual labor in the hot sun. The truth is, I have far more in common with the rich white man than I do with that poor black grandfather (who would never dare to park on private property in this neighborhood). A world of perfect harmony would be lovely, but until the rapture comes I’d rather blue-collar types of all races faced off against us “suits” than one race against the other. There is nothing logical, natural, or beneficial about a world organized by race—the very concept is irrational. Any system divided along racial lines, implicitly or overtly, will be immoral, inefficient, and unstable. (Take, for example, poor whites’ hatred of slaves, rather than of slavery, for depressing wages.)

Class conflict, on the other hand, is natural and rational. It brought us the minimum wage, OSHA, Social Security, the weekend, overtime, pensions, and the like. While none of those are unmitigated successes, a system organized along class lines acknowledges that capitalism doesn’t police itself and that labor must have a voice—it wasn’t the capitalists who pushed for child labor laws and the eight-hour work day. Everybody loses when societal goods are distributed on the basis of race, even those in the front of the bus. Bigotry is just plain stupid, but as long as the price of examining one’s prejudices is expulsion from the human race, we’re never going to be able to quash it.

When I realized that I had internalized the world’s loathing of blacks, my first response was, counterintuitively, relief. Finally, I have proof that blacks’ obsession with racism isn’t crazy. If I secretly think that many poor blacks are animalistic and stupid, you’ll never make me believe that lots of other people don’t, too. My lasting response has been chagrined amusement to realize that I hold such ridiculous, illogical notions. Most of all, acknowledging my own racism has given me a measure of compassion for how difficult it is to retain one’s humanity in such a politicized and inhumane world. I’m black and I make my living thinking about race, but I still wasn’t immune to the insidious bigotry in our world. How much harder it must be for those with far less time to contemplate and come to terms with these vexing social issues.

It’s not bigotry per se that hamstrings us in the struggle to achieve a just society. It’s our inability to talk about and think our way through our preconceptions. We have to learn how to forgive each other, and more importantly ourselves, when we’re stupid.

Both are interesting reads.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Attila Girl says:

    It’s hard not to think that she’s replaced one kind of self-loathing with another, and that she’s well on her way to becoming a “limousine liberal,” expressing her guilt about her own success by holding struggling middle-class people back.