Monday, March 24, 2008

The Wealth Gap

One thing I've continually tried to impress when talking about contemporary racism is that it is an independent point of oppression from class. I have many friends -- liberal and conservative -- who don't understand this. A few months ago I was talking with a friend of mine, who I adore and who is brilliant, about affirmative action. She said she could supported it for Black kids who come from poorer areas, but she did not understand it for those who grew up in wealthier areas like Bethesda. The point being that racism is a subcategory of classism. At worst, racism is bad because it makes certain people disproportionately poorer. Where there is no poverty or economic deprivation, though, there is no racism or disadvantage.

This sentiment is wrong, for reasons the above linked post helps explain. But today I observed an even more dangerous claim that I hope is not becoming a trend. I had assumed that most of the folks making the race/class conflation were only making the point in reference to the present day. Surely, in the epochs of American history where the gains of the Civil Rights movement were not yet actualized, we could recognize that Blacks of all social classes were impacted by White racism?

Or perhaps not. Marty Peretz passes along a brief statement by Morton Klein, current President of the Zionist Organization of America. Here's what he wrote:

How do I know?

It happens that, as a Philadelphian, I attended Central High School – the same public school Jeremiah Wright attended from 1955 to 1959. He could have gone to an integrated neighborhood school, but he chose to go to Central, a virtually all-white school. Central is the second oldest public high school in the country, which attracts the most serious academic students in the city. The school then was about 80% Jewish and 95% white. The African-American students, like all the others, were there on merit. Generally speaking, we came from lower/middle class backgrounds. Many of our parents had not received a formal education and we tended to live in row houses. In short, economically, we were roughly on par.

I attended Central a few years after Rev. Wright, so I did not know him personally. But I knew of him and I know where he used to live – in a tree-lined neighborhood of large stone houses in the Germantown section of Philadelphia. This is a lovely neighborhood to this day. Moreover, Rev. Wright's father was a prominent pastor and his mother was a teacher and later vice-principal and disciplinarian of the Philadelphia High School for Girls, also a distinguished academic high school. Two of my acquaintances remember her as an intimidating and strict disciplinarian and excellent math teacher. In short, Rev. Wright had a comfortable upper-middle class upbringing. It was hardly the scene of poverty and indignity suggested by Senator Obama to explain what he calls Wright's anger and what I describe as his hatred.

The point we're supposed to gather from this is that, since Wright did not grow up in "poverty", he did not experience "indignity" but "privilege". But to act as though only impoverished Blacks faced racism in 1950s Philadelphia is unreal. We know that racism acted upon Blacks of all social classes. MLK, too, hailed from an upper-middle class background. W.E.B. Du Bois was born in a solid economic setting in Massachusetts. But in the America of that era, there was nothing "comfortable" about it. So they got angry. And they fought against it.

I'm not saying that poverty doesn't matter. But racism still acts upon middle and upper class Blacks. Indeed, there are reams of scholarship about how the Civil Rights movement was primarily a middle class struggle that was indifferent if not actively hostile to lower-class Black people -- the only ones, according to Klein, who had anything to get upset about. But if anything, Wright is proof that there is no sector of the Black population that is immune from racist indignities, because you can't buy off racism.

1 comment:

PG said...

Very odd statement, particularly coming from the current President of the Zionist Organization of America. Does Mr. Klein believe that Jews who could afford to bribe their way out of Nazi-occupied territory shouldn't be angry that they a) had to do so; and b) that their poorer brethren perished? Money often can ease burdens of discrimination (in African Americans' case) and genocide (in Jews' case), but that doesn't mean people shouldn't get angry about those things. Or in the case of Zionists, that they shouldn't point to the past as a justification for policies of the present.