The theme for this year’s annual White Privilege Conference was “The Color of Money.” For most attendees I spoke to, the conference was an opportunity to broaden their thinking about the systemic roots of race and racism to include issues of class. I lead trainings on class and so the conference was an opportunity to focus my attention on race.
Thanks in large part to the Occupy movement, radical economic inequality has become part of our national discourse. The 99-to-1 frame has created a visceral depiction of the class divide in America. The supposedly post-racial world we live in highlights the exceptional accomplishments of a few people of color. We’re supposedly beyond racism so we’re no longer talking about systems of oppression. Instead, we’re blaming the victim for not taking responsibility.
Despite gains ushered in by the civil rights movement, the racial wealth gap in this country persists. Prior to the Great Recession of 2008, the typical black family held about 10 cents in wealth for every $1 held by the typical white family. Today, that same black family holds half as much: a nickel. According to conference presenter Paul Kivel, the top 20 percent of people in this country hold 93 percent of the wealth. That leaves 80 percent to split up the remaining 7 percent. The vast majority of people of color are among those who share the scraps. Historical systems of oppression have limited the ability of people of color to acquire and transfer wealth, leaving them particularly vulnerable in economic downturns.
The liberal response to the racial wealth divide is to help individual people of color get ahead. This gives rise to the isolated success stories we hear about, but in reality it undermines a movement for social justice. The unequal system that favors privileged white males exists because the system was designed by privileged white males. To change the system, people of color and white allies must shift the focus from getting ahead to getting together.
Of course, this is easier said than done. The elite class prevents solidarity by selling the myth of a meritocracy in which anyone can succeed and sowing fear among poor and working class white people by communicating that African Americans want their tax dollars and immigrants want their jobs. The professional middle class, for its part, reinforces rather than challenges the system.
Kivel talked about the buffer zone that separates the power elite from the poor and working classes. He described the so-called helping professionals in this buffer zone as performing one of three functions for the people they serve: taking care of them, controlling them or keeping their hope alive. He challenged the audience, most of whom worked in occupations such as education and social services, to think about whose interests they serve and who ultimately benefits from the work they do.
As many participants quietly groaned in recognition of their complicity in the system, I felt proud to be part of Real Change. We’re not part of the buffer zone.
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