More Americans consider economic inequality the greatest threat facing our country today. That’s right. A recent survey by the Pew Charitable Trust Foundation found that 27 percent of Americans today see inequality as a more serious threat than religious and ethnic conflict, nuclear weapons and climate change. And to think, five years ago, this issue was scarcely a blip on anyone’s radar.
In his Oct. 26 New York Times column “Is the American Dream Leaving America?” Nicholas Kristof referenced this survey. Kristof refers to equal access to education as “the lubricant of social and economic mobility,” and he notes how this access has becomes drastically less universal. As the lubricant dries up, education has become more of a barrier than an escalator to mobility and advancement. The result is that privilege and power are further consolidated within the elite, and poor and working class people, who are disproportionately people of color, are excluded.
More than ever, college education is the stepping stone to forward progress, and the impetus for this education is fueled by ambition and the desire to achieve. While the data suggest an overall increase in representation of people of color on college campuses, the numbers of poor and working class people have actually declined. A recent study from the Higher Education Research Institute indicates that only 24 percent of students from low-income families participate in higher education, compared to almost 43 percent of the general population. Colleges have used racial diversity as a stand-in for class diversity, but since most private colleges have abandoned need-blind admissions, more students of color and international students now come from wealthier backgrounds.
For the people of color who do enter college, dropout rates are as much as 50 percent higher than for white students. For underrepresented minorities, who often begin with greater economic burdens, survival in higher education also requires constantly having to navigate the rules of the privileged institution in which they find themselves. It can make people of color act like chameleons.
Anyone interested in a vivid representation of how this issue plays out ought to see Justin Simien’s ambitious new film, “Dear White People.” The storylines of the film are mostly about racial identity and the blatant racism and micro-aggressions that people of color face when immersed in the dominant culture. That said, it’s no accident that the film’s setting is an elite private college, a fictional Ivy League called Winchester College. While race takes center stage in the movie, its kissing cousins — class and inequality — form an omnipresent backdrop.
It’s not enough to say that class and race are related. They are inextricably intertwined. To look at class without race ignores an entire history of oppression based on a constructed racial identity: Whiteness. To look at race without a class lens denies the experiences of poor and working class white people and the more nuanced experiences of people of color in the middle and upper classes.
You have to consider both class and race to begin to fully appreciate how broken the escalator to opportunity is in this country. This year, Real Change altered its mission statement to include racial justice. We also made “becoming a model organization working at the intersection of race and class” one of the pillars of our new strategic plan. Intersections of class and race are personal, complex and sometimes messy. Real Change is stepping up and entering the fray.