Not once, in my 10 years of leading class and classism trainings, have I observed the kind of emotional response that occurred when Black Lives Matter (BLM) activists interrupted Bernie Sanders at the recent Social Security rally. The frustration expressed by some of the white liberals at the rally is an example of what associate professor Robin DiAngelo calls “white fragility.” She uses the term to describe a situation in which “even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable [for white people], triggering a range of defensive moves.”
It strikes me that perhaps class tension is more tolerable for wealthy people than racial tension is for white people, because a largely unchallenged narrative — the myth of the self-made man — backs class privilege. Wealthy people can, and often do, take refuge in the false notion that their success is the sole result of their hard work, and they are therefore deserving of their class status. White people, as a group, lack a comparable mythology to justify racial superiority. Hence the common reflexive emotional “white fragility” reaction when we are challenged.
Since the police killing of Michael Brown in July 2014, I’ve been questioning the value of workshops that invite isolated conversations on class. They create a bypass for white activists to feel like they are doing anti-oppression work without really grappling with the ugly specter of institutional racism. My discomfort has grown with the rash of racially based incidents of police brutality that have been reported in the last year, and it culminated in the aftermath of the aforementioned rally.
When they seized the stage from Sanders, BLM activists Marissa Johnson and Mara Willaford created a powerful teaching moment for white progressives. The activists had a clear message: It’s not enough for white progressives to focus on economic inequality and assume race will be addressed as a byproduct.
Considering the experience of African Americans in this country, history
validates their point. Our economic growth has not simply been based on the exploitation of poor people, but on the exploitation of black people. From slavery to Jim Crow to mass incarceration, white people have maintained their advantage through economic exploitation of African Americans, bolstering their supremacy as needed through violence and political disenfranchisement.
Even in the decades following World War II, when inequality was at historic lows, poor and working class black Americans did not fare nearly as well as their white counterparts. Despite modest improvements in racial equality in wages, racially restrictive housing covenants and “redlining” prevented many black people from buying a house — the cornerstone asset upon which the American Dream is built. The racial wealth divide over the last 50 years has seen little improvement. According to data from the Federal Reserve, the median net worth of white households in 2013 was $141,900, about 13 times that of black households at $11,000.
Our societal institutions, such as those in housing, education, the media and the prison system, conspire to advantage white people. Without dealing with the structural racism that these systems perpetuate, black people will benefit far less when there are economic gains among poor and working class people as a whole and suffer far more when there are downturns.
Since so many black people are poor, if you deal with race, you will deal with class. But that isn’t necessarily true in reverse, which is why Willaford and Johnson were absolutely right to hold Sanders and his followers accountable on race, despite their progressive economic values.
Race and class are inextricably linked, and we need to talk about them together. On October 23, Anita Morales and I will lead our next public workshop for Class Action. Except that instead of calling it “Exploring Class,” we are calling it “Exploring Race/Class Intersections.” We’d love for you to join us, particularly if this column has touched a nerve. For more information about the training, please contact me at [email protected]