Welcome to The Moment, a newsletter of conversations and context from people you need to hear. I’m Susan Smith Richardson, CEO of the Center for Public Integrity.
The interplay between race and class can be a heated issue in the Black community. If you grew up Black and middle class, you had one experience in America. If you grew up Black and further down on the economic ladder, you had another window into America. But whether you were the Huxtable family (“The Cosby Show”) or the Evans family (“Good Times”), class and race have shaped your life.
The vestiges of the past, including Jim Crow segregation, are baked into our economic system, which was built on the sweat of enslaved Africans, says Dr. Kali-Ahset Amen, an assistant research professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University. Amen says race continues to drive your economic prospects if you are Latinx or Black. Though class divisions within communities of color are real, racism still exists across class lines. It is just experienced differently.
And now a moment with Kali-Ahset Amen…
*This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
Why does race still matter for Black people in this country?
Kali-Ahset: Race continues to matter for Black people because race matters to people who are not Black. The Black freedom struggle has in many ways been a struggle for the basic recognition of Black humanity. … But individuals and institutions mark our bodies through the lens of race. Because Black bodies are continuously coded as “different,” if not lesser, race still matters. Even though race is not biologically real, our human experience is lived through racial identity, whether we like it or not. At present, just being human is not yet a luxury we enjoy. Until we get there, Black people will continue to utilize the racial instrument for its strategic value in order to make demands upon the state and civil society as we seek a more equitable distribution of resources.
For these reasons, race cannot be eliminated from the conversation around creating a fair economy and lifting up the working class. Political philosopher Frantz Fanon would remind us that race and racism are often lived and felt economically. Certainly, race and class constitute each other if you are Black or Latino. In other words, if we are looking in the aggregate at those groups, your economic position is shaped by your race, and your race is a strong determining factor in your economic prospects. A long history of white supremacy, as the organizing principle of American society, has made this so. As a result, the ‘lift all boats’ approach to economic equality, while valiant, may deliver flawed prescriptions for economic fairness that overlook the biases that are built into the system.
How did classism develop in the Black community?
Kali-Ahset: If we want to understand how Black people see themselves in terms of their economic interests, it’s useful to explore different forms of class identity among Black people and think about how those identities foster solidarities or cleavages. From there, and especially if we want to be involved in racial justice work, we each have to think critically on a personal level about whether our economic interests, our material comforts, our social ambitions clash against an economic justice agenda that would serve all Black people. There comes a point where you have to reckon with the possibility that a truly racially just society is a more egalitarian one, economically as well as politically.
How do class divisions among Black people affect building a common political agenda?
Kali-Ahset: The Black community is not a monolith. We can experience racism differently… depending on your level of education or wealth or sexual orientation as a Black person, your lived experience of discrimination and disadvantage is relative.
But those subjective differences that derive from lived experience are particularly meaningful because they have a tendency to shape one’s personal politics and the types of solutions that someone might deem most beneficial for the Black community as a whole. For example, a Black woman of a certain age, educated and middle class, a military veteran with benefits and who is married to a man may have a radically different agenda than a young, unmarried Black mother who is low-skilled and low-income.
As early as the turn of the 20th century, the narrative of “racial uplift” defined the ways that Black people saw their responsibilities to each other. When Mary McLeod Bethune’s organization, National Association of Colored Women, was founded in 1896, their motto, “Lifting as we climb,” really captured this ethic. Fast forward 75 years, past the desegregation battle, to the election of a wave of Black mayors in major cities in the 1970s (Gary, Indiana; Chicago, Illinois; Washington, D.C.; Atlanta, Georgia). Here you had a Black political class with an actual Black agenda that brought about sweeping policy changes and programs benefiting urban African Americans on all class levels.
For reasons both internal and external to the Black community, this sense of collective struggle has ebbed. Individual success through entrepreneurialism is the new narrative of Black progress. More than that, too many Black folks from all walks of life have internalized the pernicious narrative that African Americans who are poor or incarcerated or otherwise haven’t “made it” have failed because of their individual moral shortcomings or a culture of poverty. … Luckily, there are strong signals now that a tide is turning.
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- There is no one-size-fits all policy agenda for African Americans. But the “Vision for Black Lives,” the agenda of The Movement for Black Lives, looks at issues from mass incarceration to public education in an effort to define broad prescriptions for Black political and economic change.
- Ellis Cose’s “The Rage of a Privileged Class,” published in 1994, asks “Why are middle-class blacks angry?” and “Why should America care?” The book paints a complex picture of how opportunity is tempered by ongoing racial discrimination.
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