We Can’t Ignore Racial Inequality Even While Battling Class Inequality

Under global capitalism, “value” too easily becomes synonymous with profit rather than with more abstract human concerns.  Also, it can be very difficult to avoid hierarchical rankings…and lead to people asking, for instance, is class oppression or racial oppression worse?

The question is usually not so baldly stated; instead, as a recent article in the New Pittsburgh Courier points out via Affirmative action ruling contest: race vs. class., many people focused on class equality in higher education “don’t necessarily oppose race-based affirmative action; they just want more efforts to deal with socio-economic diversity.  Indeed, many people ask, why not do both?”

This question is a good one and undergirds many efforts at intersectional activism, which means  remembering that every individual is privileged and dis-privileged in complicated ways, rather than being ‘simply’ defined by race, or class, or gender.  At the same time, can we work towards equality in terms of both race and socioeconomics simultaneously in the United States?

The answer SHOULD be “yes” and change probably won’t occur on any large scale without attention to multiple types of inequality—  generally speaking, those who are the most privileged in U.S. society are still white and male, with socioeconomic resources exponentially greater than 99% of Americans.

However, reading the book How the Irish Became White by Noel Ignatiev for a WWHAT’S UP?! Pittsburgh book club, I am reminded how often in the nation’s history different racial groups have taken sides against one another in order to leverage possible advantages with the privileged classes for their own communities.

Widening income inequality has made it harder to make the case that special attention to race remains justified, according to the NPC article:  “This is the first time you have Whites thinking they face more discrimination than Blacks do,” said Camille Charles, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania who studies class and race. “You have people who have come to believe the system is set up to benefit Black people at the expense of White people.” Such beliefs, she said, reflect ignorance about the persistence of discrimination, about how much harder minorities were hit by the Great Recession, and about how affirmative action actually works (many incorrectly conflate “affirmative action” with “racial quotas,” which the Supreme Court long ago ruled unconstitutional).

Such widespread misconceptions unfortunately mean that advocates of greater socioeconomic diversity in higher education and elsewhere overlook how dramatically racial injustice compounds class inequality, leading them to focus on class as if it is a system unaffected by race.

This is a flawed strategy because its success might mean greater representation for white Americans but would leave racial inequalities largely unaddressed— it is only by recognizing how these systems work together that we have a shot at dismantling the capitalist status quo and making social mobility once again a possibility in the New World.

Writer:  anupama jain

2 thoughts on “We Can’t Ignore Racial Inequality Even While Battling Class Inequality

  1. cmason242

    I wonder about the quote from Camille Charles, where she states it is the ‘first time whites feel more discriminated…’ seems like that has been the case at various times in the US (in addition to what we are reading about Irish Americans in the Ignatiev book).
    Also, I remember in the 80s (and 90s?) that opponents to affirmative action used the “reverse discrimination” argument quite often.
    I recently acquired a book called “Playing the Race Card: Exposing White Power and Privilege.” Has anyone heard of this? I found it during a search and bought a copy since I couldn’t find it at a library. It covers “reverse discrimination” claims and other ways racial discrimination is compared to other forms of ‘discrimination’ in a way that minimizes it (as you state, Anu).

    1. Pittsburgh Coalition on Racial Justice Post author

      Chris: Perhaps Charles is suggesting that it is more common today for whites in the U.S. to consider themselves racially discriminated against ?

      In terms of public discourse, the simplified historical trajectory in my mind:

      governmental interventions to advance racial equality

      institutional reforms happen, including school desegregation, housing equality laws, access to employment, etc.

      backlash gains momentum and claims of ‘reverse discrimination’ rise

      multiculturalism becomes the buzz word, shifting focus from historical and persisting racial inequalities to diversity-lite

      courts hear more cases about unfair preference for racial minorities in employment, education, etc.

      many Americans are convinced we are post-racial and should get rid of any preferential treatment — by this logic, any continuing attention to racial inequality is directly harmful to whites

      Is there any validity to these claims? In individual lives and in specific cases, it may be so, but many smart people have pointed out that there are so many racial privileges enjoyed by whites based on institutional racism (see Marcus Rediker’s _The Slave Ship_) that such claims take place as if in a historical vacuum.



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