Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Forgetting Class

Last night I had my monthly Paul Gilroy reading group and the text under discussion was Against Race. There are some intriguing ideas in this book, especially the central thesis, which is that in order to really attack racism, we need to discard "race" as an analytical category once and for all because it's not doing us any good to replicate these notions of "race" that are perniciously associated with fascism [caveat: some of these ideas Gilroy spells out and others, like the links to fascism, are a result of last night's discussion and my own interpretation of this text].

One of the things that frustrated me about Gilroy's text was the central question of how we are to do this--how to rid ourselves of race as an analytic--a major difficulty within the academy and an impossibility outside of it. And another of my group members (a very astute colleague from History) pointed out that one of the things that Gilroy doesn't do enough of in this work or in other works is to pay attention to class.

I think we centered mostly on class as economics, but ala Pierre Bourdieu (French sociologist/cultural critic) class can also be thought of as your educational level, your regional/geographic location, as well as your economic earning power. A plumber may make more than a junior faculty member but may not have a college degree. The professor will be perceived as having a higher class status (higher cultural capital in terms of education) but a lower financial class status (money in the bank)--of course this is also dependent on people realizing that assistant professors get paid less than plumbers on average, and the type of school (Research I vs. community college) and region (plumbers in CA I wager make far more than in NC, especially in rural areas). Of course, you could argue that depending on the discipline, the earning potential of someone with a PhD is much greater than a high school graduate with a certificate/qualifications in plumbing. (but if you are in the humanities then this argument tends to fall apart).

All of which is to say, class is tricky--and not talked about enough--and especially the intersections of class and race. I've started to assume that when people talk about people living in "urban" areas they are racially coding people and what they really mean are black (and sometimes Latino) people, but rarely does an image of an Asian immigrant come to mind. References to "ghettoes" or "projects" seem to be references to black and Latino people living in these spaces, while "trailer parks" seem to be the domain of poor whites.

NPR's Juan Williams just did a piece about a study released by the Pew Research center on how African Americans are divided by class issues--for more, go to this link here.

I do think that as much as we don't talk about race in our society, we REALLY don't talk about class issues and differences. Almost everyone I know is part of America's "middle class" but the range of who either self-identifies or gets told that they are part of the middle class includes a couple, both doctors and another couple, a nurse and a data manager (neither of whom ever went to college) and whose household incomes are, respectively, just under half a million and just over one hundred thousand. This seems to me a very wide middle class indeed.

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