In his first piece for #itchysilk, Kenneth Norwood takes us into thoughts regarding class and race and asks: is class a simile for race in America? In it he argues that while for many, class and race are inseparable, this is in many respects too simplistic a view when trying to understand oppression and the perpetrators of oppression. On the contrary, he argues that it is not class and race that are the issue but rather class and capital when we try to critically analyse oppression.
Some say it’s because class and race go hand-in-hand. When we talk about racial oppression in regards to blacks, “nigger,” is in many instances synonymous with “poor,” but this is a problem; the relationship is not always absolute. Is it possible that a middle-class black male can be as oppressive as a straight white male? Patriarchy benefits both, race separates them, but class and capital are the ties that bind the two together.
White-on-white oppression is a real thing, but most blacks in America may never experience it first-hand or might not care to acknowledge it.
I want to argue that no matter how disproportionately brown and blacks occupy the lower class sectors within America, class and race should always be acknowledged as two separate struggles and that by doing this we can dismantle the simplistic narrative of oppression. To support this argument, I want to cite phenomena that evoke the power that class and capital can create, such as middle-class black oppressors and white-on-white oppression. These two examples can show the nuanced role that capital access can dictate one’s life despite racial identification. This is also not an argument against white privilege or for white sympathy. In acknowledging others hardships–despite their acknowledgment of our own–I hope to create avenues of better understanding, hence, allies in a movement towards dismantling all forms of oppression.
Class consciousness: A Marxist concept that describes the awareness of one’s place in a system of social class, especially as it relates to the class struggle; is a valued outcome when it comes to recognizing the rift between race and class in America. Evoking the Rainbow Coalition that short-lived leader, the late Fred Hampton, formed with working-class whites–the One was the Young Patriot Organization (YPO)– in Chicago 69’. I believe that when we reach across these lines, no matter how unheard of it may be, we can better understand our place in this system which can begin to combat the methods that upper-class capital holders have used to pit one marginalized group against another.
Middle-class black oppression
Class consciousness can build bonds and help in toppling overall oppressive forces, but race is still said to overshadow one’s class mobility-
Even if you in a Benz you still a nigga in a coup–Kanye West (All Falls Down 2004)
The narrative of “no matter how high you climb, ya’ still black,” is commonly used to debunk the benefits of capital by black and brown folks in America. A common citing of this (and a continuation of that most poisonous narrative) is the treatment that Barack Obama received as the first black president. Race follows you wherever you go! From Oprah being turned away at stores off the assumption that she couldn’t afford anything in it, from black doctors and lawyers not being able to hail a taxi in New York city; race is everlasting. But I only partially agree!
To absolve the social benefits of your capital on the base of your race is a disservice to the end goal of breaking down both insidious capitalism, racism and all other institutions. Middle-class black oppression manifests in many forms such as elitism and Social Darwinism. With elitism, blacks in America, who have just started to gain more capital with access to education and social resources–though still not on an adequate level–more than often look down upon those who haven’t reached their level. The pervasive narrative of “well they didn’t choose to go to school,” and of course the always present “prosperity gospel,” that is the status quo in many black Baptist churches. Social Darwinism within the black community is encompassed by the common assumption that “If you work hard like I did, you can get here too,”.
These assumptions are oppressive in terms of ignoring systems of poverty that entrap people in a cycle of low wealth with an inability to both acquire and maintain capital and it also ignores the benefits of group wealth building. Black classism survives and thrives off of ignorance; by its true definition. The answer to it is not to loan your cousin money every time he is late on his rent, is to teach your cousin that you will never own this structure and that we should work towards a long-lasting form housing. Of course, it’s never that simple, but it does not detract from the group benefits of one creating avenues of class mobility for others once they have gained access to a higher stature. Nepotism is the name of the game and it should be employed more in the black community.
White-on-white oppression is a real thing, but most blacks in America may never experience it first-hand or might not care to acknowledge it. Like an urban myth or ghost story, you only heard of white poverty–dubbed PWT (“poe’ white trash,”)–in passing and through media exploitations of the southern and mid-western America image. The Grapes of Wrath (1939) novel by John Steinbeck and its film adaptation by director John Ford–which chronicles the forced migration of “yokels,” (white sharecroppers) to the west due to environmental and economic depression in the 30’s–is a testament to the existence of a white impoverished party in American’s past.
Fast forward to Eminem’s trailer park woes in the broken motor capital of America (Detroit) and Trump’s acknowledgment of the “rust belt states,” (locations where industry declined started around 1980) and their lack of visibility; white oppression has been a part of the narrative for a while but in the more recent years it has lost a sympathetic ear.
Across the Atlantic however, in the UK, this is not the case. There is a cultural shock of white-on-white oppression, its visibility, and sympathy for it, that is unfamiliar to most minorities from America. In Nell Irvin Painter’s work The History of White People (2010), she sums this shock up when she talks about whiteness not purely as a form of physical identification, but rather, a moving target of power. From the historical treatment of the Irish or modern-day backlash against Polish immigration in the north, class and race begins to be swapped for class and nationality.
This sympathetic ear for “white tears,” amongst lack of capital is not an attempt to downplay the insidious role that race plays in capital distribution and access in America.
But even with British born whites, the perpetual and rigid barriers of class keep the groups at bay, which, therefore, supports the system of class oppression in the country. To see reports of white children not being able to have access to breakfast in the morning at schools, to imagine white teens in some towns as “at-risk youth,”; these mediations are, with some exceptions, unheard of in America. White oppression in American media does exist, but an abundance of these images are weaponized as the antagonist against the fight for liberal equality. The farmer that blames illegal migration from Mexico for his problems or the plight of affirmative action makes up the dominant narrative of poor working class whites. This narrative of outside minority presence in America has been used in the past– by whites with capital power–to pit them against opposing minority-for example slave patrollers position in the Civil War (1861-1865) and Reconstruction Period (1863-1877) of America.
Visibility and capital
To separate the institutions of race and class in America is to acknowledge the power of visibility that comes with capital gain despite racial and gender identification. As whiteness creates a larger degree of visibility for the holder, capital can do the same. Furthermore, it creates an avenue for class consciousness which helps one to acknowledge their role in the system. To be aware of one’s role in the system is a powerful and systemically disruptive idea because it can give insight into the operation of sytems and how it reinforces tools of oppression, such as class and racism. It equips individuals with better tools to navigate and possibly dismantle it. This sympathetic ear for “white tears,” amongst lack of capital is not an attempt to downplay the insidious role that race plays in capital distribution and access in America. We should however, acknowledge the fluidity of the oppressed and the oppressor. That fluidity due to a lack of capital or access to it crosses all divides and ergo means that oppressive attitudes can become apparent regardless of racial identity or said history of oppression perpertrated on ‘that’ race.
Featured image sourced from Hillbilly Nationalist (2011)
Second image by unknown?