Monday, February 1, 2016

A short reading list on the intersection of race and class for parents

Some parents at school requested good readings on the intersection of race and class in the US.  The guiding question was something along the lines of "Does economic success cushion African Americans from racism" or perhaps, "Isn't class more important than race?"  If you hang out around the blogosphere, people are constantly having this conversation and are pretty tired of it.  The answers are "somewhat, but not as much as you would think" and "It kind a depends where and when but again, not as much as white folks tend to think."

One of the most important books in this field is Black Wealth, White Wealth:  A New Perspective on Racial Inequality.  (It's worth it to get the second edition with the most recent data).   Basically, the book argues that wealth matters more than income.  The reason is that wealth leads to multi-generational cushions and margins of error.  In other words, while income helps pull a family up, wealth keeps a family up for multiple generations and black families simply don't have the same wealth as white families.  What that means is that the children of upwardly mobile African Americans are not necessarily uppwardly mobile and they don't have family wealth to cushion their downward economic mobility.  There's no grandparent paying for their kids' summer camps or private schools, or enrichment programs because the grandparents simply didn't accumulate enough wealth even if they were high earners. 

Similarly this book (which I haven't read but was well-reviewed) points out the same problems and identifies the same sources although it comes with policy proscriptions for fixing them.

Where this inequality comes from is very well-documented but the most accessible answer is found in Ta-Nehisi Coates' The Case for Reparations.  Regardless of how you feel about reparations, Coates compellingly synthesizes decades of work by historians and social scientists to show how African Americans were systemically denied the opportunities that helped pull white families out of poverty from the Great Depression on.  Redlining practices, school segregation into the 1970s, legalized racial discrimination in housing until 1968, all functioned to help white families accumulate wealth while black families were systemically prevented from accumulating wealth, or worse, had wealth destroyed.  And that doesn't even get into the systemic racial violence, employment discrimination and so on.  An example that many people don't think about but is illustrative of the larger conversation.  For many white families, the generations that went to college between the end of World War II and 1980 or so were able to do so while accumulating almost no debt in an era when a college degree guaranteed access to middle class and higher living.  For those that didn't attend college, they had access to high paying union jobs (that largely discriminated based on race despite the work of folks like Walter Reuther to prevent that) and suburbs that gained in value.

When African Americans finally gained access to the University they did so at a time of lessened state support and increased tuition requiring higher levels of debt.  When they gained access to the suburbs, they did so at a time of higher interest rates (thanks to the great inflation) and then only to move to inner ring suburbs that required higher taxes to maintain services and at a time when deindustrialization was gutting the corporate tax bases of those suburbs.  This is pretty much the story in places like the St. Louis suburbs of Ferguson and the surrounding towns.

Still, this is the type of stuff that private school parents of similar class positions look at and say, "what does this mean to us? We are past middle class striving.  At the highest levels, does class matter?"

It's hard to get past anecdata (anecdotal data) at this level ("Hey, I couldn't get a cab last week either!")  But even at the highest levels, the literature agrees (as summarized for a lay audience here), that racism takes a health toll on African Americans of all class levels.  To simplify greatly, the day-to-day experiences of racism make African Americans sicker and they die sooner than whites of the same class position. 

Of course, we need to pay attention to gender too, and the intersection between race, class, and gender, isn't pretty.

For private school families, and for African American families who move to "the best" school systems, their struggles are just beginning.  In this fabulous book review, sociologist Tressie McMillian Cottom points out that merely attending a good school isn't enough because of disproportionate discipline, academic tracking and :
Lewis and Diamond argue similarly to others that “well meaning” white parents use their superior cultural and economic capital to divert school resources to the high tracks where their children are disproportionally enrolled and the school rewards white parents’ cultural and economic capital as superior to black parents’.

But go read the whole thing.  And follow her on twitter (@tressiemcphd)* for fabulous accessible writing on race, academia, and popular culture as well.

*twitter handle fixed!


  1. Nice post, David. I think it Tara Yosso and Miguel Ceja have done some interesting work in this field examining the role of racial micro-aggressions in post-secondary achievement. This made me think of Cam Newton, the Carolina Panthers quarterback, who is arguably the best player in the NFL, but is now getting some backlash because of excessive celebrations. Is that racially-motivated, or is it just petty jealousy?