Which matters most? Race or class?

On almost any level of American society, you’re better off being white than being black.

Even if you’re President of the United States.

Barack Obama could never have gotten away with the sordid personal behavior of Bill Clinton or the manifest ignorance of George W. Bush. (I leave out Donald Trump because he’s in a category all his own.)

Source: Demos.

Clinton, Bush and Obama all were targets of vituperative attacks, but the attacks on Obama were on a different level than the other two.

On a lower level of society, there is a great deal of racial discrimination in the restaurant industry.  Black employees are most commonly found in the kitchen; white employees are the ones who serve the public.

So does that mean Barack Obama and black dishwashers are in one category, and Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and white waiters and waitresses are in another?

Barack Obama is a rich celebrity.  He lives in an $11.75 million house in Martha’s Vineyard.  He has nothing in common with a dishwasher.

The Obamas are good friends with the Bushes, who are good friends of the Clintons, who used to be good friends of the Trumps. 

They all have more in common with each other and with other rich celebrities than any of them does with an hourly worker of any race.


Click to enlarge.

So which matters most?  The vertical lines that separate Americans of different races or the horizontal lines that separate Americans of different economic classes?

If you look at different jobs, you see that a disproportionate amount of the dirty, low-wage work of American society is done by the descendants of enslaved black people and conquered Mexicans and Puerto Ricans.  It is not a coincidence that the descendants of enslaved and conquered people are at the bottom of the economic ladder.

The lines are diagonal lines.  Race and social class can’t be separated.  You find people of every race on every level of American society—but not equally.


Racism and prejudice are almost always factors in racial inequality.  Nowadays, they are seldom the only factors.

• The Republican Party in many states has been illegally purging black citizens from voter registration rolls and making it more difficult for them to vote.  But I don’t think that is because they think blacks are an inferior race.  It is because the vast majority of them vote Democratic.

Click to enlarge.

These same Republicans are perfectly happy with Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina or Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

• Police killings of black people are proportionately greater than police killings of white people.  One reason is that some police are racist and many are racially prejudiced.  But it’s also a fact that police in general treat poor people worse than they do rich people and middle-class people.

And there are also big differences in police departments across the country based on training and policies.  And the inconvenient fact is that a disproportionate number of violent crimes are committed by black people.

Click to enlarge.

But I don’t think these other factors explain away racial prejudice.  Like a lot of things, the issue is complex.

Black people were targeted for the sale of subprime mortgages in the run-up to the 2008 recession.  But I don’t think this was because the financial speculators had an implicit against them because of their race.

Rather it was because they were more financially vulnerable than equivalent white people, for historical reasons that are rooted in racism.

If you look at reasons for inequality in the USA, there is very often a racial angle, but there also is almost always a money angle.


What to do about racial inequality?

Source: Tableau

I think the struggle against racial inequality must be part of the struggle against inequality generally.

Ibram X. Kendi thinks that the problems of black Americans are due to racism and racial prejudice by white Americans, and it is therefore the collective responsibility of white to solve these problems. 

He says past anti-black discrimination should be offset by present pro-black discrimination, and present anti-black discrimination by future pro-black discrimination.

No.  The way to atone for injustice is to establish justice.

Kendi’s admirers are not doing young black people a favor by encouraging them to expect favoritism.  This merely unfits them to survive in a harsh world.

Looking to other people to solve your problems—even if they caused your problems in the first place—makes you weak. 

Click to enlarge

Thomas Sowell and Glenn Loury think it is up to black people to solve their own problems without expecting help from white people.  They say poor black people need to study hard, work hard and avoid bad habits.

This is true by definition.  It is true of everyone.  I would be better off if I had studied harder, worked harder and avoided bad habits. 

But I don’t have standing to preach to poor people—whether black, white or something else—because I’m not sure I could have overcome the obstacles they need to overcome.

Instead I’ll advocate for all those people of whatever race who did everything they could have done, and still have nothing to show for it.

The Rev. William Barber II and Toure F. Reed say that black, white and other Americans need to join forces to achieve justice for all.

White Americans should support black Americans in fighting racial discrimination, and white and black working people should join forces to fight economic exploitation.

If workers’ share of American wealth is shrinking, then any gains made by black workers will come at  the expense of white workers.  It isn’t reasonable to expect white workers to accept this.

But if both are rising, then it’s easier for African-Americans to catch up with whites.  It won’t be a zero-sum game.  Equality and racial equality go together.


Views on Race in America 2019 by Juliana Menasce Horowitz, Anna Brown and Kiana Cox for Pew Research Center.

An Ivy League professor on what the campus conversation on race gets wrong by Sean Illing for Vox.

Push for Racial Justice Beyond Race Alone by Adolph Reed Jr. for The Progressive.









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