Race, Class, and the Election

There’s so much to write about the election and so little time, but I’m highly intrigued by the many things that have been written about race and class in this election.   We’ve seen microphones and cameras thrust into the faces of any number of undecided white, working-class voters who were all too eager to explain their indecision in jumbled statements about race, change, and “liking” Sarah Palin.

But certainly, I kept thinking, there are at least some middle-class voters still undecided who would say equally puzzling things?  Or at least middle-class voters who, having decided, would explain their choices in such tangled terms  if they had not learned middle -class ways of evading frank talk about race?

But the media seemed insatiably curious about the white- working class racism, assuming, it seemed, that there was no need to even question whether race was still an issue elsewhere across the economic spectrum.

I’d love to hear what other have been reading and hearing on such things.

I’ll offer only a few  snippets in the short time that I have to write this morning:

In my own family, the chain email questioning how someone from Obama’s background could possibly have gotten into Harvard on his own merits (with the clear implication that he had to have  been sponsored by those whose radical causes he’ll now champion) was forwarded by the wealthiest, college educated uncle-in-law.

And I read  on Working Class Perspectives of white middle-class businessmen’s gloom on election day.

Conversely, I  was intrigued by yesterday’s New York Time article on the gradual transformation of voters in Levittown, PA to support for Obama,  and by This American Life’s radio show on the ground game in Pennsylvania which included unprecedented  direct and frank talk about race within the unions (see Union Hall, Act 3).

I hope to write more about this sometime soon, but in the meantime I’m curious:

How might the conversation about race and class be changed by this election?  What are others hearing?

When Class is Invisible in Social Policy

Another piece of the puzzle of why Americans invest so much less in social services — including education — relative to other Western countries is analyzed in this NYT article. The author reviews a number of studies that correlated support for social programs with ethnic diversity and finds — rather consistently — that support for “redistribution” programs falls as communities become more ethnically and racially diverse.

In the U.S., it seems, white voters assume that such programs are for those “other people”. In more homogeneous countries like Sweden, voters support social programs because they assume that such programs will benefit families like their own.

In the end, though,

Ethnic diversity doesn’t inevitably reduce spending on public goods. Rather, spending tends to fall when elected officials choose to run and govern on platforms that heighten racial and ethnic divisions.

Missing from the article are the perspectives of poor and working-class whites and their complicated positions in such deliberations about social programs, social “welfare” and race.

Most poor children in this country are white. Are poor and working class white voters identifying with more privileged whites to deny services to those “others”? Or are the “white” voters discussed in this article less homogeneous than the author implies?

More importantly, how do we move deliberations about such things beyond campaign sound bites to more substantive analysis of how class matters in the U.S.? Assuming that many poor and working class people aren’t regular readers of the New York Times, where are other public forums in which these questions can even be raised?

How do we begin to imagine a school curriculum in which class interests are identified, debated, supported, and then articulated in the broader public arena?

Savvy Racism

Something that I’ve been quietly grappling with for a long time is the common portrayal of working class people as racist. From the work of Lois Weis to Paul Willis to Kirby Moss, working class kid and adults can come across as dull bigots. I’ve bitten my tongue listening to comments at too many conferences about the “false consciousness” of working class students in college classes, evidenced by their resistance to coursework about race.

I’ve long wondered whether middle class kids aren’t just better at masking racism beneath a veneer of politeness and tolerance, or whether middle class students have learned how to play the academic game so that their contributions to deliberations about race are informed by their anticipation of the “right answer”, even if their tolerance is not fully internalized.

So it was with interest that I read a news item in today’s Inside Higher Education about a study suggesting that college students (not, of course, all middle class, but certainly disproportionately middle class) engage in a disturbing amount of racist talk “backstage” even while being polite to students of color in public.

I don’t want to give anyone a pass on racism. That’s not my point. But locating the problem of racism within the working class may make the middle-class feel intellectually and morally superior, but isn’t doing much to solve the long-standing problems race relations on this country.