Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Class is the new Race.

Steve Gilliard has been following the story of the Alabama girl who disappeared in Aruba and used it to further illustrate the point he had made earlier with the crazy run-away bride: the media treats a missing pretty white woman as national news, but when is the last time you saw national news coverage of a missing black lady?

I don't mean to suggest that his analysis is one dimentional, but he has been looking at what this and other news stories suggest about how race influences coverage and prosecution of crimes. I like how Steve digs into things but I also find this one particularly interesting (outside of the racial issues) because the girl is from Alabama and I had a roommate from Mountain Brook and I remain close to him and his family and some of their friends, so there is a good chance that I am separated from this girl by only one or two degrees of separation. I won some good money in a poker game in Mountain Brook last Christmas.

Anyway, now I'm rambling, but the point in writing is to direct everyone to this article that Steve comments on:


Mason and I have been discussing the move to treat culture as the new race. Same thing with class; both are being used as the new means for keeping the 'others' in their place. Welcome to the new face of bigotry. An awful lot like the old face, but we seem to be slow about calling spades spades in this country.


Anonymous said...

i think you are making a very bold statement. surely, an argument can be made that "whiteness" like "queer" is an ever-evolving inclusive designation--i'm not going to make that argument, but one might...obviously, that "whiteness" has a ways to go, regardless.

anyway, i think it may be a bit presumptuous to write that two socially designated categories are comparable to race--which, yes, is given its meaning by the society which also creates "class" and "culture" but, i think, is essentially different. the identifiable signifiers for both culture and class are mutible (look at the way seth cohen, for example, has bastardized ginsberg and kerouac....even thought it's anachronistic, i think time does not belie my point). however, the social designations for race in this country are certainly anything but malleable.
just some thoughts....i enjoy your blog.

d. earl griffin said...

Thanks for the comment. Glad you enjoy the blog.

don't have time to respond much, but I'll sneak in a few thoughts while I'm eating lunch. I would say that 'whiteness' is very much an evolving designation in its inclusiveness. In certain places and times in this country, 'white' exluded the Irish, Italians, Spaniards, Jews, and so on. This was a largely cultural designation, and not so physically evident that one couldn't move outside of whichever excluded ethnic group's community and become part of the 'white' in-group elsewhere. Black people did not and still do not have such a luxury. Their skin color carries an indelible visible difference, which to a great many people is read as a cultural identifier.

Similarly, white gay people have a choice about assimilation. Most of us can 'pass' as straight if we choose to, at least some of the time. We can bypass the assumptions people have about gay people at least some of the time if we choose to, so even if folks don't embrace us, we can be ignored. Being able to be culturally invisible doesn't lessen the toll it takes on one's mind. Being excluded from the stories which give meaning to the culture and which serve as guide posts for the future generations of a society makes finding your place a very precarious task. Being told that the place where you feel most comfortable, the people to whom you most closely relate are less important or even damagingly deviant is destructive.

And I would argue that the social designations for race are malleable. Depending where one is, race can mean very different things. In the Deep South where I grew up, everyone was pretty much divided up between 'white' or 'black.' Most people were one or the other, of European or African decent, but there were a few Indian, Korean, Chinese, and Middle Eastern families.

If there was a large communty of whichever group, that was largely autonomous, where another language than english was spoken, they were regarded as 'black' by the white community. If there were just a few families, they most likely assimilated into the 'white' community and were regarded as such. My grandparents Korean neighbors owned a business and were generally regarded as 'white' even though they looked distinctly different and kept many obviously different cultural practices, like eating with chop sticks. I used to ride home with an Indian kid, who though very dark skinned, was welcomed into a private school and his family into the white business community.

I wonder how they are all faring now. In a near by town in AL, there was a Middle Eastern family who had long lived in the community and who ran one of two small gas stations in the town. They were basically welcomed into the 'white' community and treated fairly well and their business was patronized with out any prejudice. Then 9/11 happened. Even though the had lived in the community for years, people knew them personally and had had no problems out of them, suddenly skin color and country of origin was reason to boycott their business. All but a very few in the community quit using their gas station and it went out of business and they moved. It wasn't their skin color that changed but how their skin color was interpreted.

'Black' and 'white' are important as visual identifiers for people seeking an 'us vs. them' dichotomy. In its most extreme application, it over-rides any other cultural identifiers, like behaviour, neighborhood, job, whatever. Today it generally carries with it assumptions about the culture of said person which must be overcome or overcompensated for.

Lunch is over, so I will play with this train of thought later. I hope you will keep visiting and reading our blog.

Anonymous said...

hey pretty britches,

it's me, silly. i'm curious about your response. by writing that "the social designations for race in this country are certainly anything but malleable," i wasn't referring to the people that may or may not slip into the category of "BLACK" regardless of their racial history. it was the category itself that i was saying was not malleable--notice the subject of the quoted sentence. regardless, the issue at hand is that there is a stigmatized social category of race that is irreducibly related to skin color (no matter how it is cuturally manifested)--which makes it difficult, i think, to say that "class is the new race."

i hope you're not disappointed it was me. if it's any consolation, i'm sure some other really hot, erudite man was just about to post the same thing.

d. earl griffin said...

I figured it might be you, but you never know and I am still happy to argue with you as well as anyone else.

I still argue that race as it is approached in the US is largely a cultural construct, with skin color being the indelible physical indicator of inclusion within a certain culture. With 'black' and 'white' approached as indicative of culture, they are mutable and they have and continue to transform over time.

It is not allowed in popular conversation for someone to make sweeping generalizations about broad racial groups. That black or white or brown people are smarter or dumber or hard-working or lazy is considered inappropriate. Not by a long shot are such things not said, but in the mainstream popular discourse, such statements aren't very welcome. Perhaps it is connected to the all out assault on Darwin and biology since sweeping statements about inherent racial inequity are going to be necessarily tied to either evolution or some divine order. But such arguments become messy and aren't as useful as the cultural attacks.

Am I trying to say that folks in America are suddenly more enlightened or that racism is a non issue these days? Hell no. But the way it is being approached and enacted is from an oblique angle. The "they are different" from yesteryear has become the "they act/think different" of today.

We have more than one way of using our different culturally identifying terms to describe people. 'White' and 'black' can just be descriptive, about skin color. A European black person would more likely be described by an observing American as 'acting white'. An inner city white kid from Richmond would likely be described as 'acting black'. At gay bars all the time people are described to other gay people as being 'just too gay' and we don't bat an eye or wonder about what they mean or similarly when we laugh at someone for being to 'straight-acting'. These are all indicating behavioral observations. Not that it is new to make behavioral observations and associate them with race or whatever, but using cultural descriptors (real or imagined) to aggressively denigrate other groups of people is being allowed and even encouraged on tv, in papers, where ever.

'They don't understand our freedom.' 'If you let gay people marry, the next thing you know, people will be having sex with dogs.'

Middle Eastern people don't understand freedom, because their culture is different blah blah blah. It is racist horseshit, but they will say it on the nightly news and no one will call them out for being bigots.

And the man-dog sex bullshit? The implicit suggestion is that homosexuals have sex with members of their own sex because the bounds of society are too loose and if society were any less restrictive on the gays (ie people of loose morals) then there is no end to how low they would go.

They are all just new ways of saying, they are different, I can treat them different. Which is really just a way of saying, 'I am better; they don't really matter.' These are statements that anyone who finds themselves in a comfortable place must struggle with. When the order of the world affords you a comfortable position, the simple and shallow of us try to find anyway to justify that order as is and preserve our position. If me being up means the blacks/gays/Arabs/jews/whoever is down, then keep 'em down. It is horrible to think this way, but we all have some self preservation instinct in us and some folks look no further.

I argue that instead of stopping dumbly on gross self interest, finding ones self in a position of priviledge in the world, we should instead be expected to strive to see how best to secure the same for others and to make sure that we are maintaining our position with the least damage and the most concern for those 'beneath' us in whatever way.

I think racism completely linked with assumptions about culture and class. I need to stop now but will write more later, particularly about the differences between class and culture. Anyway...

Anonymous said...

i only read your first paragraph. so, sorry. but i nonetheless think you aren't lactually reading what i'm writing....

d. earl griffin said...

you are right. I didn't "lactually" read anything :)

but more seriously, you said: "regardless, the issue at hand is that there is a stigmatized social category of race that is irreducibly related to skin color (no matter how it is cuturally manifested)--which makes it difficult, i think, to say that 'class is the new race.' "

And I would argue that, no, there is no 'stigmatized social group that is irreducibly related to skin color'; skin color is only a visual indicator to which cultural assumptions have been attached. Racism, basing value-judgements about another individual or group of individuals based on their ethnic/genetic background, is just one more form of bigotry, basing value-judgements about an individual or group of individuals based on their inclusion in or exlusion from some in or out group.

My whole argument is that cultural value judgements which are more socially acceptable are the new harbingers of bigotry. You can not talk about racial purity with out making folks' hair stand on end, but you can talk about cultural preservation (not saything the two are always equivanlent, but they sure as hell can be the was some people use it). I'm not against some kinds of cultural preservation, but I am against it being invoked as a shield for modern bigotry. 'Preservation of marriage'? It doesn't have a damn thing to do with marriage, it is about keeping the faggots in their place and enacting punishment if they don't stay there.

Again, I know you are arguing that race is inherent while culture created by society, but my point isn't about the inherent physical differences between americans of european or african decent but how those differences affect an individual's experience in society. How society treats its members of different racial backgrounds isn't a given, it is a cultural construct and racism is just one more form of bigotry, of distinguishing between in and out groups and using the differences to excuse abuse or favor toward one or another group. Racism is unique in that when used as an indicator of group, skin color can not be escaped as an identifying feature.

ok, I have written too much for now. Hope you are feeling better today. xoxo