P O S T E D B Y S A L L Y
Via Gift Hub : The American Ruling Class, a new documentary from Harper’s magazine editor Lewis Lapham, will air July 30 and 31 on the Sundance Channel. What follows is a reworking of an earlier post on the subject.
Discussions of socioeconomic class are rare and fleeting in the nonprofit sector.* This is a great shame. Thirty years ago, the powerful images and texts of American Pictures taught me the meaning of the word “underclass.” I didn’t hear the word used again with any frequency until Hurricane Katrina blew ashore.
Nobody talks about the underclass anymore.
Foundations are fortunate to do their work largely independent of government and corporations (including the media). They have a good chance of introducing the topic of class and sustaining the conversation. Yet despite continuing reminders about the myth of class mobility in this country, and an oft-stated concern for low-income communities, there are significant barriers to engaging the topic:
1. Race, not class, structures the primary American narrative of oppression In their book Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s, Omi and Winant write that
Historically speaking, the call for “class” unity across racial lines has amounted in practice to an argument that non-whites give up their racially based demands in favor of “class” unity on white terms. This will not be achieved by appeals to “class unity” or by reliance on “bargaining power theory,” which merely offer an abstraction to minorities confronted by racial inequities in the workplace.
Likewise in the nonprofit world, class-talk is sometimes seen as a distraction from issues that are more clearly rooted in racial antipathy.
2. Class-talk produces in some a mental cramp Paul Kingston and his intellectual heirs have argued that American society is essentially classless. These authors don’t deny that sociologists, political scientists, and others can usefully divide the American public into various income categories. What they deny is the notion that the members of these categories share “life-defining experiences” that license our referring to them as members of a distinct, coherent class. Make of this kind of argument what you will. It reminds me of Bill Clinton’s narrow definition of “sexual relations.”
3. Class-talk is impolite Few topics will more quickly cast a pall over middle class dinner parties than the history of class struggle in the United States. In 2003, the President effectively silenced the critics of his tax cuts by accusing them of fomenting “class warfare.”
How do we incorporate class-talk into nonprofit work in a way that doesn’t elide hundreds of years of racial oppression? How do we bring the lived experience of the poor and working poor into institutions governed by middle class values and norms? How do we dispel the myth that America is essentially a classless society?
* Based on recent data from the White Courtesy Telephone Department of Armchair Sociology that conducted a mental survey on this subject approximately 45 minutes ago.