In Sunday’s (12/23/12) New York Times there was a piece by Jason DeParle titled “For Poor, Leap to College Often Ends in a Hard Fall” in which he pointed out that socioeconomic class, in some cases, plays an equal or greater role than race in preparation for, admission to and graduation from college.
I read the piece and was reminded of what most of us have known all along, i. e., class, like race, strongly influences one’s life chances, but not in the same way or to the same degree. Historically, earning a million dollars and a Ph.D. could significantly change the class of a white person, but a black person could never change his or her race regardless of the wealth or education attained.
Until recently, racial limitations were so extreme that even when African Americans acquired the accoutrements normally associated with class advancement, they couldn’t enjoy the benefits. Race trumped class and thereby placed restrictions on where they could live, where their children were schooled, where they were employed and in what positions.
In some ways, the cruel “homogenization” imposed on enslaved Africans via “race” that denied ethnic differences, religious differences, differences in languages (frankly, cultural differences of any kind) became both tormentor and team-builder.
With definitions of “negro” as vague as “… any evidence of African descent…,” “one thirty-secondth of negro blood,” and with appearances that ranged “… from chalk to charcoal,” it was difficult for African Americans to separate from the “team” regardless of class.
With slave codes and subsequent Jim Crow laws to maintain these bizarre definitions of the “negro,” W. E. B. Du Bois’s “Talented Tenth” saw that they could not advance if society did not differentiate between them and the remaining members of them “team.”
Many of them who could have moved to Canada or Europe and enjoyed relatively better lives chose to dedicate themselves to the race struggle in the United States, and we are a more principled nation because of their efforts.
While there have been (and still are) millions of poor white people in this country, there have never been analogous laws to block class advancement comparable to those enacted to limit race progress. Imagine defining a white person as a “serf” in perpetuum if there was “… any evidence of descent from serfdom…” or a “peasant” if one of his 32 great-great-great-grandparents was a peasant! Maybe the absence of such harsh class restrictions along with opportunities for many of the “best and brightest” whites to overcome class obstacles in their paths prevented the class struggle from attaining the momentum of the racial struggle.