Kurtz: Class matters at least as much as race

Michael Kurtz

This past Monday, more than 60 people crammed into the Buffet Center to watch Professor Charles Mills of the Philosophy department do intellectual battle with Professor Barnor Hesse, of African-American Studies, Political Science and Sociology. Whereas Hesse contended that the social construction of race was not sufficient grounds to discredit the biological idea of race, Mills argued the opposite. I must say, although I found myself awed by the breadth and depth of their knowledge, at times I found the whole thing a bit hard to follow. I have never heard the words ‘colonial’ and ‘hegemony’ so many times in such quick succession, and am no longer sure that I know what each means.

But there was one word that I wish I had heard more, and that’s ‘class.’ Monday’s debate made me realize that, too often when we discuss race in this country, we discuss it in isolation, as though it weren’t intertwined with class. But to talk about race without explicitly examining class is to talk about Pete Sampras without looking at Andre Agassi. In both cases, the two are inextricably linked, and thoughtful discourse requires an acceptance of nuances and ambiguities which are perhaps most apparent in contemporary discussions of African Americans. In recent years, the heterogeneity of the nation’s 40 million – particularly in relation to socioeconomic status – has become a central fact. A fact frequently lost in discussions of race.

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson – who visited NU last fall – wrote a book last year titled “Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America.” He argued that black Americans have splintered into 4 groups over the last 40 years or so. He identified a “Transcendent” elite of wealthy professionals, media moguls and athletes, a “Mainstream” middle class, which now comprises a majority of black Americans, an “Emergent” community that consists of mixed-race families and well-educated black immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean, and the “Abandoned,” the poor, uneducated underclass that predominates in the rural south and inner cities.

As evidence of this growing fragmentation, Robinson cited a 2007 Pew study that found that 37 percent of African Americans agreed with the statement “blacks today can no longer be thought of as a single race because the black community is so diverse.” Furthermore, the study found that this belief was strongest amongst middle class blacks. Conversely, it was the wealthiest ones, who were most likely to believe that “blacks can still be thought of as a single race because they have so much in common.” Even within the group, this question of identity remains a thorny one.

But of course, to dismiss race altogether would be silly. Vast educational and economic chasms remain. Last November, a New York Times article found that African American boys were twice as likely to drop out of high school and twice as likely to live in a home where neither parent has a job.

At the same time, however, this represents just one part of the larger Black experience. Almost 10 percent of African-American households make upwards of $100,000 a year, and more enrollment at Ivy League schools has increased drastically over the last decade and a half.

From shootings in Inglewood to summers at Sag Harbor, the spectrum remains a vast one. That fact should inform every conversation and debate about the topic.

Michael Kurtz is a Weinberg sophomore. He can be reached at [email protected]