Class Silence

September 20, 2010

Mum's the word on class.

One of the things that has driven me nuts over the past three decades is how we in this country walk in silence around issues of wealth and social class. We must never speak of our wealth, or poverty, lest we risk embarrassing ourselves or appearing arrogant. All Americans with an income between $20,000 and $20 million a year are middle class, not upper middle class, not affluent, not rich, just middle class.

Any mention of the top three percent in income (people whose income is more than $250,000 a year) amounts to class warfare, even though they control some 35-40 percent of the nation’s $57 trillion in wealth. No, poverty and affluence are relative, not absolute, and can only be measured subjectively,

Atacama Desert in Chile. Driest desert on Earth and place to stick our heads. (Public Domain)

through one’s own experience. Which is why any mention of our troubles is closer to sacrilege than declaring that there isn’t a God, especially in a nation that prints “In God We Trust” on its money.

There are ways to measure affluence and poverty regardless of cost of living and inflation. And please spare me the comparisons between the poor in the US and the poor in the Global South (Third World to those of you who like making other distinctions between fellow humans that actually dehumanize). I’ve seen too many corrugated roofs in Arkansas and Louisiana (all before Katrina), too many outhouses in rural Arkansas and Mississippi, too many families sleeping in the streets in San Francisco and New York, too many malnourished kids in Oklahoma and in DC to hear that “our poor are the richest poor people in the world” song-and-dance.

It’s simple really. Truly middle class people own a car and a home, or at least, have the option of doing both, with a steady income from a permanent job or from an established niche for work. If folks have one and rent an apartment or home, and aren’t really in a position to buy, they’re right on the borderline of the American middle class, but not quite there.

Of course, this definition does not mean that everything’s all right. Tens of millions of Americans, including yours truly, are struggling to pay car notes, student loans, mortgages and rent — not to mention credit card and other debt — and maintain a middle class or lower middle class lifestyle. Unfortunately, there are millions more who are working toward middle class, but aren’t quite there. They may say they’re middle class, but they’re really working-class or working poor.

Upper middle class or affluent Americans do more than own a house or a car. They own quality homes and quality cars, a Volvo or an Acura, maybe even a Lexus. They take at least one vacation a year with their families or friends, to other parts of the US, and on occasion, international trips. They eat at restaurants with their families at least as often as they eat a home-cooked meal. When shopping for groceries, sales are fine, as long as the sales aren’t on off-brand products like Faygo or Giant, Safeway or Krasdale. They have life insurance on every family member, 529 plans for their kids and contribute at least half as much to their 401K as their employer does in any given year (more than that if self-employed).

I’m certainly not arguing that the lives of the upper middle class or affluent or sub-rich are like being on Real Housewives or Keeping Up With the Kardashians. Yet so many in our public discourse make their lives now and times growing up sound humble, as if they grew up like me or others I’ve known over the past thirty years. People like Bill Cosby, Bill Gates or Bill O’Reilly, Dinesh D’Souza or Rush Limbaugh. It’s well beyond dishonest. It’s disgusting, and it helps to perpetuate the myth that the only reason all of us aren’t affluent is due only to our lack of hard work.

As the richest country on Earth — for the time being, at least — we’ve never reconciled our democratic ideals with our capitalistic obsessions. What helps maintain some sense of order, though, is our silence and quiet, desperate acquiescence to ever-increasing economic divisions in a country full of allegedly middle class people. As a song from Enigma goes, however, we should “question the absurd” here, as “silence must be heard.”


Hard Work and the Human Race

September 17, 2010

When I was nine years old, my fourth grade teacher at Holmes, Mrs. Pierce — a grouch of an older White woman, really — talked about the human race and attempted to describe our species’ variations. She tried to do what we’d call a discussion of diversity now. It went over our heads, no doubt because she didn’t quite get the concept of diversity herself.

Like the fourth-grader I was, I daydreamed about the term, human race. I thought of Whites, Blacks,

Holmes Elementary. Top left corner was Mrs. Pierce's classroom in 1978-79 year.

Asians, Hispanics, young and old, male and female, from all over the world, all on a starting line. It was as if four billion people — that was the world population in ’79 — were lined up to run a race to the top of the world. In my daydream, some were faster than others, or at least appeared to be, while others hobbled along on crutches and in wheelchairs. Still others crawled along, falling farther and farther behind those who were in the lead, the ones that looked like runners in the New York City marathon. Before I could ponder the daydream further, Mrs. Pierce yelled, “Wake up, Donald!.” as if I’d really been asleep.

A high school friend recently gave me some much-needed feedback on my manuscript. Her feedback was helpful and insightful, and very much appreciated. But some of it reminded me of the realities of having someone who’s a character in a story actually read that story. Their perceptions will never fully match up with those of the writer, which is what is so groovy and fascinating about writing in the first place.

One of the things that struck me as a thread in her comments — not to mention in so many conversations I’ve had with my students about race and socioeconomics — was the theme of individual hard work trumping all obstacles and circumstances. As if words, slights, and mindsets in the world around us don’t matter. As if poverty is merely a mirage, and bigotry, race and racism merely words on a page. Sure, a story such as the one I have told in this blog for the past three years is about overcoming roadblocks, especially the ones that we set ourselves up for in life, forget about the ones external to our own fears and doubts.

At the same time, I realized what my weird daydream from thirty-one years ago meant. Some people get a head start — or, in NASCAR terms, the pole — before the race even starts. That certainly doesn’t make

2009 London Marathon. http://www.newsoftheworld. co.uk/

what that individual accomplishes in life any less meaningful, but knowing that the person had an advantage that most others didn’t possess does provide perspective and illuminates how much distance the disadvantaged need to cover to make up ground. Those who limp and crawl and somehow are able to compete in this human race have also worked hard, likely at least as hard as those with a head start, and more than likely, harder than most human beings should ever have to work.

Plus, there are intangibles that go with race, class and other variables that determines how the human race unfolds. “Good luck is where hard work meets opportunity,” at least according to former Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Tom Barrasso. Most human beings work hard, but all need opportunities that may provide a real sprint to catch up or take a lead in the human race. Family status, political influence, social and community networks, religious memberships, being in the right place at the right time, all matter and are connected to race and class, at least in the US.

The moral of this story is, hard work matters, individual accomplishment matters. Yet a panoramic view of the race in which humans are engaged matters more in putting our individual successes and the distance that remains in some reasonable perspective. Without that, we’re all just pretending that individual hard work is the only thing that matters, when that’s only half the battle, or half of half the battle.


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