Academia, Academy for Educational Development, CMU, Crabgrass Frontier, Elitism, Elitist Assumptions, Nonprofit World, Presidential Classroom, Racism, Savage Inequalities, Wet Rags, White Women's Tears
I have spent four-fifths of my life in elite spaces among affluent whites, middle class Blacks, and Americans elites in general. I have so little in common with them aside from eating, drinking, breathing, and having a sex drive. So little that I sometimes think that God made a mistake and missed my exact time and place for my existence by 20 or 30 years, meaning 1949 or 1994 would have been better years for my birth.
But it’s not when I was born so much as the lack of material resources with which I lived growing up in the most resourced area in the US. And that has brought consequences for me since the year I began puberty. The years in Humanities in middle school and in high school in Mount Vernon, New York. Hearing about everyone’s summers those first days of school between seventh and 12th grade, for example. Black and Black Caribbean classmates regaling us with their summers spent down South, in Jamaica or Barbados or Trinidad and Tobago visiting close relatives. Or, their trips around the US, from the Grand Canyon to cities I wouldn’t travel to until I was 24 or 35. Or my white peers spending their Junes, Julys, and Augusts in France, the UK, Japan, Germany, Italy, Greece, Egypt, or Israel. I lied about going to Tel Aviv my first year.
I rarely left Mount Vernon and New York City those years. Albany was the furthest I’d been away from home, on a school trip in October 1985. My walks occasionally took me across the New York-Connecticut border (in 1986 and in 1987), but that was somewhat accidental.
In grad school, especially once I transferred to Carnegie Mellon to complete my PhD, these awkward communications involving my lack of socioeconomic privilege and my white classmates’ rose-colored worldviews continued. In my final semester of grad courses in Spring 1994, I took Comparative Urban History with Katherine Lynch. One week, we were in a discussion of Kenneth Jackson’s Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States, about the correlation between suburbanization and the expansion of the white middle class. Jennifer, one of my classmates, contributed her not-so-insightful analysis of what this correlation meant, about how “most Americans benefited” from the growth of suburbs between 1945 and 1980.
I was not happy with her elitist worldview. I already knew that she was 23 or 24, married, and from suburban Philly (think a place like Cherry Hill, New Jersey). I also knew that Jackson’s point correlated well with White Flight from increasingly Black and Brown cities like Philly, New York, Boston, DC, Detroit, and Chicago. Being in my third year of grad school overall and surrounded in this course by first-years, I had one advantage. I was almost as well read on topics of inequality as most of my professors.
So I said to Jennifer and the rest of the class, “Well, if by ‘most Americans benefited,’ you mean white Americans, then yes, suburbanization was a good thing. But cities’ tax bases didn’t benefit, and neither did the African Americans who moved into cities that whites flew out of. Redlining and restrictive covenants made it harder for middle-class Blacks to ‘benefit’ from suburbanization. And last I checked, poor people live in suburbs, too.” That last past was a direct reference to my growing up with poverty in Mount Vernon, and the scores of poor Black and Latinx and Black Caribbean folk I knew in Mount Vernon and throughout the New York area, suburban and urban.
During the class break, Jennifer came up to me as I was standing outside the seminar talking with my other white classmates congratulating me for my eye-opening perspective on how to break down Jackson’s book. She brought all five-foot-three of her frame to bear, almost as if she had attempted to stand on a soap box (even with one, at six-three, I would’ve had to bend down to see her ire). She had tears in her eyes and one running down each cheek. “I can’t help how I grew up. I am not a racist,” she said, and then walked away in a huff. “I guess I struck a nerve,” I said in response to one of my other peers.
I really didn’t give a rat’s ass about her crying. None of it was going to make the lives of Blacks and Latinx people with poverty in Camden or Philly or even Cherry Hill any better. White women’s tears and crying foul when challenged for their elitism had already hardened me against placating them. My experiences matter, damn it!, was what I thought after that exchange.
Even outside academia, the elitism wafted like millions of gallons of human shit at a sewage treatment plant. Between Presidential Classroom and AED, I spent much of my nonprofit years (meaning, a good portion of my thirties) proving to others that despite my background, I could do work on behalf of others. My bosses held it against me that my parents weren’t GS-12 or higher federal employees, or diplomats, or advisors, or members of country clubs. Or, especially in AED’s case, that neither I nor my parents ever served in the Peace Corps or traveled overseas. I practically had to do somersaults and cartwheels to do my work between 1999 and 2008, but could not maintain social connections, because my doctorate from Carnegie Mellon would never be good enough.
Maybe I’ll discuss Black middle class folk and their rites of privilege and passage, especially fraternities and other organizations. But I’ve already written quite extensively about why I’ll never fit it with such groups. And at 52, I’m not entirely sure I want to. I guess after a lifetime of my peers ignoring me or erasing me or acting as if only their socioeconomic and racial privileges matter in explaining how the world works, I simply don’t care anymore.
My mom grew up as part of a sharecropping family in southwestern, Red River Arkansas. She’s the oldest of 12 children. She worked mostly in the kitchen of Mount Vernon Hospital or in the billing department of Westchester County Medical Center in Valhalla as a paraprofessional for 34 years, with a 16-year period on welfare in between. My dad worked as a janitor or a supervisor of janitors and building cleaners all his time in New York and in Jacksonville. He grew up as a tenant farmer (before his family bought out their land) in rural south-central Georgia. He barely finished seventh grade. His two sisters were the first in the family to go to college, and both spent years teaching during segregated times. Despite it all, I am proud of their work. No pedigree is fine with me.