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Does class really matter more than race?

January 5, 2012

Recently, I’ve come across scholarly and personal assertions that class is more important than race—a notion that has never actually crossed my mind. Personally, I’m not sure how you can have a relevant discussion on class without introducing race—or properly interrogate racial matters without a critique of class. To me, it would be like asking a black woman to acquiesce that her blackness is more important than her femininity, or vice versa. It’s intellectually deficient. But that’s the thing—by framing the conversation within the either / or dynamic, a false sense of simplicity emerges, and even very smart people like to keep things simple. Hell, I’m one of them—I’m certainly not above falling for this trap.

My neighbor and fellow blogger / writer Edit Barry has a fantastic blog that delves into the complexities of education and education reform, a worthwhile and noble endeavor. Edit openly admits that her focus has been on class as she works to make her neighborhood public school more attractive to parents like her, i.e. middle-class and white. In fact, she writes that she “hadn’t much thought about the racial dimensions of education reform” before attending a “Talking About Race” event focused on educating black boys. Edit and I live in Hampden, an historically poor and working-class white enclave in majority black Baltimore. Hampden remains a majority white community and the neighborhood school reflects that. So I can excuse her for not giving more thought to the racial dimensions at play in education.

But Edit is a global thinker. While she may not have considered the racial dynamics playing out at Hampden Elementary, she knows that race is an important factor. She recognizes that Hampden is the “land of failed desegregation, redlining, and massive white flight.” You can’t speak about Hampden without acknowledging it’s history of racism. And it just happens to traditionally be a working poor and working-class neighborhood. Edit knows that race and class matter in Hampden and in education reform. After all, while Hampden Elementary is majority white, system-wide the intersection of race and class is grossly apparent: while Baltimore is only 64 percent black, the schools are disproportionately black, with approximately 87 percent identifying themselves as black. And the students are poor as well: 84 percent of Baltimore City Public School students are classified as low-income. Nothing points out the intersection of race and class more glaringly than the Baltimore City Public School System. And if you’re looking to address the myriad problems facing public education in Baltimore City, you must face down issues of both class and race.

What’s disappointing, moreover, is speculation presented by Johns Hopkins University professor Sandra Newman, who wonders aloud whether class matters more than race. Why? Because,

“Cheswolde, a northwest [Baltimore] neighborhood located between Mount Washington and Fallstaff, has had a very stable ethnic and racial profile over the past three decades, roughly 70 percent white and 30 percent black, with no clear evidence of spatially segregated racial enclaves.”

In Hampden, class is prioritized because, well, only whites live there, while in Cheswolde, race is de-emphasized because the community is relatively integrated according to race: if Cheswolde is the poster child of racial harmony, then Hampden is the epitome of racial discordance.

Newman is correct to point out that her proclamation that class matters more than race is a “provocative thought” and “sheer speculation,” but really it amounts to simple conjecture.  What’s really disconcerting is our incessant preoccupation with proving that class is more important than race or that race is more important than class. Attempting to prove that one is more important or deserving more of your attention is truly a fool’s errand.

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