Who's afraid of white class migrants? On denial, discrediting and disdain (and toward a richer conception of diversity).

AuthorPruitt, Lisa R.
PositionIntroduction through I. Denial and Distance B. Institutional Erasure of Class, p. 196-227 - The More Things Change ... Exploring Solutions to Persisting Discrimination in Legal Academia


This Article describes and theorizes the legal academy's denial of both class disadvantage and class migration, with particular attention to how those phenomena are manifest in relation to white faculty. The Article observes that a general disdain for poor and working-class whites evolves into the denial and distancing of class migrants, those who move into the professoriate from lower socioeconomic stations ("SES"). Further, the academy simultaneously discredits and disciplines these class migrants when they run afoul of narrow norms regarding credentials, scholarship, and culture. The author employs storytelling as methodology, drawing on her own experiences as a white class migrant to illustrate some of these phenomena.

This Article, one in a series that takes up poor whites and the white working class as critical race projects, makes several theoretical contributions. First, it theorizes why white poverty, the white working class, and thus the phenomenon of white class migration, are so taboo among legal scholars. Closely related to this taboo are the reasons white class migrants are not viewed and valued as representing the diversity held so dear by the professoriate. Among other things, the Article begins the work of thinking about the phenomenon of white class migration as one that is as much about race as about class. It does so, however, in ways that go beyond Critical Race Theory's ("CRT") typical engagement with whiteness as monolithic abstraction. The Article suggests that the persistent race-vs.-class debate--regarding whether race or class is a bigger culprit in relation to various social problems and injustices--has proved an attractive distraction that has deterred robust scholarly engagement with many potent intersections of race with class, including that between white-skin privilege and socioeconomic disadvantage. Indeed, the academy is deterred from taking up just this intersection of whiteness with socioeconomic disadvantage for fear that doing so will detract from the very grave problems of racial disadvantage and racial discrimination experienced by nonwhites. Yet when we ignore class-based disadvantage--as when we ignore race-based disadvantage--we avoid an uncomfortable but critical conversation about authentic meritocracy. Ignoring the intersection of class disadvantage with white privilege also permits us to avoid confronting long-standing, intra-racial elite biases against poor and working-class whites.

The second theoretical contribution of the Article--written for a collection about the persistence of gender discrimination in the academy--regards the ways in which gender mediates the white class migration experience in the context of legal academia. In particular, the author discusses three junctures when the intersection of gender and class have particular implications for academic careers. These are mentoring, physical appearance, and life partnerships.

Finally, the author identifies several reasons why the legal academy needs the distinctive perspectives of class migrants. First, class migrants have become rarer among the professoriate in recent years because of heightened elitism in law faculty hiring during an era when low-income students are in shorter supply than ever in the prestigious colleges, universities, and law schools that bestow the requisite credentials. Second, the wider trend of diminishing upward mobility not only weighs on our national psyche, it has serious implications for our nation's economic well-being due to this failure to optimize raw human capital of all colors. This situation renders the perspectives and insights of all class migrants more valuable than ever because they have first-hand experience with the upward mobility journey that we should be fostering, and which we support in principle. Furthermore, class migrants can serve as role models and mentors for students in the midst of that process. Third, the author argues that poor and working-class whites are both key stakeholders and key informants in our quest for racial progress, although their perspectives are seldom heard in the academy. We rarely talk about low-SES whites; we talk to them even less frequently.

One way to begin to draw in those particular white perspectives is through the inclusion of class migrants in the law professoriate. That inclusion should also endow future generations of lawyers with a greater class consciousness that will serve the interests of all races and ethnicities in wider society. In faculty composition as in myriad other contexts, the author implores us to move beyond the impasse of thinking we must address only racial disadvantage or only class disadvantage and to grapple with both at their myriad intersections.

TABLE OF CONTENTS Introduction I. Denial and Distance A. The Class Taboo B. Institutional Erasure of Class C. Hiding Our Class Immobility and Inequality Problem Beneath Our Racism Problem D. Collateral Damage: The Shrinking Stream of Nonwhite Class Migrants II. Disdain: The "Ick" Factor (or, the Unbearable Whiteness of Being Low-Income) III. What's Gender Got to Do with Class Bias? A. Mentoring B. Physical Appearance and Attire C. Marriage IV. How SES Disadvantage Endures Class Migration and Why White Class Migrants Represent "Diversity" Conclusion INTRODUCTION

The Call for Papers for a recent collection of articles by working-class academics began with these lines:

Tired of hearing your relatives and childhood friends denigrated by implication when the more privileged assume everyone in their group is ignorant and prejudiced, of seeing people from your background misrepresented through "reality" TV minstrel shows, of being told that you are now middle-class because you have a graduate degree and a college teaching job and so you should get over your past--while you struggle to afford professional expenses colleagues from the bourgeoisie pay with ease? Do you resent the universalization of working-class experience across cultures and national borders, so that all our diversity is erased? When you hear academe described as a meritocracy in which one's origins don't matter, do you want to scream? ... Write Back! (1) The Call suggests a number of themes, several of which I take up in my contribution to this collection of Articles about how gender intersects with other aspects of identity to marginalize female law professors. The first theme is disdain, a cultural denigration of the "lower classes" by the interest public (2)--those "who write the books and do the social analysis" (3)--who populate the professoriate. (4) This disdain--sometimes expressed openly--is used to justify a distancing of the poor and working class from the rarefied world of academia. Further, this contempt for low-status whites evolves into a peculiar discrediting of those few who are audacious and tenacious (and lucky) enough to class migrate into the professoriate.

The second theme--which appears at first blush to be in conflict with the first--is related to that very distancing. That theme is a certain denial of class, (5) in particular a suppression of the phenomenon of class disadvantage. This is reflected in the widespread failure to view socioeconomic disadvantage as an element of diversity in higher education. (6) In relation to "class migrants"--those who rise to the professional/managerial class although "born and raised working class" (7)--who reach the professoriate, this denial is manifest in the tendency to discount the enduring impacts (both positive and negative) of spending one's formative years in low-SES milieu. (8) This is an issue to which I return in Part IV, explaining why the perspectives of class migrants remain highly valuable, even after they have "arrived" in the professoriate and, at least by some definition, in the middle class.

I discuss denial and disdain as inter-related phenomena as they are experienced by poor and working-class whites, thus invoking a third theme implicit in the Call: diversity among academics whose socioeconomic provenance is in poverty or the working class. I suggest that when white class migrants do transcend the glass ceiling that polices entrance into the academy--increasingly a rare occasion, indeed (9)--those class migrants are more likely than nonwhites to be the objects of elite disdain based on class of origin. Social norms in that high-brow milieu (at least in theory) protect nonwhites (10) and sexual and religious minorities as such from hateful comments, micro-aggressions, and bias, but they do not protect this "forgotten majority." (11) Disdain for white class migrants arises and is expressed in part because white elites wish to differentiate themselves from low-SES whites, work that visible racial difference does in relation to nonwhites.

Class is effectively obscured for all, but for different reasons. Nonwhite academics may experience a certain erasure of class because the focus is on their race, which tends to imply socioeconomic disadvantage. But white class migrants also experience erasure of class because they fall outside racial, socioeconomic, and cultural norms that associate whiteness with affluence. Thus, the class migration experience for both whites and nonwhites, as well as the progressive elite response to it, are shaped as much by race as by class. (12)...

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