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

Author:Pruitt, Lisa R.
Position::I. Denial and Distance C. Hiding Our Class Immobility and Inequality Problem Beneath Our Racism Problem through Conclusion, p. 227-254 - The More Things Change ... Exploring Solutions to Persisting Discrimination in Legal Academia
  1. Hiding Our Class Immobility and Inequality Problem Beneath Our Racism Problem

    The tendency to ignore or discount the significance of white socioeconomic disadvantage is not limited to the academy, and it is often associated with or a consequence of the conflation of socioeconomic disadvantage with racial disadvantage--in particular, black poverty. Indeed, these are widespread cultural and media phenomena that have occasionally drawn scholarly commentary. (105) In her 2009 article, Race, Economic Class and Employment Opportunity, Trina Jones explained:

    Somehow ... race and class become mutually reinforcing. Blacks are poor because they are Black and Blackness gets constructed as poor. That is, poverty becomes a constitutive element of Blackness. Blacks are not only lazy, intellectually and morally inferior, they are also poor. (106) Even mainstream academic thinking about poverty--including the "culture of poverty" associated with Daniel Patrick Moynihan (107)--has often conflated our nation's poverty problem with our racism problem by focusing on African American poverty. (108)

    In fact, two-thirds of those living below the poverty line in 2013 self-identified as white. (109) Yet consistent with media depictions of poverty as black, academics seem to look past white poverty. Recent years have seen this denial of white poverty evolve into a distancing of those who are but a fuzzy step away from it, the increasingly precarious "middle" and working classes. (110) One reason for the expansion of this universe of white "others" is that elites--removed as they are from how the majority of white people live-are increasingly unable to differentiate among the wide spectrum of non-elite whites. They are not able to identify the strivers, those with the drive and raw potential to make a significant class migration leap--those who, in other words, can survive and perhaps even flourish in the professional/managerial class. (111) Elites may thus presume that all non-elite whites--all whites not adequately like them--are undeserving, essentially some variety of hoi polloi, perhaps even "white trash."

    This presumption is not only about class, however; it is also (and as much) about race. (112) Recall Jones's assertion that Blacks and Blackness get conflated with poverty and SES disadvantage. This is insidious indeed, but we should not forget the flip side of the coin: whites and whiteness get constructed as affluent; affluence becomes a constitutive element of whiteness. (113) This may at first blush seem flattering and even beneficial to whites, but in fact it grossly disserves low-SES whites. At a minimum, it diminishes the complexity of their lived experiences. Worse still, it suggests that their low-SES status is their own fault, really just a matter of choice. White folks have to be serious losers to wind up poor.

    But conflating whiteness with affluence also panders to our desire to pretend that low-SES whites do not exist, or at least that they are very rare. It thus contributes to or justifies their erasure. We effectively use our racism problem to conceal a different but related problem: low-SES people of all colors face mounting structural obstacles to overall well-being and to upward mobility, including access to a good education, from pre-K through professional and graduate school. (114) This denial of white poverty and shushing of those who have experienced it nips in the bud any move toward phenomenological or other investigation of the intersection of whiteness with socioeconomic disadvantage.

    Just as the naturalization of black poverty has serious adverse consequences, so then does the conflation of well-being or affluence with whiteness. Among other things, the latter suggests that poor whites have only themselves to blame for their circumstances. Because poverty is anathema to whiteness, it must be whites' own fault if they are of low-SES status. (115) Per Jones's reasoning, whites--unlike blacks--can't blame their race nor (the story goes) structural or institutional biases for any failings. (116) Poor whites' shortcomings are rendered all the more glaring because juxtaposed against the advantage of white skin. (117) Our discomfort with whites who do not live up to the ideals of whiteness (118) elicits our disdain. If we must acknowledge them, we hold them at best at arm's length (for example, supporting them as "labor"), at worst in contempt, disgusted by this embarrassing defilement of whiteness. This hostility--often thinly disguised at best--is the topic of Part II. Before turning to that issue, however, I discuss another consequence of our use of race as a proxy for socioeconomic status: the dwindling number of nonwhite class migrants in the professoriate.

  2. Collateral Damage: The Shrinking Stream of Nonwhite Class Migrants

    Another highly problematic consequence of conflating nonwhiteness and socioeconomic disadvantage is that this leads us to presume we are achieving socioeconomic diversity when we hire or otherwise include nonwhites in prestigious sectors such as higher education. Yet the fact that affluent nonwhites are now the primary beneficiaries of race-based affirmative action is well documented. (119) This is consistent with Ian Haney-Lopez's observation that "well-off whites" have "managed interactions" with nonwhites "on their own terms--in controlled settings, such as elite colleges and universities, and with only token numbers of non-whites." (120)

    While I highly support the presence of middle-class and affluent nonwhites in elite higher education, especially because the overall numbers of nonwhites are still so low in proportion to their share of the population, we also badly need class migrants of all colors in the academy. (121) Collapsing our class bias and class immobility problems into our racism problem creates the illusion that we are achieving robust and meaningful socioeconomic diversity simply by having blacks and Latina/os in the academy. In fact, this is not necessarily the case.

    When admitting nonwhites to elite colleges or hiring them into the professoriate does enhance socioeconomic diversity, that is good news indeed because it contributes to both overall socioeconomic diversity and overall racial and ethnic diversity. Yet, nonwhite class migrants and white class migrants are not interchangeable, for the reasons explained below. (122) Further, when the few nonwhites in elite settings are relatively affluent--when few low-income strivers, aspiring class migrants are among them--we must face the fact that our aversion to grappling with class disadvantage in a meaningful way disserves low-income nonwhites as well as low-income whites. To satisfy ourselves with only elite and or wealthy blacks (or only elite Latina/os, elite Asians, or other nonwhite elites)--those who pass and cover more effectively and thus soothe our discomfort with racial difference--is to deny ourselves the broad-based diversity we purport to value. In particular, it deprives us of the socioeconomic diversity we desperately need.

    1. Disdain: The "Ick" Factor (or, the Unbearable Whiteness of Being Low-Income) (123)

      Working-class academics who have written about their experiences as such have observed the paradox that bridges Part 1 on denial and this one on disdain. On the one hand, the academy "barely acknowledges working-class existence," (124) and on the other, reviles it: "faculty who would never utter a racial slur will casually refer to 'trailer trash' or 'white trash.'" (125) Another wrote: "Where 1 live and work, white, Southern working-class culture is known as a caricature." (126)

      Such denigration of lower-SES whites on the basis of their class and related aspects of culture goes largely unsanctioned. That the upper (including professional/managerial) class view themselves (and their cultural practices and folkways, which they do not recognize as such, dominant and normalized as they are) as "objectively superior" to those of the white poor and working class is evidenced by casual insults such as "trailer trash" and "white trash." (127) In short, rednecks, hillbillies, and other working-class white stiffs are fair game for elite insults. I specify "white" here because, in the context of the academy, nonwhites and other out-groups are at least in theory insulated by their race or ethnicity from barbs and micro-aggressions that might be equally or more directed toward their class. (128) Only "lower class" whites are openly maligned with impunity. (129)

      This denigration of lower-class whites is at least in part a function of affluent whites' inability to rely on skin color to differentiate themselves from low-SES whites and white class migrants. Elite whites may thus be particularly vigilant in policing that class boundary, lest they be mistaken for their low-rent cousins. (130) As Pierre Bourdieu explained, "Social identity lies in difference, and the difference is asserted against what is closest, which represents the greatest threat." (131) This intense desire to differentiate may lead more privileged whites to exclude wholesale white class migrants or, failing that, discredit them as unworthy imposters.

      Matt Wray, who has written or contributed to three scholarly books about low-status whiteness, has theorized the peculiar status of low-income whites:

      The idea that whiteness is 'about race' is simply not adequate to account for the case of poor white trash, a boundary term that speaks equivocally and ambivalently to the question of belonging and membership in the category white, and one that mobilizes a wide array of social differences to do so. (132) In Not Quite White: White Trash and the Boundaries of Whiteness, Wray traces the history of the term and concept "white trash" to their early 19th century origins. He notes the historical consistency of "strong claims ... about the moral unworthiness of poor whites," (133) listing the emotions this group elicited as including "moral...

To continue reading