Don't Blame Race Alone

When I was a fourth-grader, I went on a field trip to Trenton, N.J. with my Mock Trial group. I don’t remember the courtroom we ended up in, or what we learned there about the workings of the American justice system, but I do remember what I saw when I looked out the bus window on our way into the city: graffitied walls, chain-link fences around empty yards, trash bags piled on the sidewalk, and a few people, most of them black, walking alone. And I remember what I thought: I don’t understand. It’s so dirty. Why doesn’t someone just come and clean everything up?

Years later, in high school, our teachers would occasionally remind us about “those kids just down the road” in Trenton who didn’t have all the opportunities we had, and how incredibly lucky we all were. I tried to imagine them, our unlucky counterparts, and I saw a dingy classroom full of slouching young men with dark skin and baggy clothes and eyes glinting bitterly from under their hoods. I had to imagine them, since I’d never seen them. I had never stepped through the doorway of such a school.

Tim Wise’s lecture Tuesday night, a large portion of which was a discussion of educational inequalities, brought those students back to my mind. But as he recited a litany of educational statistics about minority students—their higher chances of being educated in a high-poverty school district with inexperienced teachers and nonexistent resources, their lack of opportunity to take AP classes or prepare for the SATs—I found myself thinking less about race than about money. Those students in Trenton, after all, were not there because they were people of color. Certainly, there were historical racial factors that led to them being born in an impoverished urban neighborhood, but there was not a direct causal linkage between their race and their lack of opportunity, as there was in the Jim Crow days when education was explicitly segregated. Nothing technically stopped them from achieving just as much as I and my classmates did, except their poverty—which is to say, everything. In this country, as in many others, race and ethnicity are so tied up with socioeconomic class that it is impossible to talk about the former without discussing the latter.

Yet this was exactly what Wise tried to do, which for me detracted significantly from what was otherwise a highly engaging and convincing talk. He would make occasional concessions to the role of socioeconomic status but quickly move on to describe more instances of racialized inequality, as if every challenge faced by minorities and every privilege enjoyed by whites could be explained solely by racism. Racism is a part of the equation and one that should not be ignored, but it is not the whole answer, and we cannot pretend that its parts are separable. When we talk about negative stereotypes of people of color, we are also talking about stereotypes of the poor. When we talk about the need for racial diversity on college campuses, we are also talking about the challenges low-income students face in applying to college. When we talk about institutions of power, we are not talking just about white privilege but about wealth privilege, because whiteness does not buy you votes, but money sure as hell does. Even more than a white man’s country, America is a rich man’s country—and it’s a long way from being any woman’s country.

What grounds do I have to even say this? After all, I am from an affluent background, and have never truly experienced any other way to live. But I think it is important for people like me to say these things, just as it is important for Wise, as a white man, to speak about racism, because for the moment, we “traitors” have the greatest chance of making a practical difference. When we speak to those in power, we have a better shot at being heard—which makes it crucial that we do so now, so that one day those on whose behalf we speak may raise their own voices in the confidence that someone is listening.