By Nancy Hilliard
As we move forward from this momentous springtime 2020, from, with the novel coronavirus and massive protests of the murder of black men and women, we need to keep in mind the consequences of racism in every context. Not surprisingly, poor people with fewer healthcare options are being hard hit by the novel coronavirus, far beyond the impact proportional to their numbers. However, even with limited accounting, the novel coronavirus is killing Black Americans at almost 3 times the rate of white Americans across the socio-economic spectrum. Black Americans have a shorter lifespan than White Americans with less than a high school education—even when they hold graduate degrees. Black Americans receive all the disadvantages of classism, and the healthcare gap continues up the class ladder; They receive none of the health advantages bestowed upon White Americans in the upper classes.
We are challenged to consider racism as it affects all of us, and as it intersects with class. Within the context of racism, classism is experienced and felt differently by people of color than by white people. I used to think that poor white people who argued that white privilege didn’t exist for them were merely ungrateful, certainly unaware. In a conversation with my nephew, he persisted in his description of poor people with mental health issues living on the streets, not enjoying any privilege whatsoever. I realized that perhaps the only privilege they did have was knowing they could walk to the corner store and back without being shot in the back or choked to death by police. And until recently, I had not been aware of how prevalent that risk of death is for so many in our communities even as I considered myself to be well-informed.
This short-sightedness has corrupted my understanding of classism; just as I have been dismissive of those in poorer classes who won’t see their white privilege, I have discounted hardship that is real for people of color in the wealthier classes. I find I have bought into the race-based explanation for class in the United States to a greater extent than I knew. I must catch and stop the thoughts that white people who are poor should work harder and look for those missed opportunities. I am also vulnerable to thoughts that people of color who have reached the middle and upper classes must have escaped the ravages of racism to a significant extent. It is easy to fall into the simplistic explanations that comfort those who enjoy the status quo. I am being disabused of these notions this season of COVID, this summer of rising awareness and the Wall of Moms.
We must keep learning about our world.
There have been eloquent personal blogs about being the Black Best Friend, and there has been much written in academic circles. The commentary of several leaders has been available recently, such as the writings of Michelle Alexander, author and visiting professor at Union Theological Seminary (New York City); the allegories of Dr. C Jones Camara Phyllis Jones of Emory and Morehouse School of Medicine; the words of David R. Williams of Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health; the prolific writings of Ibram X. Kendi. All call us to review our preconceptions and misconceptions about how classism works in the United States of America, and how the profitability of racism has molded our classist system.
Nearly a century ago, white supremacists attacked the Greenwood District in Tulsa Oklahoma for 18 hours, resulting in more than 800 people being admitted to hospitals, 6,000 black residents interned at large facilities and many innocents murdered.
Greenwood in 1921 was known as the Black Wall Street full of successful Black-owned businesses and entertainment spots. The police did not intervene as the town was decimated, people were murdered and the survivors callously displaced.
More recently, one in a long string of American Black men was killed in police custody. The video of the atrocity showed the same abject callousness of the officers as one of them asphyxiated him and the others watched.
His murder has sparked protests nationwide. People from all over the United States – and now the world – are protesting American police brutality and systemic oppression of Black and other people of color throughout the United States.
Justice or Just Us?
While most are peaceful, the protesters have been labeled rioters, thugs and looters without much evidence other than the color of their skin by some media outlets and politicians.
What is so striking about this is the juxtaposition of the comments made by some of the same media outlets and politicians a few weeks earlier when heavily armed, mostly White protesters stormed an American capital building threatening the governor because they were upset about stay-at-home orders during a pandemic. At that time, these protesters were called patriots, and police stood down. No arrests, no tear gas deployed, no curfews, etc. Same America, same protests, yet very different outcomes. Why?
Inflaming Racial Stereotypes to Obscure Class
Well, a time-tested political strategy used in America purposefully inflames racial stereotypes to elicit strong actions and reactions. It pointedly exploits these stereotypes while being just vague enough so the perpetrator can feign he/she had no racist intent. Referring to a city as rat-infested or immigration from a certain group as an infestation or peaceful protesters as thugs are recent examples.
What makes this practice insidious is the fact that the U.S. economic inequalities are not just part of the black or brown experience but a struggle for all Americans in the working-class. This strategy keeps many in the working and middle class disjointed and undercuts the potential unity across racial lines. Economic initiatives often proposed by progressives or moderates are viewed as handouts or bailouts by the American majority and are often rejected despite their potential to help the poor and working-class.
The idea that hard-working Americans can only look a certain way and cannot be immigrants or women or people of color or a different religion gained traction in the late 1960s with President Nixon’s southern strategy. Cue the fanning of racial tensions whenever and whoever points out that the top 1% in the United States are steadily consolidating the country’s wealth by manipulating many political, educational and religious institutions.
Toni Morrison rightly claimed that the Civil Rights Movement magnified class differences within the American landscape. This sentiment was echoed by Dr. Martin Luther King’s awareness that the working-class is caught in “an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny.” But coded messages about immigrants, LGTBQ+ individuals and racial/ethnic minorities and all kinds of religious intolerance create an us versus them paradigm.
Some … Not All
Some White working-class people have been duped by this message of inclusiveness and fealty to “the race” by those with substantial class privilege. They have bought the idea that the We (Whites of all classes) have to stick together to protect our country, our flag, our women and children, and our country’s traditions as Whites – despite economic differences. It’s an imperative, or the them will take over and erase us.
The truth – known by most UUs in the working-class – is that the working-class, along with those with even less class advantage, has always been multiracial, multiethnic and multilingual. Don’t all Americans want jobs with fair wages, health care, education for their children and to be a part of the American dream?
This Time Feels Different
Groups across race, religion and class are starting to unify when they find common causes like gun reform, ending police brutality, healthcare as a human right and fighting against class inequity. UU Class Conversations is more committed than ever to help UUs identify their assumptions about their class differences and build upon the unique strengths gained from their class background. We are committed also to help you start the difficult and uncomfortable but necessary conversations that help people make connections that lead to awareness – which is integral in any transformational process.
Let’s talk about – and act upon – racial and class justice.
Picture a newcomer in the vestibule of your congregation next Sunday morning. Her clothes are faded, neckline stretched, hair in need of a wash and pulled back in a hasty ponytail. Dragging her hand hither and yon is a six-year-old, jeans ragged at the hems, sneakers that have seen better days, flyaway hair. She’s bubbly, bouncing on the balls of her feet, grinning at everyone, laughing uninhibitedly, excited to go to Religious Education classes and make new friends.
You help them find the other first graders, and her daughter bounces off without a qualm. As you’re walking this newcomer back to the sanctuary, she gestures out the window. “Is it okay if I leave my car there?” You note the blankets hung inside to cover the windows in the back seat and trunk of the wood-paneled station wagon. “It has everything we own in it right now. We’ve been sleeping in the car or in our tent for a few days. I left my husband down in Tennessee,” she explains blandly. “He was abusive.”
Now imagine our newcomer, on a second or third visit, signing her daughter up for Religious Education. When it comes to the registration fee, does the DRE say brightly, “That’s okay, you can volunteer in the program instead!”
Maybe our newcomer would love to share with the Neighboring Faiths class about her childhood as a Jehovah’s Witness, or is a licensed childcare provider excited to volunteer in the nursery. But what if she doesn’t have a skill the congregation needs? What if her car dies? What if she is able to find a minimum wage job and a coworker asks her to cover a Sunday morning shift that would pay for new sneakers for her child? What if she’s just too physically, mentally and spiritually exhausted by Sunday to do anything but listen from the pews? Is there still a place for her daughter in RE?
When UU World asked me if there were “something on my heart” that I would like to put into words for a guest blog post, I sat up straight and said, Yes! The response of my faith community to “Towards a More Inclusive Stewardship” has been gratifying and redemptive, but with an undertone of frustration.
Before my best friend received that stewardship letter (referred to in the UU World article), the fellowship we had grown up in found itself in financial trouble. And yet, my best friend was in crisis: disabled, a single mother, domestic violence survivor, scraping by on public assistance. How could she be expected to contribute volunteer hours equivalent to what her membership cost the church when she couldn’t afford the gas to drive there … and then her van died. All of these barriers were exactly why she needed the support of her faith community, and it was at this same moment, despite the stewardship committee’s best intentions, that she got the message that she was no longer wanted by her childhood fellowship.
By contrast, the happiest I’ve ever seen my best friend as a mother was the brief few years when the Mormon community lifted her up both spiritually and materially, although ideologically she was always a square peg in that round hole. These are the moments that churches are made for—“inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren”—and we failed.
Why do we measure a member’s inherent worth and dignity by what they have to give us as a congregation? I want mine to be a congregation that helps this mother find a place to live and an appropriate means of support, that embraces her daughter in the RE program, that includes them both in the monthly potluck, without asking for anything in return. The irony is that those to whom we give without asking, when eventually they are able to give back, will often prove our most generous, loyal supporters.
I want mine to be the stewardship committee who stands before the congregation and says, “We are a community that gives without reckoning, a tide that lifts all boats regardless of their size, shape or value. Today, if your loch, reservoir or rain barrel is full enough, we invite you to pour back into our safe harbor any bounty you can spare.”
Maryah Converse was raised Unitarian Universalist, and has been a religious education volunteer in two congregations and the Southeastern Unitarian Universalist Summer Institute (SUUSI). She was the Membership and Stewardship Associate at All Souls Unitarian Church in New York City, where she worked for four years and was an early member of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Membership Professionals (UUAMP). She teaches Arabic and English as a Second Language and blogs at bymaryah.wordpress.com.
Finally. The manifestation of the recognition that women’s rights ARE human rights.
That’s how I’ve been feeling about the outing of so many well-known sexual predators, long known but never punished for their predatory ways. Learning about some has broken my heart. Charlie Rose was my hero, as was John Conyers.
But, like every woman I know, I’ve experienced sexual harassment or sexual assault: #metoo. And it has felt good these past few weeks (maybe good is not quite the right word) to see that our collective voice is finally be heard and believed.
But, the more I’ve sat with this feeling of justice-being-done, the more I’ve begun to feel something ever so lightly poking at my “happy bubble.” That something is a growing knowledge that sexually harassed and assaulted cis- and transgender women with limited class privilege, especially women of color, are largely absent from the conversation about workplace harassment.
While high-profile, class-advantaged women have bravely come forward to accuse Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, George H.W. Bush, Roger Ailes – and on and on – of sexual assault, working-class and poor women continue to silently endure harassment and assault at sky-high rates. The male perpetrators feel no pressure to change their ways due to the increased scrutiny of predatory behavior.
They are assaulting “throwaway” women who know that if they report the assault, the odds are they will not be believed – and they will be fired, forced to move and/or further harassed. If they are believed, they will be accused of bringing it on themselves – and they too will be fired, forced to move and/or further harassed.
For example, in the new study Sexual Harassment of Women Working as Room Attendants within 5-Star Hotels 95% of the attendants reported being victims of sexual harassment or assault. The researchers cite the attendants’ low social status as the primary reason. The workers are afraid to complain, fearing retaliation by guests who will not tip them or will rate their service poorly. They are afraid to be seen as complainers by managers and fired for having a “bad attitude.”
In a Maven December 4, 2017, online forum on sexual harassment in the workplace, one woman wrote about the rampant sexual harassment and assault that women in frontline restaurant industry jobs face from coworkers, managers and patrons. “Tits get tips,” she was told. Since a number of the women in service industries are also undocumented immigrants, they are doubly vulnerable.
These are women who often work in places where there is no HR department to complain to. And as many women have said, HR is there to serve the needs of the employer, not the employees.
Status Translates to Power
I remember when working for a college in conservative upstate New York in the late 1990s, the first woman was hired by our on-campus print shop. This was touted as progress. But when the woman complained to HR about rampant sexual harassment a few months later, she was told to “man-up” by the assistant dean who also oversaw the HR department.
The women accusing Alabama senatorial candidate Roy Moore, President Donald Trump and President Bill Clinton are not prominent members of the upper-middle-class or owning-class. Their accusations have been challenged each step of the way. On the other hand, the women accusing Charlie Rose, Senator Al Franken and Matt Lauer have more class advantage. And their accusations are making heads roll.
Tarana Burke created the Me Too catch-phrase in 2006 “as a grassroots movement to aid sexual assault survivors in underprivileged communities ‘where rape crisis centers and sexual assault workers weren’t going.’” It took owning-class women in 2017 to use the phrase to spur a nationwide-movement. It’s time for Burke’s trickle up effects to trickle back down and start supporting women with less class advantage in their quest for justice against sexual predators.
Denise Moorehead — This post originally appeared on our sister-site, Class Action