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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.
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
by Elizabeth Cogliati
I didn’t used to think about sidewalks much. Not even in college or immediately after, when we walked everywhere because we didn’t have a vehicle. I went to college in a compact, eminently walkable small town, but even so, I believe I logged 4 plus miles every day. Looking back on it, I can’t believe I walked that much. Like I said, I didn’t think about sidewalks much. I just walked on them. Sometimes I climbed over the snowbanks, sometimes I slid on the ice, sometimes I slogged through the mud of the off-sidewalk shortcut, but I didn’t really think about the sidewalks.
When I moved to a bigger town, I had a more difficult time walking because the town’s neighborhoods are not easily connected to the downtown area and are not very walkable. This appears intentional. According to the city ordinances, all new neighborhoods after 1998 must not have straight throughfares directly across them and must have winding roads (older neighborhoods were grandfathered in).
After my baby was born, I discovered that the places I just strolled over by myself were major obstacles with a stroller– canals with no sidewalk along them, major intersections with only stop signs — these things frightened me with my stroller — how could I run across a 4-way stop intersection with 2 lanes in each direction with a stroller? Although I no longer needed to walk (we now had a reliable vehicle), walking was still the only form of transportation for many who did not have access to personal transportation. These sidewalks were vital arteries to the community and to needed resources.
When my baby was almost a year old, we moved into a house in one of the older neighborhoods in our town. It was easier to walk with the stroller– there were blocks and blocks of quiet neighborhood streets without busy intersections. But here I discovered another problem: the sidewalks were in pretty bad shape — large cracks, shifted sections where one section was several inches higher than the neighboring one, holes, and even non-existent sections. I became an expert at lifting the stroller up and over the many obstructions we encountered in our walks.
The more I walked, the more I noticed another problem. I didn’t just have to lift the stroller over frost heaves and root uprisings, I often had to lift it over the curbs at the intersections. There were no curb cuts at many of the intersections (a curb cut is the place where the curb dips down to meet the gutter at a driveway, intersection, or parking area). A proper curb cut usually has a yellow pad with raised dimples to alert blind walkers using a cane that they are approaching an intersection.
About this same time, I began writing opinion pieces for the local newspaper. I decided to write one of my first columns on the sidewalks in the town and their terrible condition. After the column was published, I got a surprise. Individuals in wheelchairs called and wrote to tell me how much they appreciated my column and how badly they needed better sidewalks. For people with different mobility, sidewalks can grant or block access to buildings for both recreation and much-needed resources.
I wrote a couple more columns on sidewalks, attracting more attention each time. After those columns, the city applied for and received a federal grant to improve sidewalk conditions in the business districts of town by adding curb cuts and yellow pads.
My town also has a city government program where the city will pay for homeowners to fix their sidewalks if they cannot afford to do so themselves. When I suggested this program to my neighbor, she told me she couldn’t use the program. Why? Because the program was a reimbursement program. She would have to pay up front to have the sidewalks fixed and then be reimbursed by the city. She did not have the up front money, and there were no alternatives in the city program.
When I watch the people going past my window, I see my neighbors walking their dogs, I see children going back and forth to school, I sometimes see mothers with strollers, I see white men riding bicycles in the street to work – they are usually dressed in professional attire, and I see Latino/a men and women walking with groceries and backpacks – going to and from the store and work.
Or, to put it another way, I see a variety of people from different class groups and ethnic backgrounds using the sidewalks. For some of them, riding bikes and walking are choices that make them, their children, their pets, and the planet healthier. For others, these are the only forms of transportation they can afford. If I lived near the business districts, I would also see people in wheelchairs or with canes relying on the sidewalks to enter and exit buildings.
Sidewalks are an important shared part of a community’s life. They are not a luxury item that can be neglected. The health of our sidewalks directly affects the safety of the people who rely on them every day. Sidewalks are a class issue and a disability issue.