Authors: Ijeoma Oluo
JUST FEEL LIKE WE WOULD HAVE GOTTEN
further if we’d focused more on class than race.”
I’m sitting across from a friend at a coffee shop near my house. He’s a good friend—a smart, thoughtful, and well-meaning person. I always enjoy his company and a chance to talk with someone who is also interested in world events. But I’m tired. I’m tired because
this is the conversation I’ve been having since the 2016 election ended and liberals and progressives have been scrambling to figure out what went wrong. What was missing from the left’s message that left so many people unenthusiastic about supporting a Democatic candidate, especially against Donald Trump? So far, a large group of people (mostly white men paid to pontificate on politics and current
events) seem to have landed on this: we, the broad and varied group of Democrats, Socialists, and Independents known as “the left,” focused on “identity politics” too much. We focused on the needs of black people, trans people, women, Latinx people. All this specialized focus divided people and left out working-class white men. That is the argument, anyways.
It’s what I and many others have heard
throughout the very long presidential campaign; it’s what I heard last campaign and the one before that. It’s what every other white dude in my political science classes in college had to say.
And although I’m tired, because I have just had this conversation with multiple people for multiple hours the evening before, here I am having it again, hearing what I’ve always heard: the problem in American
society is not race, it’s class.
“Surely, if you improve things for the lower classes, you improve things for minorities,” he adds, seeing the disappointment and weariness on my face. But I’m going to go ahead and engage in this conversation, because if I can just make some progress with one well-meaning white dude about why class will never be interchangeable with race, I’ll feel a little better
about our social justice movements.
“If you could do that—if you could improve things for the lower classes—it would,” I say, “But how?”
When he then recites the standard recommendations of strengthening unions and raising minimum wages I decide to jump to the point: “Why do you think black people are poor? Do you think it’s for the same reasons that white people are?”
This is where the conversation
pauses. This is where I see my friend first look at me puzzled and then try to come up with ways to push back. I continue on, since I’ve already gone this far.
“I live in a world where if I have a ‘black sounding’ name, I’m less likely to even be called for a job interview. Will I equally benefit from raising minimum wages when I can’t even get a job?”
My friend recalls that study, acknowledging
that the discrimination I’m referencing is indeed a real thing that happens.
“If I do get a good job and do what society says I should do and save up and buy a house—will I benefit equally when the fact that I live in a ‘black neighborhood’ means that my house will be worth far less? Will I benefit equally when I’m much more likely to get higher mortgage rates from my bank, or predatory loans
that will skyrocket in cost after a few years causing me to foreclose and lose my home and equity and credit, because of the color of my skin?”
I’m on a coffee-and-frustration–fueled roll now.
“If I am able to get what is considered a decent wage for the ‘average’ American, but my son is locked up in jail like one in three black men are predicted to be, so I’m raising my grandkids on my meager
salary, will stronger unions really raise me out of poverty?
“If I’m more likely to be suspended and expelled from school, because even since preschool my teachers are more likely to see my childhood antics as violence and aggression, will a reduction in student loan costs help me when I was pushed out of education before completing high school?”
I’m ranting now, I’m talking fast to get it all
out. Not because I’m angry, because I’m not, really. I know it’s not my friend’s fault that what he’s saying is the prevailing narrative, and that it’s seen as the compassionate narrative.
But it’s a narrative that hurts me, and so many other people of color.
My friend pauses and says, “Well, what are we supposed to do then? Nothing? Can’t we focus on this first to get everybody behind it and
then address the race stuff?”
To which I sigh and say, “That’s the promise that’s been made to us for hundreds of years. Those are the words of every labor movement that managed to help white America so much more than everyone else. Those are the words that ‘move everybody forward’ but in the exact same place, with the exact same hierarchy, and the exact same oppressions. Those words are why
the wealth gap between whites and blacks is just as bad as it was when Dr. King was leading marches. We’re still waiting. We’re still hoping. We’re still left behind.”
ACE AS WE KNOW IT IN THE
IS CLOSELY INTEGRATED
with our economic system. The system of racism functioned primarily as a justification for the barbaric act of chattel slavery and the genocide of Indigenous Americans. You cannot
put chains around the necks of other human beings or slaughter them wholesale, while maintaining social rules that prohibit such treatment, without first designating those people as somewhat less than human. And later, the function of racism was somewhat repurposed as a way of dividing lower classes, still with the ultimate goal of the economic and political supremacy of white elites.
many say, race is a social construct—it has no bearing in science. Many believe that because race was created by our economic system—because it is a lie told to justify a
crime—a unilateral improvement of conditions for lower classes would address the economic and social disparities around race. Money is also a social construct—a series of rules and agreements we all made up while pretending that
these pieces of paper are worth our entire lives. But we cannot simply stop thinking of money and it will cease to enthrall us. It has woven its way into every part of our lives. It has shaped our past and our futures. It has become alive.
Race has also become alive. Race was not only created to justify a racially exploitative economic system, it was invented to lock people of color into the
bottom of it. Racism in America exists to exclude people of color from opportunity and progress so that there is more profit for others deemed superior. This profit itself is the greater promise for nonracialized people—
you will get more because they exist to get less.
That promise is durable, and unless attacked directly, it will outlive any attempts to address class as a whole.
you will get more because they exist to get less
—is woven throughout our entire society. Our politics, our education system, our infrastructure—anywhere there is a finite amount of power, influence, visibility, wealth, or opportunity. Anywhere in which someone might miss out. Anywhere there might not be enough. There the lure of that promise sustains racism.
White Supremacy is this nation’s oldest
pyramid scheme. Even those who have lost everything to the scheme are still hanging in there, waiting for their turn to cash out.
Even the election of our first black president did not lessen the lure of this promise to draw people to their support of racism. If anything, the election strengthened it. His election
was a clear, undeniable sign that some black people could get more, and then what
about everyone else’s share? Those who had always blatantly or subconsciously depended on that promise, that they would get more because others would get less, were threatened in ways that they could not put words to. But suddenly, this didn’t feel like “their country” anymore. Suddenly, they didn’t feel like “their needs” were being met.
But aside from that one, mostly symbolic, change of the
race of our president, not much else had changed. The promise of racism has still held true: in just about every demographic of socio-political-economic well-being, black and brown people are consistently getting less.
We, people of color, of course are not the only people who have gotten less. Even without the invention of race, class would still exist and does exist even in racially homogenous
countries. And our class system is oppressive and violent and harms a lot of people of all races. It should be addressed. It should be torn down. But the same hammer won’t tear down all of the walls. What keeps a poor child in Appalachia poor is not what keeps a poor child in Chicago poor—even if from a distance, the outcomes look the same. And what keeps an able-bodied black woman poor is not
what keeps a disabled white man poor, even if the outcomes look the same.
Even in our class and labor movements, the promise that you will get more because others exist to get less, calls to people. It tells you to focus on the majority first. It tells you that the grievances of people of color, or disabled people, or transgender people, or women are divisive. The promise that keeps racism alive
tells you that you will benefit most and others will eventually benefit… a little. It has you believing in trickle-down social justice.
Yes, it is about class—and about gender and sexuality and ability. And it’s also, almost always, about race.
Talk about race is inevitable in today’s society, but it often doesn’t seem to get much farther than an argument about whether or not something is about
race. Talk about race can feel like a horribly depressing rendition of “who’s on first?” While some argue that these issues of racism must be addressed, others argue that these issues are not race issues, and after much frustration trying to determine whether or not the yet-to-be-had conversation is indeed about race, somebody gives up and walks away, leaving the original issue untouched.
the day-to-day, determining whether or not an issue is about race can be difficult—not only for white people, but for people of color as well. Rarely is there only one factor or viewpoint in a serious issue. Things are never cut-and-dry. And because we have come up in a society where talking about race is just not something you “do” in polite company, we don’t have a lot of practice in putting words
to racial issues. But it is difficult, if not impossible, to talk about race when we can’t even agree that something is about race. And we have to start somewhere. If you are looking for a simple way to determine if something is about race, here are some basic rules. And when I say basic, I mean basic.
1. It is about race if a person of color thinks it is about race.
2. It is about race if
it disproportionately or differently affects people of color.
It is about race if it fits into a broader pattern of events that disproportionately or differently affect people of color.
Now, looking at this short list, it’s easy to think—hey, that is far too broad, almost
can fall under those categories! And it’s true, almost anything can fall under these categories. Why? Because
race impacts almost every aspect of our lives. Let’s look a little deeper.
It is about race if a person of color thinks it’s about race.
This may sound at first like I’m asking you to just take every person of color’s word for it, as if they are infallible and incapable of lying or misinterpreting a situation. But the truth is, whether or not someone is fallible is beside the point. We are, each
and every one of us, a collection of our lived experiences. Our lived experiences shape us, how we interact with the world, and how we live in the world. And our experiences are valid. Because we do not experience the world with only part of ourselves, we cannot leave our racial identity at the door. And so, if a person of color says that something is about race, it is—because regardless of the
details, regardless of whether or not you can connect the dots from the outside, their racial identity is a part of them and it is interacting with the situation. Note, if you are a white person in this situation, do not think that just because you may not be aware of your racial identity at the time that you did not bring race to your experience of the situation as well. We are all products of
a racialized society, and it affects everything we bring to our interactions.
Something can be about race, and that doesn’t mean that it is
about race. When I talk about being followed in a store by a white clerk, it is about race, because regardless of the clerk’s intention I’m bringing with me my entire history of a black woman who is routinely followed around by staff or security when
I shop in stores. This clerk herself may not be thinking of my race at all when she’s following me, she may just be an overeager trainee, or maybe she suspects everybody of stealing and follows all customers regardless of race. But she, for her possibly innocent intentions, is also bringing her white identity into the interaction, as someone who is not regularly followed by store personnel and therefore
would be unaware of the impact it would have on me to, once again, be followed around a store by a white clerk. She too is making it about race whether she knows it or not. But while this issue is about race and the racial aspects should be addressed, it’s also about training—as aggressively following customers of any race is bad business. It can be about all of these things, and it is.
about race if it disproportionately or differently affects people of color.
Often, when talking about issues of race I will receive messages from white people stating that what I’m talking about is not about race because they, a white person, too suffer from said issue. Poverty cannot be about race if there are poor white people. Incarceration cannot be about race if there are incarcerated white
people, and so on. Many white people who themselves often suffer from the same hardships that many people of color suffer from feel erased by discussions of racial oppression.
In contrast, I’ll also often hear from white people (often the very same white people) about successful black people that obviously debunk the theory that hardships are race-based. How can poverty be about race if Oprah
exists? How can there be lack of representation in the entertainment industry when Beyoncé wins all the awards? Setting aside the fact that the racial exceptionalism of people of color does not detract from, but instead adds to, arguments of racial inequality (because honestly, we don’t have to name a few successful white people to argue that they are doing comparatively well in society—there are
enough that they don’t even stand out), these arguments are a pretty extreme oversimplification of how racial oppression works.