Race Versus Class: Everyone wants to know: Which one is the real issue?

Chapter 3 of Waking Up White.

Class is determined by income, wealth (assets), education, and profession. Betsy Leondar-Wright, program director at Class Action, suggests these categories as a way of thinking about class:

  • Poverty
  • Working Class
  • Lower-Middle Class
  • Professional Middle Class
  • Upper-Middle Class
  • Owning Class

How would you characterize your parents’ class? Your grandparent’s class? Your class as a child? Your class now? What messages did you get about race in each?

My parents were solidly professional middle-class. Papa was an engineer. He wore a tie to work every day, and carried a briefcase. Mama was a homemaker, and before she married she was a medical technician. While we were growing up she volunteered at the church, taught Sunday School, led Girl Scout troops, etc. They both were college educated, and expected all four of us children to be. Although, because of our frequent moves, I was in junior high school before they bought their first house, we always lived in “nice” parts of town. There were certainly never any people of color in our neighborhoods.

Mama’s parents were also professional middle-class. Her father worked at the bank, and by the time I came along, he was a vice-president there. Her mother had a cook and upstairs maid to help her “keep house.” She volunteered at the church and in other charities. She also went to teas, played golf, and read extensively. From them I learned that people of color were servants who were very handy to have around, but we didn’t associate with them socially.

Papa’s parents were also professional middle-class. His father was an engineer. While he worked out-of-doors building dams in Washington State, it was always as the boss with the plans that everyone else had to follow. He died 10 years before I was born, so I never knew him. Papa’s mother was one of the first female dentists in the country. She, her mother, and her sister immigrated from England when she was about 6 years old. Her father was a Methodist minister in Illinois in the 1880s/1890s.

My husband grew up in a lower middle class home. His father was an industrial insulator, and his mother was a legal secretary. They usually had “enough” money, but I know they chafed because they couldn’t afford to go to college themselves. They lived in Western Pennsylvania, and ethnic minorities filled the places that people of color filled in the South. Italians, people of Polish origin, and other immigrants immediately after WWI were the folks who were shunned. They were proud of their English and Scottish ancestors.

My husband and I spent the first half of our marriage in the Air Force. Big Al was an officer, and I entertained myself with jobs as a Girl Scout Executive and Christian Educator. The idea of “class” in the civilian world and the idea of “class” in the armed services are two completely different things. You have to be really careful not to cross the officer/enlisted line – no matter what your race or what your class. Generally you don’t have anything to do with people across the line except in a commander/commanded role. The divide may have loosened up since we retired from the service, but in our day, we all lived on the same base, but in different housing areas. We went to different clubs and drank at different bars. Wives and families had to be very careful, too, not to get to chummy with people whose husbands were on the other side of the divide.

Race was much less important than rank. I truly believe that one of the worst things for race relations was when they did away with the draft. When men entered the service often that was the first opportunity they had to live with, eat with, sleep next to someone of a different race. And when you are both joined in a mutual hatred of the drill sergeant, superficial things like color and heritage begin to fall away.

If you would like to join me as I blog about my experiences with race, please read the book. It was life changing for me.

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