I live in a moderate sized community (shall remain unnamed). About 250,000 people. There is much systemic racism here, but is that the same thing as identity politics? I ask the question because much of the institutional racism that I witness here is not motivated by racial animus at all, but something more insidious.
I’m a schoolteacher, now retired, but worked in the field long enough to witness much that we call institutional racism, but often nothing remotely like identity politics. Let me explain.
I taught throughout the district, in multiple high schools, so I’ll pick two I am familiar with. I will call the newer school Elite High, and the other, older school Workie High. Now the local school district has only so much budget to distribute. That’s a huge limiting factor. The general funds are distributed with an eye to equity; I’ve seen it and believe it to be honestly so. To a very limited extent it is the distribution of funds that create the inequity; the newer schools had more technology built in with many bell-and-whistles that required greater maintenance, attention and upgrades. However, to a much greater extent it is demographic distribution that is the true source of the systemic racism. Let me illustrate.
First let me qualify my remarks by stating that Elite High was located in an newly developed area where the median price of a home was 1.3 mil. The area around Workie High was older area clustered with multiple unit housing, often with two families to an apartment. Elite High broke down into 85% white students, the balance were Latin and Asian students (I don’t recall ever seeing an African American student in the hall, and there were none in my classrooms). Workie High broke down in the opposite direction; 85% Latin, with the balance being white, African American, and Asian. Now to the illustration:
Neither school had a daily PE program because there were no funds to hire a permanent PE teacher. The parents at Elite High quickly jumped in with huge donations and fund raisers. Two permanent PE teachers were quickly hired, one male, one female. The same went for music, art and drama teachers. Obviously, Workie High never enjoyed such privileges. The question arises, is this “white privilege” (otherwise known as identity politics), or “class privilege”?
Nothing that was done by the parents at Elite High was illegal, a violation of anyone’s constitutional rights, or necessarily immoral or unethical. Yet, what we are seeing is discrimination leading to the development of vastly different learning environments; it is completely reasonable to say that the impact on the two disparate student populations was significant. However, can we say that the parents at Elite High were motivated by racist impulses, or that the parents at Elite High were in any way fashioning their fund raisers and donations to impact the minority students at Workie High deliberately and negatively? It certainly must have entered the heads of some parents at Elite High that the parents at Workie High could not possibly have matched their level of financial aid to Elite High. It also must have occurred to multiple parents at Elite High that reasonable equitability would insist that an equal amount should be donated to Workie High. I have enough faith in people to argue that such thoughts must have been entertained by some and even most of the parents at Elite High. But I am also realist enough to fully get-it that we live in a society where its every citizen for themselves and devil take the hindmost. Generosity and altruism are not hallmarks of our ethical system; few can afford to practice Christian values outside of Sunday services. The parents at Elite High are simply protecting their own, which is what American culture and morality dictate. This is “systemic racism” only because the racial line tends to break down along class lines. At other times and at other places this marriage of class and race would not be the case.
What is to be done? As it is unlikely that the parents at Elite High will voluntarily donate equal amounts to Workie High, the district could reach into the budget at Elite High and forcibly redistribute funds to Workie High. This is a kind of aggressive socialism that borders on communism and would likely lead to the drying up of all donations.
The insidiousness mentioned at the beginning of this essay is that our political climate makes it utterly impossible combat the type of “systemic racism” illustrated. Aggressive redistribution is not politically feasible. As tepid, weak and ineffectual as it might sound, the answer to what is to be done must be to change the political climate. How? By first recognizing that while race is a problem, it is not THE problem. Class is! And since 98% of us are working class, why are we still controlled by Wall Street’s 2% thinking. Yes, race is a problem, AND race a tool used by the right to divide the working class against itself. This prevents democracy and an equalitarian empathy that would level out the kinds of inequity illustrated by Elite and Workie High. The parents at Elite High are not racists, ipso facto, but they cannot, on their own, follow whatever equalitarian impulses they might naturally possess as human beings. A collective path must be fashioned, and this is impossible as long as we see racism as the central problem and not as a symptom of class structure and class ideology. Nearly everything in our culture is arrayed against such an understanding of class conflict. It’s going to be a struggle.