Thursday, July 30, 2009

What if it's not Just Race?

There is indeed another side to the Gates arrest issue (is this an official cultural event now? Do we call it 'Gates-gate'?!). And it can cut against what has become the popular take on the incident.

Suppose, just suppose, the predominant factor in the whole episode isn't race. What if it is something that is much more subtle in the national political and social fabric. What if this is more a matter of class than race?

William Julius Wilson, Harvard sociologist and another member of their academic 'Dream Team', has written two books (one of which will be reviewed in Central Dallas Ministries' Urban Engagement Book Club next month): an earlier work entitled, 'The Declining Significance of Race' and the more recently released 'More Than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City'. Wilson posits that in the latter part of the 20th century into the 21st century, class issues are much more pertinent than race.

Take for instance this brief passage from Dr. Wilson's earlier work, "...as I examine the historical stages of race relations in the United States, I find that the patterns of black/white interaction do not consistently and sometimes not conveniently conform to the propositions outlined in these explanations of racial antagonism. In some cases, the orthodox Marxian explanation seems more appropriate; in other instances the split labor-market theory seems more appropriate; and in others, neither theory can, in isolation, adequately explain black-white conflict."

Could it be that given our country's rush-to-cover/rush-to-judgement take on complex issues that in the Gates' affair, we've latched onto the easiest and oldest source of conflict, without recognizing the extent to which things have changed in our nation?

In 'More Than Just Race', Wilson states his goal as, 'reexamining the way social scientists discuss two very important factors associated with racial inequality: social structures and culture'. By social structures, he refers to, '...the way social positions, social roles, and networks of social relationships are arranged in our institutions, such as the economy, polity, education, and organization of the family. A social structure could be a labor market that offers financial incentives and threatens financial punishments to compel individuals to work, or it could be a "role', associated with a particular social position in an organization such as a church, family, or university...that carries certain power, privilege and influence external to the individuals who occupy that role.'

"Culture", he goes on to say, "on the other hand, refers to the sharing of outlooks and modes of behavior among individuals who face similar place-based circumstances (such as poor segregated neighborhoods) or have the same social networks (as when members of particular racial or ethnic groups share a particular way of understanding social life and cultural scripts that guide their behavior). Therefore, when individuals act according to their culture, the are following inclinations developed from their exposure to the particular traditions, practices, and beliefs among those who live and interact in the same physical and social environment."

William Julius Wilson, has consistently made this argument that (at risk of oversimplification), class trumps race in our society. While I don't totally buy into, it is a prism through which one could look and interpret the whole episode of Skip Gates' arrest: a cop, responding to a report of a break in at a home only to find the resident there. Perhaps the officer is tired, maybe its nearing the end of his shift - perhaps he's given to being particularly brusque in fulfilling his duty (like a doctor without bedside manners). A Harvard professor, unaware of the report, returning from a long trip from China, filming a PBS special no less - confronted by a cop who, from his (Gates') perspective unceremoniously demands to see evidence that he is the homeowner and who, when asked to do the same in turn grows even more discourteous. Two men acting, at least as much out of their 'social structures' and 'culture', mixed with race, male ego, class pride and an imperiousness borne out of their respective roles.

The problem is not with the two men. One word different on either side - someone, either one - deciding to say something they didn't say or not say something they said, and the whole incident becomes a non-incident. But eventually the world watches and with a 24 hour news cycle and simplistic knee jerk analysis we all forget that we live in a much more complex world - even when it comes to individuals and race relations than we did even twenty years ago.

There are plenty of African-Americans who believe that this has nothing to do with race. Perhaps they and others who believe the same way are right. There are some, like me, who think its at least naive, at most dangerous to be dismissive of race as a factor. But perhaps there is a third, more helpful way to view this: two human beings whose altercation can be overblown in one sense, and which speaks volumes about an issue that looms on our immediate horizon that can be much more dangerous than race in another sense.

Class is becoming a much more real issue than I think we realize and if class is at play in this incident, then it should be discussed in a substantive way - or we can all find ourselves in very serious trouble.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks Gerald for some wonderfully stimulating thoughts... I think the Gates situation definitely has some signficant class factors involved... but more significant was arrogance and pride on both parts... this situation was first and foremost about pride... unfortunately the worst part of the knee jerk reactions of the media and others on both sides who passed judgment on hearts and motivations and everything else without taking the time to understand even the most basic facts before rendering judgment is that it perpetuates the sensation of fearfullness in even discussing racial issues and asking legitimate questions about motivations and actions on all parts. It will be very difficult to ever have meaningful conversations if our collective first response to every situation is to shout. There are very legitimate concerns about racial profiling and racism that must continue to be confronted and called out for public shame when it is encountered...but like the little boy who cried wolf... if everything is proclaimed to be racism...the power of calling racism out when it is real is at risk of losing its power to shame and motivate behavioral change. We need serious conversations about race in this country... but the volatile nature of this situation may have made meaningful discussion less likely instead of more likely.