How Should Antiracists Respond to “Shouldn’t We Just Focus on Class?”

Consider two social policies.

The first policy — a race, or identity-based policy, makes scholarship funds available only for Latinx students. Students qualify through some way of providing their Latinx ancestry. The second policy — a class-based policy, makes scholarship funds available for needy students. Students qualify for the scholarship by demonstrating economic need.

Which policy is best?

As an antiracist, I believe that race-based policies in a multicultural society are necessary. However, I and other antiracists have likely heard people say — “shouldn’t we just focus on class?”

In the past, the standard response for me has always been to evoke history and context, arguing that we need race-based policies to redress the past’s wrongs. One problem with this line of reasoning is that the counterargument “two wrongs don’t make a right” sits well with me and aligns with my moral compass. I don’t think unequal treatment in the future is justifiable because of injustices in the past. I need a different justification than “redressing past wrongs.” I prefer to develop an argument that focuses more on “producing new rights.”

Another problem with the historical argument is that it does not explain immigrant groups’ experiences — Asian populations, Latinx populations being the most obvious. Of course, the primary driver of racial inequality in the United States is racism. But a more advanced view of racial disparities — one in line with our current moral landscape of equity — recognizes the different environments that racial groups navigate, regardless of racism, and supports policies to balance those differences.

The purpose of this essay is to provide antiracists with a different set of tools that will justify their support for a race-based policy. I believe that the “shouldn’t we just focus on class” question can be divided into two primary arguments. I explore each in turn.

Class-Based Policies are More Effective

One argument is that class-based policies are more effective at addressing the underlying cause of the disparity. Using the example of Latinx scholarships above, one could argue that a student from a wealthy Latinx family does not need this scholarship. But given that income is tightly correlated to success in high schools, these scholarships will go to the sons and daughters of wealthy Latinx parents who don’t need it. This is a common argument used to critique affirmative action policies and has some merit. If those wealthy Latinx students were going to college anyway, then all they are doing is taking slots away from poorer Latinx students. But these arguments rely on a lack of understanding about the true nature of non-white racial populations in the United States and a lack of appreciation for racism’s complexity.

People often confuse skin color as an immutable characteristic with skin color as a proxy for ancestry, culture, or viewpoint. This misunderstanding reveals an impoverished view of what race, ethnicity, and identity signify. Advocates for race-based policies don’t want to see more Latinx folks represented simply because they have brown skin but because they wish to reflect a multicultural society’s viewpoints.

Consider an effort to increase Dominicans’ presence in New York City institutions, where there is a sizeable Dominican presence. One should concede that every Dominican in New York City does not think the same — a common reductionist counterargument to race-based policies. Even with this concession, the claim can still be made that racial representation is justifiable. Voluminous evidence from national data collection agencies (as well as common sense) supports the conclusion that a person who identifies as Dominican and grows up in New York City will likely be more attuned to the Dominican community’s concerns than a person not similarly situated.

It is not the skin color that race-based policies are selecting for in this instance, but the opinions and viewpoints informed by folks who share that skin color. If we assume this reasoning to be valid, then not making attempts to identify and place Dominicans in that city’s institutions is tantamount to silencing them — a condition that black Americans experienced for much of their history in the United States.

Antiracists need to understand the underlying assumptions behind this impoverished view of culture and identity. Many white Americans will assert that they “don’t see skin color, and we should all be Americans.” If we examine this claim closely, we see it is about whiteness. White people who make this claim are not suggesting that everyone in America take on the same eating patterns, cultural interests, and values as first-generation Chinese immigrants in Chinatown! When most people talk of being “Americans,” they presuppose a set of values, norms, and beliefs associated with white Americans (something I have written about here). In a sense, they see people of color as dark-skinned versions of white people — “soon to be whites”. They do not value the viewpoints of people of color, and assume that eventually the person of color will think like them.

Moreover, many of the phenomena that produce racial disparities are not economic in nature. In the Latinx scholarship example above, we are assuming a lack of money that underlies the gap in college enrollment. Is it?

How confident are we that the processes that led the 1992 birth cohorts of Latinx and White children to show differences in college enrollment in 2020 are economic in nature? Sure, we can look at bivariate tables that show a relationship between some financial measure and college attendance. This is a very consistent finding across ethnoracial groups.

But when consulting the academic literature on the many causes that lead to poor academic performance, we find that economics is only one of many factors.

Below are a few categories of events that can impact populations of color. These events are race-based in that they are disproportionately found within populations of color. They are evidence-based in that social scientists have been exploring these phenomena for quite some time and know they have an impact.

  • Economic Insecurity — sporadic income and a lack of a wealth safety net can lead to short term decisions that may impact long term goals.
  • Individual Discrimination — stereotypes and attitudes held by people in authority (teachers, health professionals, law enforcement) can negatively impact people of color’s life chances.
  • Institutional Discrimination — in this context, institutional discrimination refers to educational institutions where students of color are in more crowded classrooms, have less access to technology, and less support staff like guidance counselors and resource teachers.
  • Neighborhood Effects — the culture of a neighborhood, where young adults who experienced the above impacts and are in the process of dropping out of mainstream society are now setting a deviant tone for the younger cohort.
  • Environmental Racism — the engineering of pollutants’ flow into less desirable areas — air pollution from factories, noise pollution from traffic can harm the learning outcomes.

Income and wealth cannot be a proxy for all these phenomena. For one thing, stereotypes are not based on class but on visual markers. Rich Latinx folks can shield themselves somewhat from the impacts of discrimination, but their money does not eliminate these phenomena. Second, these phenomena are relational. And so, one could claim that if Latinx families increase their income and wealth, they could move into areas with better schools and less pollution. This is true. But the benefits of a neighborhood are relational. Meaning, that if Latinx families move into communities currently occupied by families of more wealth, it is likely that those families, seeking exclusivity, will move to wealthier neighborhoods.

Antiracists should argue that purely class-based policies alone will not capture the complexity of disadvantage. Imagine a Latinx family living in a neighborhood in a mid-sized city. They make around $80,000 a year as a family, putting them squarely in the middle class in terms of income. They cannot buy into some of the tonier suburbs ringing the city, and as a result, they live in mixed-income neighborhoods. The children in that home may still be impacted by individual discrimination, institutional discrimination, neighborhood effects, and environmental racism.

Class-Based Policies are More Agreeable to Americans

A second argument is that class-based policies are more palatable politically. Whether or not there is evidentiary merit to a race-based approach, the argument goes, is inconsequential if voter perceptions prevent that policy from garnering support. It is better to structure policies around a more universal and fluid category — “people in poverty” than a rigid and immutable one — “Latinx.”

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Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

Antiracists must understand the assumptions underlying this argument so that they can be addressed.

There is a troubling, but rarely stated, “us” versus “them” racial dynamic in our national discourse. Donald Trump’s administration legitimated narratives about the undesirability of Mexicans, Muslims, and other immigrants from “shithole countries.” These ideas were spread and codified through numerous alternative media outlets. Undergirding this toxic mix is an empirical reality that working-class white Americans are not doing as well economically as they have in the past, as scholars have shown (see Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers In Their Own Land or Joan William’s White Working Class). In this climate, where white folks assume an “us” versus “them” stance, a race-based policy will be a non-starter.

I think an even more widely held assumption is that Americans of all groups tend to support a notion of colorblindness. This is an ethic of individual actions and state law treating people of different racial backgrounds the same. A policy that directs resources towards populations of color will be perceived as the opposite of this ethic. White voters may perceive this policy as a form of reverse discrimination. I am writing these words on Martin Luther King Day, and many will evoke his wish to “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” in the context of a race-based policy. Who can disagree with King?

How can antiracists address these concerns and build an argument for race-based policies? The answer lies in clearly identifying the links between these policies and how they create a future where everybody wins.

Consider a policy that focuses on the Hmong community in St. Paul, Minnesota. The Hmong community in Minnesota is the largest in the United States, at approximately 30,000. They do not fit the model minority myth. Unlike other Asian populations who came under controlled and resourced conditions, the Hmong were primarily refugees. Accordingly, they have much higher rates of poverty than other Asian populations and Americans in general. The policy is meant to pay social workers to counsel Hmong refugees, subsidize jobs for Hmong, and pay for English tutoring. Residents of other ethnoracial groups are not eligible for these services.

Like the example of the middle-class Latinx family above, the state of Minnesota has justifiable reasons for supporting a policy that specifically targets a person identifying as Hmong. The city may want more Hmong visibility and representation in its institutions. Moreover, taking a purely class-based approach would not encompass all of the issues Hmong residents face.

But just because the initial beneficiary is Hmong does not mean non-Hmong populations do not benefit in the long run. Helping dislocated immigrant groups find their footing will lead to more firemen, police officers, teachers, and accountants. These professionals will likely not limit their skills to only Hmong. The Hmong child that received support in his formative years is now your child’s math professor. She may also now be on the city council, advising others who do not have that experience of being a refugee to address the needs of new refugees more effectively. Although this seems to be changing, the probability of interracial marriages tends to increase with education. And so, the Hmong professor who has gotten race-based assistance in her formative years is now married to someone non-Hmong.

This is a future “us” created by race-based policies.

Suppose Hmong that benefit from these policies do not integrate into broader society. Even if they stayed in ethnic neighborhoods — let’s say start a small business that hires and caters to the Hmong population, or returns to their neighborhood to start a daycare, everyone still benefits from the race-based policies mitigate poverty and social dysfunction. The city collects more tax revenue from more affluent Hmong residents. Crime rates will decline, reducing the strain on the criminal justice system. Healthcare costs are less. And ultimately, the need for a race-based policy ends because there is nothing racially different about Hmong’s social outcomes compared to white residents of Minnesota. That is true colorblindness — we are creating a society in which we cannot “see” racial disparities.

Conclusion

When talking about policies that focus on race or ethnicity, how should antiracists respond to the retort: “shouldn’t we just focus on class”?

I believe that antiracists should recognize that although this is one question, folks are generally talking about two distinct issues.

One is a perception that class is at the root of all racial disparities. These folks are not aware of the links between skin color and culture on the one hand and the many forms of racism on the other. They reduce people of color to poor people with tans. With this logic, it makes sense to focus entirely on class. The antiracists’ task is to explain the importance of the culture underlying the skin tone and explain that racism takes many forms, some of which are not grounded in economics.

A second issue is the practicality of any race-based policy. White Americans (and to some extent non-whites) reject policies that target a specific racial group. This rejection is a combination of support for colorblindness and a sense that these policies’ benefits go to a distinct outgroup — a “them.” The antiracist task is to narrate a scenario in which race-based policies create an “us” through integration — everyone benefits. Moreover, these policies lead to true colorblindness by reducing the racial disparities we “see” in society.

One final comment that should always be in the repertoire of the anti-racist is that one can be do both race-based and class-based policies. Sure, the realities are that decisions have to be made about where to invest resources. But we need not assume that just because we make scholarships available for Latinx students or counseling resources available for Hmong refugees, that we cannot also address poverty in the United States. Indeed, to be antiracist is also to be anticlassist.

Rod is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Old Dominion University. https://www.youtube.com/c/roderickgraham

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