Race, Class, and Violence

David Brook’s December 2 column in the NYTimes arguing that classism, not racism, is what really ails our nation came off as one of the more racially tone-deaf commentaries so far on events in Ferguson. What must it feel like for an African-American to take in Brooks’s examination of 21st century class differences by means of a description of 19th century conditions in Britain: “The people who lived in these slums were often described as more like animals than human beings. For example, in an 1889 essay in The Palace Journal, Arthur Morrison described, “Dark, silent, uneasy shadows passing and crossing — human vermin in this reeking sink, like goblin exhalations from all that is noxious around. Women with sunken, black-rimmed eyes, whose pallid faces appear and vanish by the light of an occasional gas lamp, and look so like ill-covered skulls that we start at their stare. ‘Proper’ people of that era had both a disgust and fascination for those who lived in these untouchable realms. They went slumming into the poor neighborhoods, a sort of poverty tourism that is the equivalent of today’s reality TV or the brawlers that appear on ‘The Jerry Springer Show.’”

To be fair, later in the column it becomes clear that Brooks doesn’t buy this as a valid comparison with our own times. But that begs the question, why did he attempt it? Not only does it come across as grossly racist, but also he is grossly mistaken to assume that class not race explains the divide in our country between white and black. Most if not all of the latent classism in our country originates in the kind of institutionalized racism that the tragedy of Ferguson has brought into sharp relief.

I know a little more than I want to about Brooks’s tone-deafness because I happen to be a privileged white who attended elite schools and colleges. I cringe when I look back at my experience at Princeton in the late 1950s: my class (in the sense of the year I graduated, but the other meaning works too) included one African-American, and we were served daily in our dining commons by a young black waiters in white coats whose service we took so completely for granted that their invisibility to us future Masters of the Universe was total. I remember attending a party in Princeton where a distinguished alum had recently returned from a diplomatic posting in an African country. His jolly, oblivious stereotyping of the native peoples where he had served was such a Faulknerian caricature that it would have been laughable if it hadn’t felt so sad and dangerous. I also recall slowly awakening to the challenge of making connections across the divide of our racially split culture when I read John Howard Griffin’s classic “Black Like Me,” published in 1961, a year before I graduated. Griffin, a white, worked with a doctor to chemically darken his skin and immersed himself in a six-week voyage through the Deep South. The strain of the terror and deprivation he endured simply surviving as a black man brought him close to breakdown. White people six decades later could do worse than take another look at Griffin’s harrowing tale as a way to learn what it means to be on the receiving end of both passive stares of exclusionary indifference and active stares of hate and fear.

What happened between Darren Wilson and Michael Brown is just one incident among so many that exhibit to the world a toxic mix of deep structural racism and the casual escalation of violence as a “solution” to conflict.  Racism shades into every aspect of American life, including the patronizing and obstructive attitude of many in the Congress toward the President, clearly to them a black man who is too confidently sassy and “uppity” to know his place. It even extends to our international policies, where violence toward others of swarthier skin and alien creed is more often the first resort than the last. Tragically and ironically, it therefore implicates our own first African-American president in the murderous, too-rapidly-escalating, international-law-violating vengefulness that motivates our endless “war on terror,” as our political Masters of the Universe join the headlong rush to create enemies faster than we can kill them.

A single statistic utterly gives the lie to the idea that change is impossible in our country: Darren Wilson fired more shots into Michael Brown than the entire police in England and Wales fired at people in 2013.

Winslow Myers is author of “Living Beyond War: A Citizen’s Guide.” He serves on the Advisory Board of the War Preventive Initiative.

More articles by:

Winslow Myers is author of “Living Beyond War: A Citizen’s Guide.” He serves on the Advisory Board of the War Preventive Initiative.

March 22, 2018
Conn Hallinan
Italy, Germany and the EU’s Future
David Rosen
The Further Adventures of the President and the Porn Star
Gary Leupp
Trump, the Crown Prince and the Whole Ugly Big Picture
The Hudson Report
Modern-Day Debtors’ Prisons and Debt in Antiquity
Steve Martinot
The Properties of Property
Binoy Kampmark
Facebook, Cambridge Analytica and Surveillance Capitalism
Jeff Berg
Russian to Judgment
Gregory Barrett
POSSESSED! Europe’s American Demon Must Be Exorcised
Robby Sherwin
What Do We Do About Facebook?
Sam Husseini
Trump Spokesperson Commemorates Invading Iraq by Claiming U.S. Doesn’t Dictate to Other Countries; State Dept. Defends Invasion
Rob Okun
Students: Time is Ripe to Add Gender to Gun Debate
Michael Barker
Tory Profiteering in Russia and Putin’s Debt of Gratitude
March 21, 2018
Paul Street
Time is Running Out: Who Will Protect Our Wrecked Democracy from the American Oligarchy?
Mel Goodman
The Great Myth of the So-Called “Adults in the Room”
Chris Floyd
Stumbling Blocks: Tim Kaine and the Bipartisan Abettors of Atrocity
Eric Draitser
The Political Repression of the Radical Left in Crimea
Patrick Cockburn
Erdogan Threatens Wider War Against the Kurds
John Steppling
It is Us
Thomas Knapp
Death Penalty for Drug Dealers? Be Careful What You Wish for, President Trump
Manuel García, Jr.
Why I Am a Leftist (Vietnam War)
Isaac Christiansen
A Left Critique of Russiagate
Howard Gregory
The Unemployment Rate is an Inadequate Reporter of U.S. Economic Health
Ramzy Baroud
Who Wants to Kill Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah?
Roy Morrison
Trouble Ahead: The Trump Administration at Home and Abroad
Roger Hayden
Too Many Dead Grizzlies
George Wuerthner
The Lessons of the Battle to Save the Ancient Forests of French Pete
Binoy Kampmark
Fictional Free Trade and Permanent Protectionism: Donald Trump’s Economic Orthodoxy
Rivera Sun
Think Outside the Protest Box
March 20, 2018
Jonathan Cook
US Smooths Israel’s Path to Annexing West Bank
Jeffrey St. Clair
How They Sold the Iraq War
Chris Busby
Cancer, George Monbiot and Nuclear Weapons Test Fallout
Nick Alexandrov
Washington’s Invasion of Iraq at Fifteen
David Mattson
Wyoming Plans to Slaughter Grizzly Bears
Paul Edwards
My Lai and the Bad Apples Scam
Julian Vigo
The Privatization of Water and the Impoverishment of the Global South
Mir Alikhan
Trump and Pompeo on Three Issues: Paris, Iran and North Korea
Seiji Yamada
Preparing For Nuclear War is Useless
Gary Leupp
Brennan, Venality and Turpitude
Martha Rosenberg
Why There’s a Boycott of Ben & Jerry’s on World Water Day, March 22
John Pilger
Skripal Case: a Carefully-Constructed Drama?
March 19, 2018
Henry Heller
The Moment of Trump
John Davis
Pristine Buildings, Tarnished Architect
Uri Avnery
The Fake Enemy
Patrick Cockburn
The Fall of Afrin and the Next Phase of the Syrian War
Nick Pemberton
The Democrats Can’t Save Us