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The Smile of Class Privilege

Dorothy Counts in classroom at Harry Harding High Schoo, 1957. Photo: Don Sturkey (Public Domain.)

There it is again. Recognize it? That smile. A grin, really. You can spin it anyway you want to, but it is unmistakable except, of course, to the toxically innocent or ahistorical and willfully obtuse.

It is one born of privilege. The boys in this photo were taunting Dorothy Counts who was the first black student admitted to Harry Harding High School, in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1957. She was forced to withdraw from the school only four days later following unrelenting harassment, threats and jeers by her white classmates.

In the days following the now infamous incident in Washington DC between a group of mostly white students from the all-male Covington Catholic high school in Kentucky and Native American elder Nathan Phillips, photos like these have been resurfacing. But there is a missing component to most of the commentary. And it is by design.

A statement has been released that was supposedly from the one boy in the now viral photograph. And many have reposted it as supposed evidence of the ‘pure innocence’ of him and his peers’ behavior that afternoon. After reading it twice it comes across as a carefully edited and prepared statement, as if drawn up by the family lawyer. And this is what is important here. How many working class kids have access to such services? Without class analysis of this incident everything else is rendered meaningless.

I’ve watched the videos several times. I have heard the obnoxious language hurled at the students by a small group from a cult called the Black Hebrew Israelites. I have watched the students body language. I have observed Nathan Phillips demeanor and that of the boys, and one issue that is glaring is that of class.

The boys in this video have a life that has been carefully crafted by their petit bourgeois standing in American society. They are clearly being groomed for upper middle class professions and up standing roles in civic leadership. Their presence in Washington was no accident either. They were bused in to protest women’s reproductive freedom. And those tickets and the hotel stay I’m guessing were not cheap. That they attend an all-male school while participating in political speech that seeks to limit a woman’s control over her own body is telling. After all, racism, class and patriarchy are a trinity of oppression.

The boys at Covington are undeniably privileged. Tuition for the private school is nearly $10,000 a year and that is not including extracurricular activities like the ‘March for Life’ that they attended. The median income in the region is around $25,000. That they are mostly white is no small issue either.

But America doesn’t do class analysis. Never really has in the mainstream. That would be “too commie” so it is a forbidden topic in the media and a self-imposed censorship by most Americans whether liberal or conservative. And so discussing this incident as if it were a conflict between equals has become an exercise in the absurd.

Like the kids at Harry Harding High School, the boys from Covington have always had the upper hand in America. And that is a sad fact that will never change in the United States so long as it remains what it is: a dictatorship of class privilege, white supremacy, and money.

 

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Kenn Orphan is an artist, sociologist, radical nature lover and weary, but committed activist. He can be reached at kennorphan.com.

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