Class, locality, and race

In all the coverage of the Henry Louis Gates arrest, there are two things I have not seen mentioned:

(1) Race relations in the Boston area are among the worst I’ve experienced. The contrast between the Boston area and New Bedford is astounding — as a white guy in the Boston area, I find it that almost any encounter with someone who is black is fairly tense, even when both people are friendly towards one another; here in New Bedford, there is far less racial tension. Given the racial tension in the Boston area, any encounter between a white cop and a black man is going to start off tense. I would expect tension to escalate quickly unless one of the persons involved is very calm.

(2) Working class Cambridge residents aren’t exactly buddy-buddy with Harvard professors. In fact, there’s a big divide in the entire Boston area between those who identify positively with Harvard, and those of us who don’t. The people who don’t identify with Harvard are liable to be prejudiced and think of Harvard people as snobbish, egotistical, and overbearing. And perhaps those who identify with Harvard are liable to be prejudiced and think of the rest of us in terms that are not entirely complimentary.

You can see this dual prejudice playing out in the encounter between the Cambridge cop and the Harvard professor. Here’s how the story would be told from the cop’s point of view: Cambridge cop asks Harvard professor to identify himself; at first Harvard professor refuses, then instead of showing his driver’s license he pulls out his Harvard I.D., and when Cambridge cop asks for a government-issued I.D., Harvard professor starts yelling. Here’s how the story would be told from the professor’s point of view: while in own house, Cambridge cop with working class accent asks Harvard professor for I.D., then cop refuses to accept Harvard I.D. (!!), and refuses to listen to rational, reasonable explanations.

My conclusion: both parties are at fault, and each man should apologize to the other. The cop should have apologized immediately, because as a public servant it’s really part of his job, and his supervisors should require him to apologize before race relations get any worse in Cambridge. The Harvard professor should recognize that while race played a major factor in this encounter, class divisions and town/gown divisions also played a significant role; but I don’t think Gates really understands the deep, raw, vicious class divisions that exist in New England, so I can’t imagine him ever apologizing.

I hope Gates’s arrest promotes a widespread and rational conversation about race relations in the United States. I wish it would also promote a discussion about class divisions, but I don’t see that happening.

6 thoughts on “Class, locality, and race

  1. Diggitt

    You no doubt have readers who will object to any sentence that includes the words “I don’t think Gates really understands…” but I agree. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Gates thinks of ethnicity as a black/white divide, perhaps with some additional subdivisions, but does not see the many subtleties that a white person might.

    It took sociologists and anthropologists a long time to perceive the class differences within the working class and among self-identified ethnics with western European backgrounds. And a lot of people today still do not recognize the differences or any reason why they might exist.

  2. Jean

    Well. Race relations in the Midwest are not great either; as an interviewee in my film said (African American man): “In the South you know where you stand. Up here? You don’t know who likes you, and who don’t.” Still. A lot of black and white people here go to the same churches and live in the same working class neighborhoods; there’s more of a shared sense of socioeconomic class. And class trumps race: if you and your neighbor both work crappy ass jobs, struggle to pay the rent, fix the lousy cars, buy groceries, cobble together some kind of decent life for your families? You have a shared sense of destiny, and forge a bond, however tentative, that bridges the race divide.

    The real testy race relations here are between lower middle class whites (as opposed to working class — because a lot simply are not working, out of no options or a deliberate choice) and *working* class Hispanics — who are working, any job they can find. There’s the tension. And it’s pretty interesting…it’s an anthropological adventure to go to Goodwill out here, or Big Lots, and see who is shopping, and for what. There’s that crazy white writing teacher, for one…:-)

  3. Dan

    Diggit — Interestingly, no one in the commentariat has taken me to task (yet) for saying that Gates doesn’t understand. Maybe lots of people are on vacation.

    Jean — Thanks for the distinction between lower middle classw and working class.

    And where do you put a cop, anyway? Crowley, the Cambridge cop. probably earns twice what I do, and he undoubtedly has a college degree. Class divisions are getting complex.

  4. Jean

    I don’t think “working class” depends on income level; factory workers around here, when they were working, made a lot more than, say, English professors. Nor do I think “working class” depends upon a college degree or not. Cops may have degrees, I don’t know about that. Out here, I don’t know if they do or not. However, and I don’t mean this as a criticism, merely an observation: there are class distinctions between colleges and between degrees. A Criminal Justice degree from a regional campus of a state university is different than an English degree from a small private college. One is vocational in intention, the other almost avocational.

    I also recall the distinction between students at my small private college who majored in Education, versus those who majored in, say, Philosophy. The Education majors had jobs in mind more often than not as the driving force behind their choice of degrees; the Philosophy majors usually did not perceive their degree as oriented toward a particular line of work. So “working class” for me signifies not wealth, not education, but work as the defining characteristic of a man or woman and his or her existence. The day is defined by work, the week and year by work, and so the life.

    When “working class” (perhaps the cop in question) meets “upper middle class” or “education class” (maybe the professor in question) the conflict is deeper than money, race, education; it’s about definition of self. Working class people embrace work as their defining core and see those who do not as lazy, self-indulgent, spoiled. Education/upper middle class people embrace ideas, self-improvement (okay, sometimes fancy “stuff”), and the betterment of society, and view working class people as unenlightened, two-dimensional, intellectually rigid, and perhaps even not very bright.

    There’s a clash for you.

  5. kim

    I wish it would also promote a discussion about class divisions, but I don’t see that happening.

    Most Americans don’t like to admit we have classes.

  6. Amy

    One person who talked about the Cambridge/Harvard divide is Martin Wenglinsky at w. end ave.

    Something else I haven’t seen mentioned–in the news coverage, that is, as I have avoided the blogosphere’s opinions (I only happened on the above because my dad writes for this blg)–is that cops are supposed to give you their badge number when requested, period. Demanding ID from a cop who comes to your door does not constitute disorderly behavior or even rudeness (though the latter depends on how it’s said).

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