Another experience of race

In her book Working-Class White: The Making and Unmaking of Race Relations, sociologist Monica McDermott offers an interesting perspective on the intersection of race and class, based on her field work in Atlanta and Boston. She writes:

The experience of whiteness in the Crescent [her Atlanta field work site] provides an intriguing example of the ways in which racial cues are bound up with class and the local context. “White” is typically conceived in terms of economic and social advantage and residence in predominantly white, affluent areas. What, then, becomes of the white racial identity of those whites who are poor or working class and live in an area with a substantial black, working-class population?

The results are not the standard ways in which whiteness typically functions in the United States — as invisible privilege, even for economically disadvantaged whites. Whiteness in this context does not simply function like “blackness” when the usual constellation of class and racial cues is reversed. Instead, whiteness becomes a badge of inferiority — one that is contingent upon a global view of whites as more deserving of nice neighborhoods and good jobs than blacks. It is also bound up with expectations about racial segregation and the characteristics of those who live in racially integrated areas.

Being a white person in this type of neighborhood is distinctly different from being a white person in a predominantly white area. The underlying assumption in the Crescent and Greenfield [the Boston field work site], held by both blacks and whites of various class backgrounds, was that the whites who lived and worked there were somehow defective; that the least capable whites were most likely to live among large numbers of poor and working-class blacks. As one of the working-class men studied by Lamont (1999) asserts, there “is no real reason for a white guy to be a failure.”

While McDermott is quite clear that her study is limited in scope because of her methodology, nevertheless it occurs to me that that class location probably always influences experiences of race.