Operatively White? : Exploring the Significance of Race and Class Through the Paradox of Black Middle-Classness
34 Pages Posted: 27 Jan 2011
Date Written: September 22, 2009
The black–white paradigm has been the crucial paradigm in racial geography of land use, housing and development. Yet it is worthwhile to consider that, in this context, distinctions based on race are accompanied by a powerful, racialized discourse of middle class versus poor. The black–white paradigm in exclusionary zoning, for example, involves the wealthy or middle-class white person (we need not even use the term white) protesting against or displacing the poor black person. (we also need not even use the term black). Another example of the racialized discourse of middle class versus poor is in the urban-gentrification context. The term "gentrification" suggests wealthier Whites displacing poor Blacks. Little attention has been paid to the significance of the increasing numbers of Blacks stepping into middle-class roles formerly held almost exclusively by Whites. Taking both race and class into account seems to demand exploration of the significance of Blackness and affluence within an existing societal structure that has evolved from white supremacy to a seemingly less-virulent, or more-benign, white norm - one in which normalcy, wealth, advantage, and presumptions of innocence are still implicitly predicated on Whiteness and in which an economic structure of white privilege and black disadvantage is inscribed into the geography of the physical landscape.
The reality that middle class homeowners, whether Black or White, seek to avoid the disadvantages of poverty presents a divide in black racial solidarity based on class. However, because of structural disadvantage in racially segregated neighborhoods, the black middle class are not as successful at getting away nor in protecting their turf as white middle class are. In effect this is a racial disadvantage but certainly a paradoxical one. It involves a disadvantage in escaping the poor and disadvantage in exercising privilege at the expense of the poor. Using the example of the black middle class, it is possible to see that the vestigial oppression of slavery and the domination of white supremacy have morphed but have not been eliminated. Instead, those institutions have been disaggregated into discrete, wealth-based components of Blackness and Whiteness. Thus, Blacks with money are privileged in certain limited circumstances to be operatively white. Through their wallets and educational or professional attainments they gain access to some of the privileges, goods, and services formerly reserved exclusively for Whites. Thus, this article considers challenges and opportunities of Blackness and middle-classness in its twenty-first century context of being "operatively white." Specifically, how should neighborhood land use conflicts be regarded if poor Blacks are disproportionately, negatively affected in relation to affluent Blacks? That racialized impact should not be dismissed as being purely about class just because the affluent are also black. Problems of class in the United States are racialized; they are never separate from the racial structures of subordination that still operate here. Accordingly, problems currently cognizable as being merely about class are necessarily still cognizable as problems of race.
In order to enrich our ability to give race and class the sophisticated and probing account that their complex interaction calls for, this paper takes the concept of racialized class to its logical end and explores the ways in which racial identity and racial social position are affected by class. Because race and class are structurally inscribed into the landscape, racial justice is considered to require economic liberation. Economic liberation comes, however, at the expense of the black poor. Therefore, there cannot be racial justice without economic justice.
Keywords: land use, development, race, class discrimination, subordination, exclusionary zoning, racial justice, economic justice, Katrina, gentrification, civil rights, critical race theory, incarceration, privilege, oppression, suburbs, city
JEL Classification: R52
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation