Who's Afraid of White Class Migrants? On Denial, Discrediting, and Disdain (and Toward a Richer Conception of Diversity)

60 Pages Posted: 30 Aug 2015 Last revised: 13 Oct 2015

See all articles by Lisa R. Pruitt

Lisa R. Pruitt

University of California, Davis - School of Law

Date Written: August 28, 2015


This Article describes and theorizes the legal academy’s denial of both class disadvantage and class migration, with particular attention to how those phenomena are manifest in relation to white faculty. The Article observes that a general disdain for poor and working-class whites evolves into the denial and distancing of class migrants, those who move into the professoriate from lower socioeconomic stations (“SES”). Further, the academy simultaneously discredits and disciplines these class migrants when they run afoul of narrow norms regarding credentials, scholarship, and culture. The author employs storytelling as methodology, drawing on her own experiences as a white class migrant to illustrate some of these phenomena.

This Article, one in a series that takes up poor whites and the white working class as critical race projects, makes several theoretical contributions. First, it theorizes why white poverty, the white working class, and thus the phenomenon of white class migration, are so taboo among legal scholars. Closely related to this taboo are the reasons white class migrants are not viewed and valued as representing the diversity held so dear by the professoriate. Among other things, the Article begins the work of thinking about the phenomenon of white class migration as one that is as much about race as about class. It does so, however, in ways that go beyond Critical Race Theory’s (“CRT”) typical engagement with whiteness as monolithic abstraction. The Article suggests that the persistent race-vs.-class debate — regarding whether race or class is a bigger culprit in relation to various social problems and injustices — has proved an attractive distraction that has deterred robust scholarly engagement with many potent intersections of race with class, including that between white-skin privilege and socioeconomic disadvantage. Indeed, the academy is deterred from taking up just this intersection of whiteness with socioeconomic disadvantage for fear that doing so will detract from the very grave problems of racial disadvantage and racial discrimination experienced by nonwhites. Yet when we ignore class-based disadvantage — as when we ignore race-based disadvantage — we avoid an uncomfortable but critical conversation about authentic meritocracy. Ignoring the intersection of class disadvantage with white privilege also permits us to avoid confronting long-standing, intra-racial elite biases against poor and working-class whites.

The second theoretical contribution of the Article — written for a collection about the persistence of gender discrimination in the academy — regards the ways in which gender mediates the white class migration experience in the context of legal academia. In particular, the author discusses three junctures when the intersection of gender and class have particular implications for academic careers. These are mentoring, physical appearance, and life partnerships.

Finally, the author identifies several reasons why the legal academy needs the distinctive perspectives of class migrants. First, class migrants have become rarer among the professoriate in recent years because of heightened elitism in law faculty hiring during an era when low-income students are in shorter supply than ever in the prestigious colleges, universities, and law schools that bestow the requisite credentials. Second, the wider trend of diminishing upward mobility not only weighs on our national psyche, it has serious implications for our nation’s economic well-being due to this failure to optimize raw human capital of all colors. This situation renders the perspectives and insights of all class migrants more valuable than ever because they have first-hand experience with the upward mobility journey that we should be fostering, and which we support in principle. Furthermore, class migrants can serve as role models and mentors for students in the midst of that process. Third, the author argues that poor and working-class whites are both key stakeholders and key informants in our quest for racial progress, although their perspectives are seldom heard in the academy. We rarely talk about low-SES whites; we talk to them even less frequently.

One way to begin to draw in those particular white perspectives is through the inclusion of class migrants in the law professoriate. That inclusion should also endow future generations of lawyers with a greater class consciousness that will serve the interests of all races and ethnicities in wider society. In faculty composition as in myriad other contexts, the author implores us to move beyond the impasse of thinking we must address only racial disadvantage or only class disadvantage and to grapple with both at their myriad intersections.

Keywords: socioeconomic, socioeconomic status (SES), poverty, working class, class, diversity, affirmative action, higher education, professoriate, legal academy, legal profession, critical race theory, whiteness, whiteness studies

Suggested Citation

Pruitt, Lisa R., Who's Afraid of White Class Migrants? On Denial, Discrediting, and Disdain (and Toward a Richer Conception of Diversity) (August 28, 2015). Columbia Journal of Gender and Law, Vol. 31, 2015, UC Davis Legal Studies Research Paper No. 450, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2652924

Lisa R. Pruitt (Contact Author)

University of California, Davis - School of Law ( email )

Martin Luther King, Jr. Hall
Davis, CA CA 95616-5201
United States

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