David Brook’s December 2 column in the New York Times arguing that classism, not racism, is what really ails our nation came off as one of the more racially tone-deaf commentaries so far on events in Ferguson. What must it feel like for an African-American to take in Brooks’s examination of 21st century class differences by means of a description of 19th century conditions in Britain: “The people who lived in these slums were often described as more like animals than human beings. For example, in an 1889 essay in The Palace Journal, Arthur Morrison described, “Dark, silent, uneasy shadows passing and crossing — human vermin in this reeking sink, like goblin exhalations from all that is noxious around. Women with sunken, black-rimmed eyes, whose pallid faces appear and vanish by the light of an occasional gas lamp, and look so like ill-covered skulls that we start at their stare. ‘Proper’ people of that era had both a disgust and fascination for those who lived in these untouchable realms. They went slumming into the poor neighborhoods, a sort of poverty tourism that is the equivalent of today’s reality TV or the brawlers that appear on ‘The Jerry Springer Show.’”
To be fair, later in the column it becomes clear that Brooks doesn’t buy this as a valid comparison with our own times. But that begs the question, why did he attempt it? Not only does it come across as grossly racist, but also he is grossly mistaken to assume that class not race explains the divide in our country between white and black. Most if not all of the latent classism in our country originates in the kind of institutionalized racism that the tragedy of Ferguson has brought into sharp relief.
I know a little more than I want to about Brooks’s tone-deafness because I happen to be a privileged white who attended elite schools and colleges. I cringe when I look back at my experience at Princeton in the late 1950s: my class (in the sense of the year I graduated, but the other meaning works too) included one African-American, and we were served daily in our dining commons by young black waiters in white coats whose service we took so completely for granted that their invisibility to us future Masters of the Universe was total. I remember attending a party in Princeton where a distinguished alum had recently returned from a diplomatic posting in an African country. His jolly, oblivious stereotyping of the native peoples where he had served was such a Faulknerian caricature that it would have been laughable if it hadn’t felt so sad and dangerous. I also recall slowly awakening to the challenge of making connections across the divide of our racially split culture when I read John Howard Griffin’s classic “Black Like Me,” published in 1961, a year before I graduated. Griffin, a white, worked with a doctor to chemically darken his skin and immersed himself in a six-week voyage through the Deep South. The strain of the terror and deprivation he endured simply surviving as a black man brought him close to breakdown. White people six decades later could do worse than take another look at Griffin’s harrowing tale as a way to learn what it means to be on the receiving end of both passive stares of exclusionary indifference and active stares of hate and fear.
What happened between Darren Wilson and Michael Brown is just one incident among so many that exhibit to the world a toxic mix of deep structural racism and the casual escalation of violence as a “solution” to conflict. Racism shades into every aspect of American life, including the patronizing and obstructive attitude of many in the Congress toward the President, clearly to them a black man who is too confidently sassy and “uppity” to know his place. It even extends to our international policies, where violence toward others of swarthier skin and alien creed is more often the first resort than the last. Tragically and ironically, it therefore implicates our own first African-American president in the murderous, too-rapidly-escalating, international-law-violating vengefulness that motivates our endless “war on terror,” as our political Masters of the Universe join the headlong rush to create enemies faster than we can kill them.
A single statistic utterly gives the lie to the idea that change is impossible in our country: Darren Wilson fired more shots into Michael Brown than the entire police in England and Wales fired at people in 2013.