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  • Writer's pictureMonica Harris

The Elephant In The Room Is Class, Not Race

Updated: May 30, 2023

The greatest danger black people face isn't racism, but the fact that white people are swamping our leaky boat at a frightening pace

January 4, 2019

There’s an elephant in America’s living room.

Outraged cable TV pundit panelists and professional activists pretend not to see it. Candidates won’t even glance in its direction during stump speeches. But the rest of us know it’s there, because it’s the biggest damn thing in the room now.

The elephant is class.

So why don’t we talk about it? Because class has taken a back seat to the hot-button issue that now dominates the news cycle and political chatter: race. But does race really matter more than class in America today?

Black In America: We’ve Come A Long Way, Baby

Let me start by saying that I’ve been black for 52 long years. And I want to be very clear: most of the trip has been rough. Damnrough.

When you’re born black, you quickly realize you’re stuck in a leaky boat with a broken paddle, adrift at sea, with no map or compass. Decades of life in a leaky boat has left indelible scars on my community: the rate of home ownership for blacks has remained virtually unchanged in 50 years, we’re still vastly underrepresented at the country’s top colleges and universities, and the percentage of incarcerated black males has nearly tripled in the past 50 years.

Racism has also been an integral part of my black experience. I’ve endured prejudice throughout my life, in schools and in the workplace, in boutiques, gyms and restaurants. The costs and liabilities of being black have always been steep and painful for me.

Yet against this grim backdrop, I and many other black people have slowly seen our lives improve in meaningful ways over the past few decades. Because somewhere along the way, being black became…well, a little less scary. A little easier. No, notnearly as easy as it’s been for our white friends and colleagues. But easier, nonetheless.

I’m a member of the post-Civil Rights black generation born in the ’60s, the children of pioneers who waged war on our behalf. We didn’t expect special treatment from a white majority; we were just hopeful and thankful for equal treatment. Ours was the first generation to abandon segregated schools, buses and theatres. We took wobbly, nascent steps into classrooms and offices that our parents and grandparents weren’t allowed to set foot in decades earlier. The transition wasn’t easy; at times it was confusing, painful and even harrowing. And like any evolutionary process, progress was slow.

But in my lifetime, black Americans have seen doors open — not just a crack, but quite a few inches. Fifty years after marching through streets for basic civil rights, Oprah Winfrey and Robert F. Smith erected empires that made them billionaires, and celebrities such as Sean “Puffy” Combs, Michael Jordan and Jay-Z are among the most influential and wealthy cultural icons in America.

Does anyone remember that white America elected a black president — not once, but twice?

Blacks have also left their mark in political history: a black woman was appointed as national security adviser, a black man served as Secretary of State, and one black woman served as both.

And let’s not forget that Barack Obama nabbed the biggest prize of all: a black man was elected leader of the “free” world — not once, but TWICE (with the help of 43% of white voters, btw). The social landscape has also shifted dramatically. 63 years ago, Emmett Till was lynched in Mississippi for allegedly flirting with a white woman, but today inter-racial dating isn’t a BFD. Heck, it’s even coolto sleep with black people (so cool, in fact, that nearly one out of every five marriages in the U.S. today is mixed race).

Does this mean I’m thrilled about our current location on the evolutionary map? Of course not. Because when I look around me, I see there’s still somuch more work to be done. I see black communities gripped in poverty, crime and neglect; I see a pervasive culture of broken families and homes; I see stubborn pockets of racism and ignorance.

But when I look in the rearview mirror, it’s also impossible for me not to appreciate just how freaking far we’ve come.

And when I look around me…I can’t help but notice something else: our leaky boat is filling up with new passengers. They don’t look like us. And they seem confused as hell, because they have no clue how they got here.

When White Privilege Goes M.I.A.

The reality is that the overwhelming majority of Americans of ALL colors are now fighting to survive at sea, without a map or compass. In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson’s administration released a controversial report entitled “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action” detailing how high rates of divorce, unwed childbearing, and single motherhood were destroying black families and creating a culture-of-poverty.

Today, the the culture-of-poverty crisis is spreading, but not in the way most people expected; it’s now overtaking wide swaths of white communities.

In 2000, the percentage of white children living with a single parent was 22%, identical to the percentage of black children living with a single parent in 1960. According to the Brookings Institution, for younger white women without a college degree, unwed childbearing is now “the new normal.” The gap between the unemployment rate for blacks and whites has narrowed to just 3%. And while the mortality rate for middle-aged black men and Latinos is falling, middle-aged white men are dying in increasing numbers due to drugs, suicide, depression, despair, mental health issues, and inability to work.

These are the “privileged” deplorables who perked up when Trump called out to them.

I’ve gotten an up-close-and-personal look at vanishing white privilege since moving to Montana 11 years ago, where obscene wealth and obscene poverty sit side-by-side. The 10,000 sq. ft. vacation homes of Hollywood celebrities and Silicone Valley billionaires lace the shores of Flathead Lake, while double-wide trailers lay hidden in the woods nearby filled with families who hunt so they can shave dollars off their grocery bill.

Our son attends the Bigfork elementary school, where the student body is 93% white. Meals in the school cafeteria cost $2.50, yet 37% percent of students need government assistance to pay the tab. Thankfully, my partner and I are still able to send our son to class every day with an organic, homemade lunch to “set him up for success.” The irony is that he is one of only four black kids in the school, but he leads a life of greater privilege than 90% of his white peers.

It’s a privilege born of what matters most in this country now: class.

Bigfork’s high school boasts a graduation rate of 87%, although less than 23% attend college. The vast majority of graduates get an entry level job in the “booming” service sector, working at fast food restaurants, cleaning vacation homes or performing odd jobs. The rate of prescription drug use among teens in a state that’s almost entirely white is the third highest in the nation. Because people, regardless of skin color, desperately crave escape when they lose hope.

This is the America we live in now.

Politicians dance around this issue during in stump speeches and pundits gloss over it when they feign concern about the middle class. But the reality is that the boat carrying the vast majority of Americans of ALL colors is sinking fast. And life jackets are now in seriously short supply.

The mortality rate for black men and Latinos is falling, but white men are dying in increasing numbers due to drugs, suicide, and inability to work.

Yet as new holes appear in the floorboards of our boat, the only passengers allowed to voice concern about our situation are the leaky boat’s original occupants: the pigmented 13%. The new arrivals are supposed to sit tight, suppress their survival instincts, and focus on attending to the passengers who grabbed seats first.

And somewhere in the distance, safe and dry, the sneaky crew that ditched all of us and took our lifeboats is yelling. They’re hoping we don’t have the strength or wits to paddle to shore, that they won’t be held accountable for their treachery. Can you hear them? Baiting us into fighting each other. Cajoling us into drawing straws to see who gets thrown overboard first. Begging us to focus on the only thing that “separates” us now: our race.

Just to be clear, I’m notsaying racism doesn’t exist or that it’s not a problem, or that there aren’t still some ignorant knuckledraggers among us. What I’m saying is that racism isn’t nearly as prevalent as it used to be, and the knuckledgraggers are not as numerous as they once were. Race-related police homicides may seem like an epidemic today, until we take a deep dive into the numbers: in 2015, 36 unarmed black men were killed by police, out of more than 21 million black men in the U.S. But in 2016, that number fell by 50% to 18.

And so far in 2018? That number stands at 8.

If we watch breaking news on CNN, we might think hate crimes are sweeping the nation. But once again, the numbers tell a different story: in 2000, 9,430 hate crimes were committed in the U.S. out of a population of 281 million people.

In 2016, that number dropped to 6,121,even though the population soared to nearly 328 million people. Has that number increased since Trump took office? Yes. It jumped 4–1/2%. But when we pull focus and look at the Big Picture, we still see the generational trend towards hate crimes is downsignificantly, not up.

My point is that while racism remains a serious problem, we need to put it into perspective. In more ways than not, America hasn’t become a more dangerous and less tolerant place for most people of color; it’s actually become a saferand more tolerant place.

So if we believe racist knuckledraggers are lurking under every MAGA hat and behind every Starbucks counter simply because those stories dominate the headlines, then we’re missing the Big Picture. We need to step back and ask ourselves: “Is this my world? How often do I actually see people treat each other differently because of their race?”

We’re All In This Leaky Boat Together

Contrary to what we may hear in the media, the greatest danger facing black people today isn’t racism, but the fact that white people are swamping our leaky boat at a frightening pace. And black America should be very concerned about what’s happening to these people, if for no reason other than self-interest: this boat is clearly reaching its maximum carrying capacity, and it won’t be long before it slips under the waves.

And when that happens, black people are going down with the white people they’re being taught to fear.

The smarmy crew onshore is screaming louder than ever now as we take on more water, desperately trying to keep us from seeing the obvious: we’re all in this leaky boat together. So as we fight for survival in the final minutes, it’s worth asking ourselves whether it makes more sense to argue about who gets the better seat on this sinking boat, or whether we should focus on plugging the gaping leaks so we ALL have a better shot at surviving.

The choice is ours, and time is running out.

It’s time to end the illusion of division.

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