A timely article in the Sunday edition of the New York Times highlights the class/race issue through a discussion of Obama's thoughts on affirmative action. We can frame the issue as a question that may be more challenging than it first appears: Would it be appropriate for Senator Obama's daughters to benefit from affirmative action?
The question can also be framed like this: At what point do inequalities in society become more about class than race? And this question was poignantly raised several years ago during the making of Dare Not Walk Alone. The question naturally arises when the film surveys the current living conditions of some African Americans in a town where one of the great battles of the civil rights movement was fought and supposedly won. And the issue was addressed directly by Dr. Todd Boyd, Professor of Critical Studies at USC, speaking in the film:
"In this generation you have a lot of African Americans who have come up economically. A lot of black people have been assimilated in the society at large. A lot of other people have not. I think the point is, at a certain time it becomes as much about class as it does about race. Now you can’t divorce the fact that being poor and black is worse than being just poor but the poverty component of it is real."
In other words, over the last fifty years the lines have been redrawn. Almost without exception, to be black in 1958 was to be poor. There were also poor white folk in 1958, but being white did not equal being poor. In 2008, to be black is not to be automatically poor. But to be black still means finding yourself subject to institutionalized racism, and probably more so if you are poor and black than if you are black and affluent (although driving an expensive car while being black still seems to be regarded, at least in some parts of the country, as grounds for suspicion).
These words of Dr. Boyd can create something of an acid test of attitudes: being poor and black is worse than being just poor. Some people will balk at that statement. Of course, we think it's hard to watch Dare Not Walk Alone or spend time with black friends and then disagree with it. But the challenge facing Barack Obama, or anyone who wants to tackle the social and economic ills and inequalities of our time, is to walk that delicate path to the common ground where can work on solutions together, poor and affluent, black and white, male and female, and whatever other distinction you want to draw. For as Dr. King said, 40 years ago:
"There is nothing more dangerous than to build a society, with a large segment of people who feel that they have no stake in it, who feel they have nothing to lose."