Saturday, March 25, 2006

Got Class?

assalamu alaikum


Please go read Lani Guinier's article in Dollars and Sense. Thanks go to BlackFeminism for posting the link first.

The article deserves to be read. More than that, though, masha'Allah, it ties into a book I've been reading since I came back from Boston. The book is Our Kind of People by Lawrence Otis Graham. It talks about the Black Upper Class in the United States, and the schools and institutions etc. associated with it- why Black people can be successful, but if they don't have a certain background, they aren't a part of that old school, our-kind-of-people, Black Upper Class.

As I mentioned earlier, I stayed with a childhood friend while I was in Boston. We go back to middle school, ended up living in the same neighborhood (our parents still live not one mile apart back in Ohio), went to the same high school but not at the same time ( I transferred out and ended up at my alma mater), and both participated in an internship program right out of high school at a certain Fortune 50 most admired company (hint: tis in the top ten).

We're both Black and female and raised with middle-class (or upper-middle-class) sensibilities and institutions if not middle-class money, and have as close a background as possible without actually trying, in terms of education and early employment experiences.

I'm getting to the tie between the article and the book and us bwic's. Gimme a sec. I feel like this is something important I'm writing, like I used to write my papers back in undergrad, so I want to get this right.

Ms. Guinier brings up the point that after the civil rights movement, and in the lastest efforts to be rid of affirmative action, schools are actually putting those of lower classes at a disadvantage; further, they're pitting race against class and financial status instead of using both together to cut the advantage of the rich over the lower classes in terms of academic preparation. What she's saying, in fact, is that what is called 'merit' by schools and those who espouse meritocracy (that being success and advancement based on ability and effort) is actually the result and parallel of class; that it actually is aristocracy in disguise.

Here's an excerpt (emphasis mine):
LG: Harvard University did a study based on thirty Harvard graduates over a thirty-year period. They wanted to know which students were most likely to exemplify the things that Harvard values most: doing well financially, having a satisfying career and contributing to society (especially in the form of donating to Harvard). The two variables that most predicted which students would achieve these criteria were low SAT scores and a blue-collar background.

That study was followed by one at the University of Michigan Law School that found that those most likely to do well financially, maintain a satisfying career, and contribute to society, were black and Latino students who were admitted pursuant to Affirmative Action. Conversely, those with the highest LSAT scores were the least likely to mentor younger attorneys, do pro-bono work, sit on community boards, etc.

So, the use of these so called "measures of merit" like standardized tests is backfiring on our institutions of higher learning and blocking the road to a more democratic society.

Now, while I was blown away by the fact that I actually read those words in print "Ooh! Somebody's blowin'up those rich white folks' spot, y'all")x, I was not actually surprised by what they were saying. Why? Because being Black and of a certain class, I thought,"I already knew that".

I was indoctrinated as a child into Black upper-class society by way of my grandparents in Tuskegee, AL, and later through church and other functions as a teen. I was a Delta Sigma Theta debutante in a major mid-western city (read the book and you'll know that puts me in a certain box). It's not something I shout about normally, but it IS an experience that I feel is very special. My upbringing gives me a certain status that I didn't know I had until I read that book and then understood certain reactions I got in high school and undergrad.

If anything, though, my indoctrination was incomplete: I wanted to be in Jack and Jill, and my parents wouldn't let me. I wonder (still) why my grandmother wasn't an AKA (be-lieve me, she's got the attitude and status right) or a Link. I think she didn't pass the paper bag test, maybe. Now that I understand the attitudes behind these groups and their status, I'm of a mixed opinion as to their worth. Mixed, because even though I don't pursue that kind of elitisim intentionally, I know instinctively that I'd flourish at that level. An uncomfortable revelation, you see.

It does bring me face to face with that realization I made in the back of my mind while reading Mr. Graham's book: I'm not super-affluent, but upper class. (I'm actually broke, but the more I read and look around me, the more I realize that that's probably a temporary thing...) I don't pass the paper-bag test, but I fit right in in terms of my attitudes (well, the whole religious choice and subsequent hairstyle choice notwithstanding) and the institutions I believe in. My struggle with the decision to go to Columbia U for grad school makes sense in the context of the society depicted in the book; one that has always had access to Ivy League and other highly-regarded and affluent educational institutions. I wasn't getting the support I wanted and felt was merited by my acceptance at the school. And now I know that's because my family makes a point to eschew 'boogie' groups and class orientation, even though it's kind of where they belong. No wonder they aren't going to cheer when I make a choice for something they'd think of as 'boogie' even if that isn't the reason for it. No wonder I feel, not an active discouragement, but just a lack of support (which can be worse, in some ways).

I mean, they actively have to keep from participating in these organizations. The other day my aunt asked me to babysit my cousins so that she and my uncle could attend a Links ball; at the time I was halfway through Mr. Graham's book, and said, "Oh, yeah! I wanted to ask you if you were in the Links." and my aunt looked at me sideways and asked, "WHY would you think I'd be a Link, Twenny?" Like she'd be allll upset if I came with the wrong answer.

I answered with the truth: "Because... I associate you with high class, and education, and Black folks being successful and associated with the right places. And that's what the Links are about."

But anyway, part of that indoctrination into Black Upper Class, good or bad, is the knowledge of our privilege: we know the right people and we're raised with the right manners and expectations. So I know that 'meritocracy' is a myth (or fast becoming one), and I know that the need for assurance of lower-class, underrepresented applicant entrance to high-quality schools is key. I could see both sides of the affirmative action debate, and instinctively know what was wrong with that particular institution, though I thank Ms. Guinier for putting it to words. I also know that I never worried about affirmative action on a personal level; I don't need it- I'm one of the lucky Black people who have the background that makes it unnecessary, whether or not I actually benefit from it.

I know that low class is low class, lower-class is lower-class, no matter what color you are. I've known for a great while that education and money are both passed down through generations in this country, that one follows the other, and that what is called 'talent' can be trained and bought with the right connections. That the right bloodline and class can be its own currency. Nothin' new about that.

And I know that it would benefit others of my race to have class become a criteria of educational admissions (among other things), because of the huge (but not all-encompassing) connection in this country between brownness and poverty, to put it bluntly- the darker the poorer. But the fact that it'd benefit the group of people who aren't dark and are poor- that's what many people and places don't want to get out. And I understand, though I disagree and will probably spend my days fighting against the reality and the effects of the downward opposition exerted by the wealthy and affluent, older, white classes. Self-preservation has always been an excuse for the maintenance of opression.

Just something I've been thinking about.


1 comment:

  1. Salaam 'Alaikum

    Interesting post. I keep saying I'm going to write about class, but I don't know where to start and what my point is.

    Unrelated: why is the part where your text goes surrounded by a big red border?