Classism is the new acceptable discrimination. It’s a phenomenon I met while growing up poor and continually saw in the physical facts of life—food, clothing, housing, transportation, acne treatments and braces—all were allocated by class. Generally, so were the emotional/social facts of life: respect, admiration, popularity, participation in plays and expensive sports—those were, by and large, the enclaves of the wealthy.
At the community college where I teach now, I hear stories of classism on a regular basis:
• One student recalls being a cleaner at a place where, as a mere worker, she wasn’t allowed to use the better, “office people’s” bathroom. As long as she and the other employees were of the same race, however, there was no basis for complaint, right? Of course, low-level workers should have crappy bathrooms. Of course, executives should have bigger, better facilities and vastly more compensation, vacation, and health insurance. It’s a given, a circular argument, a situation justified by its definition.
• Another student remembers cruising and partying late one night with a friend, driving around in a high-end, luxury car. They were pursued on the highway by a tattooed guy in a beater who opened his window and said, “You think you’re cool just because you have a nice car?” He kept pursuing, yelling, “Pull over. Park the car.” The student’s friend said, “Guys like that are pathetic. Their lives are going nowhere.” He reached into his glove compartment, got out a gun, and shot the tattooed guy through the open window. Then he peeled away. The wealthier guy was Latino; the poor guy was Vietnamese. We don’t know if the wealthy folks would have met violence, but we do know the justification for the shooting: Death penalty for losers.
• In April, Newsweek featured a story, “The Devil in Deryl Dedmon,” about some young guys in Brandon, Mississippi who went to a nearby poor neighborhood and beat a 47-year-old man and then ran over him, killing him. Yes, the young guys were white, the 47-year-old black, but complicating the picture was the multi-racial lives of the youth. Their black friends from school, also from the “nicer” town, defended them strongly as not racist. Their targets were from Jackson, the poor town, which they called “Jafrica” and “a zoo.” Yes, they used the “N-word” but only against black people they judged as “lowlifes.” “White, black, red, or yellow, what I’m prejudiced against is stupidity,” said a friend of Dedmon’s. The writer noted that when the school sports teams played, parents sat in the bleachers segregated not only by race, but also by class. The younger generation, however, was multi-racial, though apparently not multi-class. On the surface, what a wonderful success for “diversity.”
Because in the white American mind, blackness and to some extent Latin-Americanness are often conflated with crime and poverty, classism can be a thin cover for racism, but isn’t it curious how justifiable class prejudice is? Hardly anyone will openly claim racial prejudice, but to express scorn and contempt for “losers”? It’s an everyday occurrence.
Lita Kurth grew up in rural poverty in Northern Wisconsin, but excellent public schools, low tuition, and a modicum of financial aid allowed her to attend college (University of Wisconsin). Starting out as an historian at UC Berkeley, she switched gears, working as a fund raising researcher and grant proposal writer until returning to get a degree in English Composition (San Francisco State) followed by an MFA in creative writing (Pacific Lutheran Rainier Writers Workshop). She has taught at numerous colleges and universities and currently teaches part-time at De Anza College, retaining a passionate interest in the suffering and injustice that still exists in the lives of poor and working class people, as well as other justice issues. She has published essays, reviews, stories, and poems, and is at work on a novel, The Rosa Luxemburg Exotic Dance Collective.