Where Race and Class Unite? Part One

Where is our Holy Church? Where race and class unite.” When these lines appear in our hymnal there’s a question mark after the words “Holy Church.” “Where race and class unite…” is offered as a response to the question. Perhaps that question mark is misplaced. Or maybe those words should be offered as a vision or goal we’ve not yet reached but still aspire to—be it in our UU congregations or in society at large. It’s not an easy topic, but one we can ill afford to ignore on either level.

As I prepared for today I realized that I was trying to cover too much ground in a single sermon. To speak to the intersection of class and race in our society at large, and how that dynamic continues to play out; and then bring the matter home to class concerns in our UU congregations was too much to bite off in one chew. So, we’re going with “two chews” instead. Today I’ll speak to the larger historical, societal, and cultural issues I see that have to do with class and race; and then—two weeks from today—we’ll revisit the subject in a more in-house matter. And I urge as many of you as can to come to our follow-up workshop on the subject after the service today.

There are two texts I’ll draw on for this Sunday. They are, first, a rather academic treatment of the topic by Dr. Nancy Isenberg, published just a little over a year ago in a book called “White Trash: The 400 Year Untold History of Class in America.” Personally I wished she’d got with a different lead title, but that wasn’t my call and does not detract from the worthiness of the book itself. Then, there’s a more anecdotal treatment of essentially the same topic offered by Barbara Ehrenreich in her book Nickel and Dimed—On Not Getting By in America.

For the second installment, two weeks from today, I’ll draw an in-house publication that came out last summer from our Unitarian Universalist Association’s Commission on Appraisal called Class Action—The Challenge of Class in our UU Congregations.

So, for now: Dr. Isenberg is a Professor of History at Louisiana State University. I can only give you the view from 30,000 feet of her book today. She points out that while the mythos of America is that the earliest white settlers came here for such noble reasons as religious freedom and to seek new opportunities for themselves (true, but only up to a point), the earliest British colonizers also saw the “New World” as a place to unload what they considered to be “human waste” such as those regarded as idle, indigent, or criminal.

Alongside, then, the importation of African slaves we also had a largely white segment of the population that came to constitute a permanent underclass who lived on the margins of white society. As one reviewer of the book accurately put it: “The process of shunting outsiders to the nation’s margins, Isenberg argues, continued in the early Republic and into the 19th century, when landless white settlers began to fill in the back country of Appalachia and the swamps of the lowland South, living in lowly cabins, dreaming of land ownership, but mostly toiling as exploited tenant farmers or itinerant laborers.”

The racial piece that comes into play here is that one way these marginalized and exploited whites were kept more or less contained or pacified was telling them that at least you’re not a black slave; and after slavery had ended, one of the ways these whites held onto some piece of a positive identity was in the knowledge that “at least we’re not (n—words)”. This is really part of an age-old, and near universal human phenomenon—a very unfortunate one—of needing some person or group who’s a little further down the ladder than you are in order to maintain some kind of a positive identity for yourself.

In making her point Isenberg quotes President Lyndon Johnson, who speaking in the vernacular of his time, observed: “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”

There is a cruel irony here. It is that “sea of white supremacy” to which we’re referred in earlier services that perpetuates the mind-set Johnson describes—while that same sea also hides or masks the exploitation and manipulation of many poor white persons.

This is as much as I can do with Dr. Isenberg for now. I hope we can continue this conversation in our second hour.

What Dr. Isenberg treats in an academic, and wide ranging historical way, the political commentator, activist, and author Barbara Ehrenreich treats in a much more up-close-and-personal way in her book Nickel and Dimed with the subtitle “On Not Getting By in America.” She doesn’t come at the racial angle in a direct way, but it’s still there in more subtle ways.

Ms. Ehrenreich (she has an earned doctorate but doesn’t fly that flag too high) traces her political awakening and subsequent activism to a very personal experience when she gave birth to a daughter in a New York City public health clinic in 1970: “I was the only white person in the clinic. They induced my labor because it was late in the evening and the doctor wanted to go home. I was enraged. The experience made me a feminist.” So, as I say, while race does not have a lot of prominence in her book, it was her exposure to a form of racism that served as a consciousness raiser for Ms. Ehrenreich, and made her the strong activist and political commentator she went on to be.

It was with her labor activist hat on, then, that Ms. Ehrenreich wrote Nickel and Dimed. She wanted to explore how possible, or not, it was to survive in America on bare bones, minimum wage (at best) labor. The answer she got was “just barely, if at all.” Her “research,” so to speak, was to divest herself of her upper middle class supports and privileges, and go to work at those bare-bones jobs. She allowed herself just enough start-up money to get herself settled in very low rent, sometimes cheap residence motel, settings, and then took whatever jobs she could find that would keep her going.

While the book was written in the late 1990s—a supposedly boom era for many Americans—that boom never quite made it into settings, and jobs, where she found herself. And if you adjust the financial figures she cites as to what she was able to earn, and what she had to pay to eat and have a bed to sleep in, to what they would mean today, her book is as relevant as ever.

Ms. Ehrenreich went to three locales. She held two jobs in the Miami area as a waitress and motel housecleaner. Then she moved up to our neck of the woods where she found an off-season rental at Old Orchard Beach, Maine and worked for a “Merry Maids” cleaning service. Her third and final stop was in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area where she worked at a Wal-Mart.

The core of the book is about the jobs she held—with their many stresses, strains, and indignities—and, much more poignantly, about the people she worked with. That was the most gripping part for me. Part of it may have been because I was raised in a setting that was only steps further up the economic ladder than the ones she describes. But the stories she told of the lives and times of the people she met and worked with is what stayed with me. None of them were completely homeless or hungry, but were still just making it on the edge of survival. They were the latest version of that permanent underclass that his existed in one form or another from this nation’s earliest days.

Those stories by themselves would fill up a sermon and then some. I’ll keep it to one. One of the Merry Maids with whom Ms. Ehrenreich worked tripped in a hole on the way into a house they were cleaning and severely sprained her ankle. Her name was Holly. Holly absolutely refused a trip to the hospital or to even stop working for fear of losing her job; and even if she didn’t lose the job, she could not afford to lose the money she would have lost by having even a few days off to heal. As Ehrenreich put it: “(Holly is) going to keep going until you pry the last cleaning rag from her cold, dead hands…she’s made that clear enough.”

The binding theme of stories in this book is that few, if any, of the people in it saw any realistic way out of the situations they were in. They had survival jobs without being able to see beyond them. “I can’t get out, and who cares?” seemed to be the ongoing refrain in their lives.

In wondering how we got to this point, I could not help but think of my own cultural background and journey. Some of it I’ve offered previously, so bear with me for the parts you may have already heard. My father was a product of that “back country of Appalachia” referred to earlier. His formal education, which he got in a couple of one-room school houses, went to the eighth grade. He was a self-employed house painter.

When I was ten years old (1955), my Dad somehow scraped together enough money to make a down payment on a house in the West Virginia town where we lived. The house was a pre-fab duplex. The six of us—my mother, father, three sisters, and I—squeezed into one side of the duplex so we could rent out the other side to help make the mortgage payments. Several years later Dad was able to purchase a larger and more accommodating house where he and my mother, and for a time, my younger sisters, lived.

By the time of that move I’d gone off to college. Yes, I could go to college. With what little help my parents could afford, along with some very modest scholarship support, and an on-campus job, I was able to finance a college education and graduate debt free; and then go on to theological school. My sisters all followed suit. They didn’t all go to a seminary (although one did) but we all did make it to college and beyond.

I thought about that as I read Ms. Ehrenreich’s book. As I said, my family was just a few notches up the economic ladder from the people she writes about. And yet at that time those few extra notches helped make it possible for a person of my father’s station in life to purchase a modest house. And there were ways for his kids to go to college. As tough as things got at times, we could still see a way forward. We could still see options and possibilities for ourselves.

I’m not enough of a student or historian of the social, economic, and political trends and machinations of the past 40-50 years to analyze their effect on the working-class population of our country in any really competent way—and it would probably glaze your eyes over if I could. But I do know that some of the doors that were open to persons who grew up in the kind of setting that I did, and at the time as I did, do not appear to open nearly as wide now as they did then.

That was what came through for me in the Ehrenreich book, and, more recently, in J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. Each of them point to a kind of desperation and near hopelessness on the part of some the people they write about; people who don’t see a way out—in the way that I could. And when one feels trapped in a socio-economic box, and with the battered kind of personal identity that such a trap brings—as in “I don’t count for much”, it’s easy to look for people to blame—like immigrants or persons of color, or “liberals” in general, or purveyors of political correctness, or GLBTQ folks, or whatever the “scapegoat du jour” may be. It’s easier to look for scapegoats while not seeing some of the larger socio-economic forces that are holding you down, and in Lyndon Johnson’s words, “picking your pocket.”

As I’ve said before, probably to the point of ad nauseum by now, the outcome of our last Presidential election cannot be reduced to any one single factor. And it would be dishonest of me to lump all the persons I’ve been speaking about into a single voting bloc. I know that’s not the case. That said, it’s still worth noting that when someone comes along, however well-heeled he himself may be, and attacks those same scapegoats that you’re angry about, and says he’ll make you “great again”, then you may well vote for him if only for the satisfaction of making a gesture of defiance at all that angers you, and all that you feel—however mistakenly—is detracting from your identity, whether your vote actually enhances your life in any way or not. I offer that as one piece of a larger puzzle—that piece being the exploitation and manipulation of class.

I have one more place to go before finishing. It has to do with the intersection of class and race. It too comes from my family story. It’s not an easy one for me to tell, but it does bear on our topic. I’m back to my father again. He was a very decent, hard-working, strongly religious man who loved his family and did a lot of back-breaking work in order to support and care for them. And his worldview, as noted, was shaped by the pre-World War II, white, rural Appalachian culture. One of the tenets he carried forth from that setting was that there were certain limits to how much interaction was proper between whites and African-Americans. He was not an out-and-out segregationist. He had no problem with me and my sisters going to racially integrated schools, for example, as long as we returned to our white neighborhoods when school was out. But there were clear limits, in his mind, as to how much personal interaction was and was not proper between whites and blacks.

When my oldest younger sister, Rose, and I were attending the same seminary she met eventually became engaged to, one of the African-American students there. They both ended up as UU ministers and will celebrate 50 years of marriage in a couple of years. Their wedding was a very joyous occasion, held at our seminary. My father did not attend the wedding. He would not accept my sister’s choice of a husband.

As angry as I became with my father, my larger emotion was one of sadness. Sadness that the class and cultural blinders he was wearing, while scarcely being aware of them, were alienating him from his own daughter. It was one of the few times in my life that I found myself telling my father he was flat-out wrong; and, further, that I hoped he wasn’t forcing me to choose between him and my sister, because I knew which way I’d have to go.

The good news is that I did not have to make that choice. In time—a rather short time as it turned out—Dad came to see that his relationship with his daughter, and, yes, her husband and his son-in-law, were more important to him than the racial attitudes he’d been carrying throughout his life. A few years later, when Rose and Mel gave birth to a daughter, my father got to hold her. She was the only one of his grandchild he would ever see. He died a few months later.

What gives me hope, as I think back on all this from over 40 years out, is that attitudes and assumptions can be challenged and even changed, especially when something comes along that forces one to face them head-on. It was, in fact, facing a challenge head-on in our UU Association last spring that prompted the explorations of what white supremacy means, and how unrecognized attitudes about class can play out in our midst. I’ve seen enough transformation along these lines take place in various settings, to know that it is possible.

In closing, the people Dr. Isenberg and Ms. Ehrenreich write about are often invisible to us—unseen and unheard, and often feeling neglected. Knowing how those feelings of neglect can be exploited and manipulated, we would do well ourselves to try to hear “through the roar, through the rush, through the throng, through the crush…” These words are in our closing song. Let’s sing it together.

Rev. Steve Edington
October 1, 2017

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