Occasional musings, Geistesblitze, photos, drawings etc. by a "resident alien", who has landed on American soil from a far-away planet called "Germany".

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

On race and class relations

A reader posted a comment about the Crowley/Gates case, and I want to expand the topic somewhat...see my response.

The thread now has drifted to the politics of resentment, a topic I find fascinating as it took me a long time to realize the degree to which resentment permeates perceptions and politics in the US. (8/19)


ArtLvr said...
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ArtLvr said...

We were talking about compulsions earlier - Palin, etc. Well, I had my own take on the current flap over the policeman and the Harvard prof, as a clash of egos compounded by a cultural divide.

I got the same puzzling non-answer from a prof at Howard U. years ago. When I politely asked if I could audit a course of his in the medical school, he said "Who am I? Do you know who I am?" over and over. Confused, I said I didn't understand, and then he angrily said "I'm speaking English, aren't I? Are you jiving me?" It turned out that he wanted his title of "Professor" repeated by me in my every utterance. Though I was married to a professor (also chair of two departments) at a nearby university), it was totallly beyond me what he was driving at -- different language and culture.

Poor Sgt. Crowley wrote in his unfortunate citation that he got the same treatment from Prof. Gates, and I saw immediately how much more intolerable it was for him in a male/male and policeman/civilian situation, never mind race or social class!

Ulrich said...

Here are some thoughts in increasing order of generality:

@artlvr: I can remember at least two white guys who also insisted on being called "Professor"--goes to show that being a jerk cuts across races.

The, often acrimonious, discussion following the incident in Cambridge, combined with the increase in racist attacks on Obama from the right, suggest, to me, that the USA is still far away from being a "post-racial" society. Amy Reynaldo had a link on her facebook wall to an interesting article which argues that those who proclaim post-racialism simply do not want to think/talk about the issue--I'll see if I can find the link.

There's another aspect I find revealing in the current situation: When I listen e.g. to Pat Buchanan lamenting that whites will soon no longer be a majority in the US, which to him appears to be the end of America as we know it, I'm eerily reminded of the reaction from the right in Germany against the increasing number and visibility of emigrants with decidedly non-German backgrounds, especially Muslims. The difficulties some Germans have in coming to terms with this are often explained in comparison with the US--since Germany never was an immigration country, it is said, Germans have greater difficulties than the US in accepting this. But when I listen to Buchanan, or Lou Dobbs, or others of their ilk, I wonder...

Ulrich said...

Here's an article as good as the one I was looking for in making my point. Post-racial America? Not really...

Heika said...

Hi Ulrich,
When I lived in Germany many years ago, I heard that argument made by Germans in relation to the right's reaction to Turkish guest workers-- that Germans didn't have the same readiness to open their borders and their hearts to immigrants in the way that Americans were used to doing. I was suspicious of that argument then and listening to people like Britt Hume get up in arms that anyone could even imagine calling an American racist--he is such an idiot--makes me realize I was right to be suspicious.

How anyone, let alone a national newscaster, could act shocked and outraged at the idea of the U.S. not truly being the ultimate melting pot after some of the slurs and threats that surfaced during Obama's campaign is beyond me. The country took a big step forward by electing an African-American, but it's got a long, long way to go and I think you are right to be skeptical about Americans, as opposed to the Germans, having learned greater generosity of mind from being an immigration country. Some of us haven't learned a thing.

For many white people, the crazy quilt of colors that is our country was fine as long as white men ran it, but now that, we might be just one color, or lack of color, among many different hues, with, horrors, even women thrown into the mix, there are some Americans, of the Pat Buchanan ilk, who make it very clear that for them, whiteness is a badge of superiority.

As an American, I'd like to believe that the Buchanan types are in the minority and that the rest of us will try to live as if becoming truly multi-cultural were an opportunity rather than a catastrophe. But one thing is clear, the Germans don't need to be looking to us for advice on how to handle the changing face of their population. So far, except for Obama's election of which I am wildly proud--even though I have generally detested his performance in office--we haven't earned the right to be anyone's mentor on that score.

@artlvr I thought your comment about the two male egos clashing in the Gates and Crowley scenario was spot on and I think that had more to do with Crowley's behavior than racism.

ArtLvr said...
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ArtLvr said...

Thanks, Ulrich and Heika! I only became aware of Lou Dobbs going "off the rails" last year with his strident ranting about the aliens from south of the US border, demands for the building of a Wall, etc. He's not someone I ever watched much in recent years, so coming across that venom was a shock!

Pat Buchanan's pitch against Sotomayor as hating white males wasn't a surprise, as he's always been a jerk in my opinion. Now he's a paranoid jerk like Dobbs. Dick Cheney with his henchmen like Rove and Bolton and the lawyers in the Bush "Justice" Dept., etc. even more so, the most sinister of all.

It may take another generation or two to get rid of the pervasive arrogance and corruption in the present-day Republican party -- if they last that long. Teddy Roosevelt managed it a century ago, becoming President at age 42 and cleaning the stables (as it were), but it's hard to see where another such as he will gain a foothold today... If only Obama had the drive that TR had! As to the GOP, it seems there's too much of a mindless mob available to the warped billionaires behind them.

Ulrich said...

As has been pointed out by many, in the Crowly/Gates incident, issues of class and race overlap in an intricate way, not the least b/c there appears to be a role reversal when it comes to class. Some observers claim, and I tend to agree, that race is such a hot topic that it often hides class aspects of a situation or event, even if the latter appear dominant upon closer inspection.

I'm struck anyway by the reluctance of some of our friends to even talk about class, i.e. admit that there are class distinctions in the US. I'll never forget the reaction of a friend when we gave him Paul Fussell's Class as a gift. We expected him to be interested and thank us--instead, he said, "I don't believe in class."

Heika said...

I'm glad you mentioned this aspect because like ArtLvr's comment, I think this was is very insightful. I think racism is the easiest label to attach and people forget the effect of gender and class in a situation where black and white confront one another. I also have a friend who actually gets angry if you bring class into the discussion. For her it's irrelevant to the United States, a view I consider benighted to say the least. Is class still openly discussed in Germany or is there the pretense there too, that society is now classless? Of course in the case of the United States, I think we were always allegedly a classless society. To me this attitude is mysterious so I'm wondering about other countries.

Ulrich said...

I've been away from Germany for many years and cannot really speak for the current situation, but my hunch is, things have not changed significantly: Nobody claims it's a classless society, and the existence of classes is never doubted. It's no wonder: Marx and Engels, after all, were Germans (Rhinelanders actually). Engels' book The Condition of the Working Class in England is considered a classic of 19th century social criticism, and not only by Marxists.

My guess is also that upward mobility is more restricted in Germany than it is in the US--i.e. you belong at your death more or less to the same class into which you were born (but I would like to hear from someone living in Germany if that is still true).

From the episodic knowledge I have, I would say that "class consciousness" appears most manifest in Britain. I'm always struck by the fact that there exist distinct upper- and lower-class accents, or that an actor like Michael Caine is always referred to a coming from the working class, which seems to have real significance for the British.

In Germany, accents are prevalent, but they are geographically based. Class comes into play only insofar as a very strong regional accent is associated more with a working class background, and that people who move up the social ladder often try to suppress it. Besides, there is snobbishness involved: Some regional accents are more acceptable than others, with that of Saxony pretty much at the bottom of the barrel (among the many mishaps that befell the East German was the fact that their leaders, like the infamous Walter Ulbricht, often spoke with that accent).

A personal note on Friedrich Engels: He is one of my heroes of German history--physically courageous (he was an officer in the revolutionary forces that tried to overthrow the monarchy in Germany in 1848 and barely escaped being executed by the Prussians, who were instrumental in suppressing the rebellion), a successful businessman, but with a conscience, an early advocate of women's rights, and an extremely loyal friend--time and time again, he had to come to the rescue of his friend Karl, financially or morally, like when he proclaimed to be the father of a child Karl Marx had with a maid--a trespass Marx would not admit b/c of the negative PR it would create for the movement he lead.

heika said...

Ulrich, I know you have not lived in Germany for quite a while but you mentioned Saxony, and I read in the Times this morning about the stabbing, in the courtroom no less, of an Egyptian physicist, who lived in Dresden. The article mentioned that Dresden is culturally very rich but also that xenophobia is high.

It hinted, I thought, that Saxony, having been part of East Germany, was the reason why what is being called a hate crime could occur. From your knowledge of the country, does that make sense that the East Germans would have a harder time dealing with foreigners than the West Germans would.

As for the rest of your post, I remember reading Engels in my generally misspent youth, and I thought he made a compelling case for NOT romanticizing marriage but for seeing it as the institutionalization of the idea that women were property. At least that's how I remember it, I just don't remember the title of the book. Do you know what it was called by any chance?

Speaking again of class, I don't remember the author but I also read a book called "Prisoners of the Dream," several years ago, and the writer argued that because Americans have a class system without it actually being recognized as such, one of the things working class and lower middle class Americans tend to feel is a sense of resentment that is kind of free-floating, a feeling of being looked down upon without quite knowing why or what is being done to make them feel that way.

That argument made an impression on me because I come from a working class family (I do believe that class exists here, or at least than it did in the days when talking about the relationship to means of production as a criterion of class made some sense) and my father, who always talked about "men in suits," (He worked in construction) would go off his rocker if someone used what he called "fancy" vocabulary or expressed specific tastes in food, movies, books, actually in just about anything. I remember thinking when I read the book that he was a prisoner of class and, as the author argued, didn't know it but was angry about it nevertheless.

Ulrich said...

@Heika: Someone living in Germany may know more details about the stabbing--by an immigrant from Russia BTW. I, too, would like to know how it could happen, in or near a courtroom to boot.

What I have heard as one explanation of the greater popularity of the Neonazis in Eastern Germany is that during the days of the GDR, the Nazi past was never talked about--that was supposed to be the legacy of West Germany; in fact, the East Germans called the Wall "the anti-fascist protection barrier". The upshot was that there was no systematic treatment of the recent past, nothing resembling what was called Vergangenheitsbewältigung (coming to terms with the past) in West Germany. In other words, former Nazis in the East could live their lives unperturbed and, presumably, pass their "ideas" on to the next generation w/o any corrective countermeasure.

I will say a little more about this in a next post.

Let me just close by expressing my complete agreement with you about the, apparently class-based, resentment that surfaces in US politics. I, too, have observed this for many years--in fact, I call talk radio and Fox News the "resentment industry" b/c, to me, the main product they are selling is precisely the kind of resentment you are talking about. I think it's the secret to their success: Resentment is like a fire that needs continuous feeding and stoking lest it burns itself out, and there are enough people out there looking for this kind of daily fix to make this industry (very) profitable. There is no comparable "liberal" talk radio or TV b/c liberals do not suffer from a pervasive sense of being shut out--they do not need their daily fix and do not want to live in a continuous state of agitation. What they want is unbiased information from news. Yes, they can have strong feelings, like the intense hatred of Bush II many had, but that feeling was specific and targeted, and it ran its course when its target disappeared.

In any case, discovering this class-based resentment in the US was one, if not the, biggest surprise for me w.r.t. US politics after I emigrated. It certainly gives the lie to the notion that the US are a classless society.

Heika said...

Hi Ulrich, I kept thinking I had messed up the title of the book on class, so I hunted it down and did I ever. It's called "The Hidden Injuries of Class," and it was written by Richard Sennett and Johnathan Cobb.

I want to quote here just a couple of sentences because they authors express so much better than I did the intangible sense of inadequacy I think motivates struggling working people like my father and, in fact, most of my older relatives who didn't make it into the middle class:

"We may be able to uncover the burden of class...the feeling of not getting anywhere despite one's efforts, the feeling of vulnerability in contrasting oneself to others at a higher social level, the buried sense of inadequacy that one resents oneself for feeling."

As you suggested in an earlier post, this is the stuff exploited by the Limbaugh, Palin, Beck crowd, as well as Hillary Clinton at the end of her campaign. (I threw in the latter; I know you didn't mention her, but I was appalled and infuriated by this aspect of her campaign.) Clinton, by the way, actually said aloud the words "working class," claiming at one point that she was a member of it. She seems to have missed that factory owners' daughters are not quite what Marx had in mind,

I'm no sociologist--given my grasp of titles and authors, this should come as no surprise--but I think the Germans with their more rigid educational system-- It's understood that some will go on to university, some won't--don't suffer from this unnamable sense of unease. No one ever suggested to them that everyone can, should and will make to the top on naked drive and desire, so they don't feel, on some level, despairing and angry in the way I think a lot of working class people in this country feel.

I actually think "Prisoners of the Dream" is an old book on race relations in the South, so maybe that's what caused my stupid blunder on the title. I was still thinking about the Gates/Crowley dust up,

mac said...

I've been thinking about some of the earlier posts, and I've come to the realisation that if Hillary
Clinton had won the primary and the presidency, she would have been reviled at this stage by the republicans because she is a woman.
I've just returned from Holland, and I am literally sickened by their retoric regarding the medical insurance efforts of this administration. I have lived in THREE countries with socialized medicine, and I can report to you that people are much better taken care of. In every one of these countries you can get additional, supplemental insurance, but every other person gets decent care, especially preventative care, which in the end may save a lot of money. The wealthy can always find the cutting edge doctors and hospitals, and in the U.S., the not so wealthy actually have procedures done in India and other countries where the costs are not as high.

I just today found out that a friend had the idential procedure done that I had a couple of months ago, and she/hopefully her insurance company, was charged exactly 4 times as much as I was. There is no rhyme or reason to this system.

Ulrich said...

@mac: What I find most bizarre about the so-called debate that's going on right now is that the people who would benefit most from an overhaul of health insurance seem to be the ones who are most against it, and I think a big reason is the issue that Heika has raised: Since reform is seemingly backed by "libruls", people who resent libruls are automatically against it, and they are confirmed daily in this stance by the resentment industry.

@Heika: The quote you gave perfectly expresses what I have seen in my, admittedly very limited, interactions with some blue-collar Americans. The emphasis here is on "some" b/c I have also met others, like union members, who have a very clear idea of the power structure in the US and their place in it. In any case, just the title of the book, The Hidden Injuries of Class, is very expressive, and I plan to read it.

I am really grateful that you brought up the issue of resentment b/c, as I said before, discovering it was real eye-opener for me. The other thing I find very interesting--and again, there is a real difference her with Germany (and, presumably, other European countries)--is that I find a similar resentment against the "liberal elite" higher up on the social ladder.

I first came across this in Tom Wolfe's tirades against modern architecture and art. I never read "From Bauhaus to Our House" b/c I knew I would throw it against the wall after a few pages. But I read his companion piece on modern painting, The Painted Word, and what struck me most was this: He describes trends in modern painting and art criticism not inaccurately, and cannot really say that a painter like Picasso is a bad painter, but what comes through clear and loud is that he resents him for his success. In the end, he seems to be railing against an art establishment from which he feels excluded.

I came across a similar phenomenon when I read an interview with the producer of 24 Hours, a series I find unwatchable b/c of its relentless depiction of torture as an effective means of extracting information. The producer (I can't remember his name) was quite open about his political leanings and how they are reflected in the series. He explained them as a result of his college experience with liberal rich kids, whom he considered "hypocrites" (presumably liberals are not allowed to be rich) and whom he learned to resent to the degree that his later career was steered into the direction it took by precisely that resentment.

More recently, The New Yorker had a piece on the right-wing talk host Mike Savage, and he appears to fit into the same mold. He was a respected scientist working and publishing on alternative medicine and trying to make an academic career of it. But he didn't get tenure a Berkeley; after that, he became a foaming-at-the-mouth ranter who preaches that the liberals are ruining the country (a claim that it so absurd that it is almost comical, given the mess 8 years of Reagan and Bush II have produced). The most telling moment in the interview, to me, comes when he looks at the Berkeley campus from one of his houses and muses "I wonder what would have happened if they had given me tenure". Reminds me of Hitler, who only decided to "become a politician" after he was rejected by an art school.

What I'm saying is that resentment is a phenomenon that appears to permeate politics in the US at many levels, and again, that came a a real surprise to me.

Ulrich said...
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Ulrich said...
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Ulrich said...

The "Week in Review" section of today's NYT has a very interesting article on how Saul Alinsky's book Rules for Radicals is now being used by the right as a blueprint for their staged "rebellion". Here's a quote with great relevance for our current focus:

The organizer dedicated to changing the life of a particular community must first rub raw the resentments of the people of the community [m.e.]; fan the latent hostilities of many of the people to the point of overt expression. He must search out controversy and issues, rather than avoid them, for unless there is controversy people are not concerned enough to act.

Note how he places emphasis on taking advantage of existing resentments.

(I had to delete my two previous posts b/c I was messing up the formatting)

Ulrich said...

PS Alinsky's book came out in 1971--the irony is that it was addressed to organizers on the left. Apparently, he assumed that they could take advantage of latent resentments.

ArtLvr said...

Watching a PBS rerun of a "Mark Twain" biography, I picked up an interesting tidbit I'd missed before: -- Sam Clemens (Twain) at one point heard about a brilliant black student at Yale Law School who might have problems finishing because he was so short of funds. (I've forgotted the name). Clemens arranged to pay his expenses so that the young man could give up the three part-time jobs that were over-taxing him, and he went on to become a noted lawyer.

This protege later became the mentor of Thurgood Marshall! Thus came about a wonderful direct connection from the author who changed the country's perception of race through the Jim character in the Tom Sawyer books and even more tellingly in his satiric masterpiece "Puddin' Head Wilson" to the first black Justice of our Supreme Court.

i was lucky enough to sit at the feet of Marshall in the early sixties while participating in the first or second Civil Rights March on Washington. Jackie Robinson was there as well. Marshall already had the stature of a great leader of the NAACP, but no one there could have foreseen his elevation to the Court. A truly memorable time.

mac said...

Artlvr and Ulrich: thank you for the wonderful information and anecdotes. I will pass them on.