Race + Class = What “Police Brutality” Means for Some (But Definitely, Not All) Black Folks


I  just don’t write super quickly about emotionally charged events anymore, because when I do, usually I say something stupid and hurt somebody’s feelings without meaning to. And it took me having a really deep, teary conversation with a dear friend last night (over something that didn’t even start out being about police brutality) to collect my thoughts.

So here goes.

I don’t want to dismiss anyone’s grief over the killing of the child Mike Brown—yes, child; when you get to be my age, you understand just how young eighteen is. And yes, I’m sad, too. Just because I don’t talk about my grief in a way that makes people feel comfortable doesn’t mean I don’t have it.

But I also have had some anger. And that anger is over class.

And when I say “class,” I’m not talking about those silly, obvious, and rather useless “class” markers, such as whether somebody has walked around with his pants hanging down, or whether somebody has previously been arrested, or whether somebody was “asking for it.”

And when I say anger, I’m not just talking about anger over racism—which is sticky thing to catch ahold of. I’m talking about how no one really wants to address that the lived experiences of contemporary, college-educated, middle-class, black people and the lived experiences of contemporary, formally-uneducated, poor, black people are vastly different when it comes to racialized violence at the hands of the police.

I’m not the first person who has talked about race and class, and I won’t be the last person. And I’m not the first person who has talked about violence at the hands of the police is class-based, either. But I have been searching for someone who really understands that race plus class is a very real, existing intersectionality that some black folks–even so-called “correct” black folks–don’t “get” or experience in the least.

Oh, lately, there’s so much talk about “racism in America” and what it means. So much talk about whether white folks without black friends are racist, when, let’s face it, I’m pretty choosy about my black friends. I’m pretty choosy about my white friends. I’m just choosy like that. But should I now run out and get me some more to prove something to somebody?

But let’s also face that there is a difference between the issues confronted by middle-class black people who want to be liked, accepted, and assimilated into mainstream (i.e. white) culture and who feel diminished by that culture versus the issues of life or death confronted by the bodies and psyches of poor black people in overwhelmingly segregated neighborhoods that are policed by white police officers.

Because, look, don’t no white cop shoot an unarmed black child to death because said white cop don’t think Lupita is cute and/or he ain’t got nobody black to go to the Applebee’s with Sunday after church. This goes deeper than just “race”, and this goes deeper than some ephemeral talk about “this is what slavery was like.”

Sidebar: And as a student of history, I really wish that folks who are not real students of history–or who have never been slaves– would stop thinking they know about slavery simply because they retweet something on Twitter. Try reading an actual history book or three hundred. Okay? I just needed to say that.

Let us return.

When we think about the direct line of descent from the plantation overseer—a working class white man—and the slave patrollers—made up of “Yeoman” farmers or other working class white men—down to most southern, white police forces now, we need to consider that contemporary police forces in the south are overwhelmingly populated with working class white men.

And what do the overseer, the slave patrollers, and contemporary southern police forces have in common? They traditionally have been used for the past three hundred years or so years to keep poor black folks “in line.”

By the way, I’ve read a history book or three hundred. Just so you know.

These southern, overwhelmingly white police forces impact young black people from poor neighborhoods on a daily basis. We are talking about the terrifying onslaught on poor, black neighborhoods in which the police are used to keep poor black people “in line”—and in their own “quarters.”

Yes, middle class black people have experienced racism, but we might call the first level of this racism “racial insult.” (And these are just my own categories.)

Racial insults might entail being followed in a store or being talked to in a disrespectful, cruel manner by white coworkers or student colleagues. Maybe you stood in line at the Piggly Wiggly and the clerk pretended you weren’t next. That kind of racism takes a toll on your psyche—trust, I know—but it does not propel six bullets through your body and brain.

Then, there’s the next level of racism: we might call those instances “racial harassment.”

Racial harassment entails the time or two that one middle-class young black man was stopped and harassed by the police. He might have even been arrested, pushed onto the hood of the car, roughed up and made to fear for his life. But at the end of it all, he was able to call his parents, a mentor, or reach into his wallet and pull out the business card upon which his attorney’s name has been embossed.–I am not dismissing the experience of that black man, but what I am saying is, there is a difference between a kid whose parents can bail him out of jail and a kid whose parents have to call a bail bondsman.

And then, we have the third, highest level of racism: “racial violence.” This is where a black person is injured and/or killed by someone in a hate-based crime.

And you might say now, “But, Honorée, we know your background. So who are you to bring this up? And are you seriously trying to say that you know the difference, with your bourgie, middle-class, professor self?”

But yet, I do know the difference, very distinctly. Because yes, I’ve been poor, and yes, I’ve been middle-class and yes, I’ve seen–though not experienced– all three levels of racism first hand. Surprise.

When my parents separated, we suddenly became poor.  My mother, sister, and I lived in what was then called “Section-8 housing” in Southwest DeKalb County, Georgia, and then, in a “poor” black neighborhood in Atlanta. When we visited older relatives in the country (Eatonton) who were living on fixed incomes, they would give us their commodity foods: that huge loaf of so-called “cheese”—which, somehow made the most delicious grilled cheese sandwiches—and the other, processed food products upon which the names were brandished in bold letters: “Milk”, “Peanut Butter,” and so forth.

We ate meat only on the weekends, a lot of pinto beans and cornbread, and sweetened iced tea which took away our appetite, though I don’t think my mama was considering that at the time. And we lived with whole congregations of roaches and rats, sometimes at the same moments, sometimes, at different intervals. And coming from my privileged, middle-class background of Durham, North Carolina, I was extremely demoralized by my poverty—but I soon understood, so were other black kids who did not come from where I came from.

Example: we had the “free” or reduced” stamped on our lunch tickets, and the sticker was very prominent; the kids who didn’t eat those lunches were aware of our financial state and sometimes made not-so-nice comments. And let me tell you, I was terrified that whoever had given my tasteful, carefully chosen outfits to the Goodwill might come upon me wearing them and call me out. My mother worked two jobs in addition to teaching and attending graduate school to keep my sister and me in pocket money so we could perpetrate like we weren’t poor–sometimes leading to bills not being paid–but we never brought our “friends” from school over to visit.

This lasted only four years, but the memory of poverty is as fresh as it was over thirty years ago. The only thing that saved us was that my father died. My Columbia-educated, stingy, college professor-father who, bewilderingly, had taken out a prominent life insurance policy and named my mother as the sole beneficiary. After I left my poverty behind, I knew how lucky I was. The other kids that had that stamp on their lunch card did not have the same background as I, a background which I moved into the foreground with stunningly relieved and brisk grace.

Yes, this is my “class confession.” There are many, many things you do not know about me.

I think about those kids sometimes. About those funky neighborhoods I lived in, where the white police were constantly patrolling, and where the black kids would say to me, “When they come up on you, don’t run. If you run, they gone shoot.”

At least once a month—thirty years later, as I sit in my cute, three-bedroom, two-bathroom house in my white neighborhood—I think about my “cut-buddy” friends, Black and Junior and Scut. I think about whether they made it out of their twenties alive. And when I made it to graduate school, I promised myself, I would do anything to never be poor again. Anything.

And I did do anything. I sucked up to white folks to get ahead in my career, I put away my “race rage,” I learned how, when I moved my speech into the black vernacular to laughingly remind people that I was “code switching”–lest, as a (former) white friend told me once, I came off sounding ignorant– and here I am, middle-class again. I can admit the self-effacing, sometimes humiliating actions that kept my thing intact.

We talk about race of our “white allies” and “white privilege” when we talk about the fight against racism. But at some point, I would like us to think of the class of middle class “black allies” who do not have the same experiences that poor black people go through every day.

What are the roles of the middle-class black people who, once the dust has cleared from the protests of Ferguson, Missouri and a child’s funeral is over, can once again fly back home on tickets purchased with their credit cards, and then, walk through their much “nicer,” safe neighborhoods, and drive their late-model vehicles into the two-car garage attached to a home bought with credit based upon jobs at places of business (or education) where they are surrounded by white people they must get along with—and all without the daily fear of the assault on their actual bodies, but only, an assault to their feelings or senses of self-esteem?

I think a lot about the issues I’ve mentioned in this post. I’m asking you to do the same. And after you think, even if you decide you don’t agree with me, just because we don’t agree doesn’t mean I’m not sad a black child is dead.

5 thoughts on “Race + Class = What “Police Brutality” Means for Some (But Definitely, Not All) Black Folks

  1. You get it in ways that some of us never can. It helps that you really say all there is to say about the problem. Clearly you have the credibility to speak as you do, that makes it all the more important for your writing to be seen by more people of all stripes. I wish that your words could be seen by people all around the world. The Muslims who are killing each other because they are from different sects of the same faith, for example. We are all human beings. Is it that we are fulfilling Skinner’s teaching of “too many rats in the cage”? This may be an awful way to state it, but it may be closer to the truth than we might like to believe.

  2. I assume that you have heard of social dominance theory. If you haven’t read the book, it might be interesting to skim it. At least I found it illuminating about relationships between class, race, and gender.

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