Here’s the tweet in question:
@erasmuslijn holy shit, that piece. Here’s one white leftist who knows plenty of poor people in his family and race goddamn matters
— Karl Steel (@KarlSteel) June 27, 2014
And here’s the fb post that set me off: My hasty, late night responses resulted in a FdB writing a blog post that called me a tenured (! really? that was easy), hipster coward or some such and called for people to write me and tell me off. Ok. My basic problem, apart from reading poorly and tweeting in annoyance late at night, is that I took FdB’s fb and blog posts personally.
EDIT – and you might want to read this response by FdB first, as I think it better represents where he’s coming from than his last couple posts. I really don’t want this to turn into some miniature version of the Jacobin wars, the Daily Kos piewars, or whatever intraleft fight scarred you most severely. Okay? If we want to continue talking, let’s do it less personally. I’ll apologize publicly for my bad reading of FdB. I still stand by what I’m writing below, but my initial tweet definitely mischaracterized his blogpost. I regret that.
I like to think of myself as a leftist (I’m on the exec board of the local chapter on my union, etc), and I live, and work, in Brooklyn. I’m from a working class background, and I’ve largely escaped it, though my father’s death late last year — and the labor of being the executor of an estate some hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt — has reminded me, again, of how inherited property perpetuates white dominance, and how I just don’t have it; and how, nonetheless, I do, even without any inherited family wealth but the 5K I got when my mom died1 (which saved me from having to temp one grad school summer) and, then, a troll doll, a pillow, and some photos (seriously). I teach at a public college, and I suspect my students are on average far poorer and less white than the average for American MA-granting institutions. They’re great to teach and they face problems I never did, partially because working class America is a hell of a lot worse off now than it was when I was an undergrad, and partially or perhaps mainly because they don’t have the white privilege that accrues even to the poorest among the whites.
Those are my bona fides and that’s why my first thought was hey, he’s talking about me. Here, by the way, is my very next tweet:
Honestly just today was thinking about all the shit the police let literally poor me get away with in high school. No way if I’d been black. — Karl Steel (@KarlSteel) June 27, 2014
I remember high school: being picked up for trespassing in a graveyard, losing my license for reckless driving, being pulled over in a car that was probably filled with pot smoke. And the cops never took me in, never beat me or charged me with something more severe, and, so far as I know, didn’t kill me. This wasn’t because I lived in some small town where everyone knew everyone. Tacoma was a large (for Washington), racially diverse blue-collar city, and this was roughly 1986-1989, during the crack epidemic, during a time when the cops must have been especially fucking with every black person they could get their hands on; I have to know for a fact that the cops treated me well primarily because of my whiteness. And, by extension, it’s because of my whiteness that I parlayed my anti-authoritarian fuckupery into the job I have now, where being oppositional is a bonus.
But, again, that’s just demographic me, and that’s just the me that talks about white poverty with his friends often, at least so long as they come from the same background as mine, and so long as I’m sure they’re not going to cop to being something they’re not. Still, the problem is that I took FdB’s piece as being about me. It’s not. It’s about, well, “left-wing publishing,” or “left-wing thought,” or “Marxist and socialist journals,” or “a particular social and cultural group,” or the “young left/[ies],” or “white lefties,” or the “we” of the “we’ve tried to fight racism by being nice about race, by not saying bad words,” whoever “we” is. It’s about one or all of these groups, some of which overlap with the others, and only some of which I belong to. And, I suppose, he primarily means well-off white or whitish leftists with inherited cultural capital and all the connections that go with that, which isn’t me by any stretch.
As for the argument itself, the implicit charge of racism against his targets strikes me as unfair and unnecessarily inflammatory (“Though they [=those young leftists who “grew up in economic security or affluence and went to elite colleges”?] direct apathy at best towards the white poor and concern for poor people of color, ultimately they belittle both, in that their lack of concern for white poverty implies that they think white people deserve it while black and Hispanic people can’t be expected to do better. It’s the soft bigotry of low expectations for people of color and high expectations for white people”). This next point is just incorrect unless we (whoever we are) interpret “we” very narrowly: “we’ve tried to fight racism by being nice about race, by not saying bad words.” And I’ll leave it to others to conduct a search of their copies of Jacobin or The Nation or whatever to see if a specifically white poverty isn’t being talked about. Maybe it’s not, on average.
For what it’s worth, I don’t speak much publicly about white poverty because I find it narcissistic, because I know, anecdotally, that being a poor white is a disadvantage that can be surpassed, and because, for example, of this:
Less inherited wealth results in low homeownership rates and high deficits among African Americans: While a college-educated white American has an average net worth of $75,000, a college-educated black American has a net worth of less than $17,500.
I’m also convinced that the struggle for racial justice in America is the struggle for class justice. Could be wrong though.
(edit 25 minutes on, for a good piece, implicitly, on white poverty, see the Times today in two pieces (here, here) on Clay County Kentucky (94% white), “which by several measures is the hardest place in America to live,” and which puts my union-job childhood in some perspective.)
It’s possible that my own success and the success of a few–but by no means not all–members of my family means that I don’t take white poverty seriously. Guilty, I guess, though for different reasons than those driving FdB’s post. But even if I hadn’t been lucky enough to land a fancy PhD and a TT job in a city I love, I’d like to think I’d still be doing more to get outside my own experience.
And here’s the beginning of a series of tweets that FdB might engage with more productively:
There are a lot of folks on the Left who think working class means “straight white male”.
— Jehu (@Damn_Jehu) June 26, 2014
If you’re still reading, you might find this old post useful:
and this too:
As I read through it, I find the bit where I was admitted to a fancy Seattle summer program as one of its token white trash. Seriously.
— Karl Steel (@KarlSteel) June 27, 2014
1 You want to talk about gender and class? My father didn’t steal that 5K from my brother and me. He did, so far as we can tell, steal it from my sister.↩