FCYU124 cover image See all stories from issue #124, Spring 2016

The Poor Don’t Choose to Be Poor
Where We Stand: Class Matters, by bell hooks
Jazmine Gibbs

“Classism” is a kind of discrimination, like racism and sexism. It’s ranking poor people as lower, less worthy, and less desirable than wealthier people. Classist insults include “peasants,” “ratchet,” “ghetto,” or throwing money on the ground in front of a homeless person while saying “our tax dollars are going to people like you.” (I have seen this!) These are just a few ways people try to make lower-income people feel ashamed.

In Where We Stand: Class Matters, bell hooks (she doesn’t use capital letters in her name) writes about class and classism from her experience as an African-American woman born into a working-class family in the South in the 1950s. Her dad was a janitor, and sometimes the house was cold in winter because they couldn’t afford to heat it. Then she got a PhD and became a professor and an author. So she writes as someone who’s had different class experiences.

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She writes, “Class matters. Race and gender can be used as screens to deflect attention away from the harsh realities class politics exposes.” The book came out in 2000, but a lot of it still rings true today. bell hooks says you can’t talk about race without talking about rich and poor. hooks says that people talk less about class conflict than about fights between races, and that’s true of most people I know.

On the other hand, Occupy Wall Street did get people talking about the 1% and the 99% in the last few years. People are more angry at rich people than they used to be.

hooks uses events from her own life—her parents’ relationship, how she was treated in college, and her own relationships with men—as a way to examine racism, classism, and sexism in the world at large. She was born Gloria Watkins in 1952, and she opens the book with her childhood in Kentucky. Her family taught her that the reason they were poor was race, not class. “We saw money problems as having to do with race, with the fact that white folks kept the good jobs—the well-paying jobs—for themselves.”

African-Americans earned less than their white counterparts in the segregated South of the 1950s and 1960s. It’s a little better now, but not by much. According to the Census Bureau, in 2013 the median household income of non-Hispanic whites was $58,300, while African-Americans earned $34,600.

Becoming an artist, musician, or writer seemed far-fetched for black people. hooks had a cousin who was a painter, but he lived in a dark basement in Chicago and the family considered him a failure. So hooks did not pursue art as a child, but became involved in church, school, and family instead.

The Clueless Rich

hooks’ mother wanted her to go to a nearby college that offered financial aid, but she went to an all-women’s college that was primarily white and “fancy.” hooks writes about how girls from lower-class backgrounds tried to fit in with the rich student body, but differences always appeared.

For example, the rich girls trashed other girls’ rooms as a prank. hooks describes her rage when this happened to her. Her space and privacy were invaded and the things she had worked for were destroyed. She couldn’t afford to just replace them like the rich girls could. A college professor saw that she was distraught and told her about Stanford University, where she transferred and earned her undergraduate degree.

After that, hooks got a PhD in English and became a professor at Yale University, The New School in New York City, and other colleges. She experienced racism along the way, but as years passed, she realized class was becoming more of an obstacle for black people. The rich were getting richer and the poor were getting poorer. And a lot more black people were poor.

hooks talks about how her strict church background shaped her attitude toward money. She had learned that “the poor were chosen and closer to the heart of the divine.” And she was so used to her family sharing resources with neighbors who were less fortunate than her that she didn’t even realize she was part of the lower class.

But that’s not how most of the world sees poor people. As she discusses in a chapter called “The Politics of Greed,” hooks writes that the mass media “perpetuates the notion that the poor are mere parasites and predators.” The media also communicates that “the poor had freely chosen to be poor, but that economic prosperity was a sign of divine blessing.” She says that since the 1970s, the mass media has sent the message that anybody can get rich if they try hard enough, which leads people to want to identify with the rich and not admit that they are working-class or poor.

image by Routledge

Even Worse Now?

There is not one idea in this book I disagree with. Even though it was written 15 years ago, most of it is still true and relevant. The 2008 economic recession has increased the income gap between rich and poor. One recent study says that the bottom 90% of Americans has the same share of household wealth as the top 0.1%. College is so expensive now that many young people can’t afford to attend.

I was aware of racism, but Where We Stand shows me that we should worry more about class. It’s interesting how black people argue against racism while we divide ourselves based on class and gender. I recognized what she describes in the book: There is a caste system within the black community where rich families distance themselves from their lower-income counterparts. Growing up, I was teased by other black kids for not having the nice clothes they had.

And yet I can be classist myself. As soon as I graduated high school, I saw myself looking down on those with a lower income than me, even as I worried about being judged myself for not having a weave and seeming poor. Black kids sometimes teased me for “talking white,” “talking proper,” or even “talking European,” like I’m trying to be above other black people.

In some of my college classes we’ve talked about how capitalism can be unfair, and that it’s hard to move up. If you come from a poor neighborhood, you probably go to a lousy school, and you’re likelier to drop out and not go to college.

Also, I’ve seen how both poor people and minorities are misrepresented in the media. I grew up in Baltimore, and when the Freddie Gray riots were happening, Facebook statuses claimed the Crips and Bloods were coming to the city to cause havoc. But in reality, they were joining forces with community leaders to stop the riots.

Taking Power

I think young people of color should think about how class, as well as race, plays a role when it comes to who has power. Why can’t police officers help provide more opportunities in a community instead of shooting young black men? Why is Congress full of older, wealthy, conservative white men?

hooks does not identify herself as upper class even though she has plenty of money and status and enjoys the power she has. She believes people can try to make the world more fair by “resisting unnecessary consumerism, living simply, and abundantly sharing resources ... to begin an economic shift that will ultimately create balance.” Her examples of change that would help include voting in politicians who spread the money around more by raising the minimum wage and creating affordable housing for those with lower incomes.

I agree with hooks on the need for fair wages and voting on where our tax money goes. Here in New York more money should be spent on affordable housing and less on tourist attractions. But I’m not willing to give up shopping! I do try to shop at locally owned stores rather than big chains like Forever 21 or Walmart that can wipe out blocks of small stores.

Reading Where We Stand has inspired me to consider what I can do to combat classism. My generation should use Facebook and Instagram for more than just posting pictures for “Likes.” For instance, we could become entrepreneurs or marketers using these websites and support more black-owned businesses. I wish those businesses would sell healthier products than I usually see in lower-income neighborhoods. We also need to make political change, not just by marching and tweeting hashtag messages, but by running for office and making change from the inside.

If You’re 18 by November 8, vote!

Register to vote and find out where your polling place is here: rockthevote.com.

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