Perhaps you already know that a new edition of Lawrence Otis Graham’s provocative 2009 bestseller, Our Kind of People, was published not too long ago. The book deals with class distinctions among African-Americans and the issue of “passing for white.” I learned about the updated edition from my daily Delancey Place newsletter, but I remember the original book well. It resonated with me. And still does. Not only because I grew up hearing the term passant blanc (passing for white, passer pour le blanc) from my New Orleans relatives, but also because I lived in Atlanta when segregation obscured the fact that black communities were often divided along class lines.
It was easier to achieve the Civil Rights agenda if you could get the rest of America to think in blanket terms about the Jim Crow laws that discriminated against anyone with at least "one drop of black blood." Unfortunately, this supported the impression that the entire race was “monolithic.” Graham’s book exposed the uncomfortable truth that some blacks discriminate against other blacks. In 2004, Michele Norris produced quite a revealing report on NPR about the post-segregation decline of Birmingham's once prestigious Parker High School, which made me wonder whether class distinctions within the black community were such a bad thing. Despite the usual drawbacks of caste-consciousness, they created a positive tension between the classes that kept the community vibrant. Upward mobility, competing for better education, keeping up with the Joneses--but in a good way. When open housing and equal employment became law with the passage of Civil Rights, those who had the means moved away from the old segregated communities, leaving the rest behind.
In his 1997 book, Black Bourgeoisie, E. Franklin Frazier argues that those who left gained materially improved circumstances but lost their roots to the traditional black world and were never accepted by the suburban white communities they moved to, leading he says to a loss of identity.
More recently, in his 2016 Booker Prize-winning satirical novel, The Sellout, Paul Beatty lampoons this "scary subset," which he calls "wereniggers," as erudite and urbane African-Americans who get their hackles raised during tenure review and "schlep down from their ivory towers and corporate boardrooms to prowl the inner cities."
What I want to know is whether class distinctions exist within other ethnic groups or immigrant populations as well. Was it like this among Irish, Italian, and Jewish immigrants in the 20th century? I suspect the answer is yes. But in what way? When I worked for a San Francisco TV station back in the day, I once interviewed rivaling Chinese high school students who divided themselves between the ABC and the FOB. ABC stood for American-Born Chinese. FOB was a derisive term for recent Chinese immigrants, those who were "Fresh off the Boat."
I’m curious about this now because Delancey Place has reminded me of Graham’s book. But also because the news from Myanmar is dispiriting. And I wonder what you think? Are class distinctions sometimes a healthy thing? If so, what keeps it from deteriorating into horrible recurrences of “ethnic cleansing” around the globe? Is intra-racial discrimination along class lines a peculiarly American phenomenon that cuts across all racial and ethnic groups? What’s your experience with this issue?
I'm a storyteller whose background includes talk radio, newspapers and TV news. I've hosted a morning-drive classical music program on the California coast and published nationally in Reader's Digest, the Christian Science Monitor, and Playboy. I've won awards for my journalism and my fiction. One of my essays even made it into an anthology for college English courses. For real? Yes, for real.
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