Class is the chessboard, race is the chess piece. Class and race clash in negative economic environments, and in these negative environments, both concepts are essential to understanding US history. Asking which concept is more important glosses over the fact that class and race function differently in social history, that they operate on different social planes. To be sure, American racial history has been distinctly shaped by race, race discussion, and racism. But ignoring class, how citizens divide themselves and are divided, leaves the picture incomplete. Class and race must be taken together in one portrait, and their relationship needs explanation when discussing racial history.
Race is self-explanatory. While genetically insignificant, sight dominant humans have placed incredible importance on race, and Americans are by no means alone in their creation of the other when looking at their neighbors. But while race is clearly defined, elements of class are often overlooked. Class is more than just per capita income, literacy rates, a mortgage, and access to health care. Class is as social as it is economic, categories members assign themselves and others to, based on more than income. In this sense, when discussions of class take place and the sole focus is economics, observers miss much about the social force of class. The term middle class is spoken of as purely an income benchmark when it is so much more.
Complicating the discussion of race and class is the fact that both races in Thomas Sugrue’s account, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Post War Detroit, sometimes reacted the same way in response to economic threats. Again, to be sure, the overwhelming bulk of housing discrimination in Detroit was systemic, officially sanctioned, and aimed at blacks. Whites were never red lined in Detroit’s suburbs, and blacks did not resist white busing. But there were times when blacks did discriminate, subtlety but effectively, against other blacks attempting to move into their upper class neighborhoods.
Sugrue records one such case. Most of Detroit’s black neighborhoods were in terrible shape, with limited housing, poor building code enforcement, disease and fire rampant, and absentee landlords who charged exorbitant rents. But black members of the Conant Gardens community were considerably better off, living up to the standard of their white, middle class counterparts, according to Sugrue. And they used the same subtle, discriminatory practices to ensure Conant Gardens stayed affluent. “Protective of their homes and investments, Conant Gardens residents, like their counterparts in white, middle-class neighborhoods throughout the city, used restrictive convents to bar multiple housing and other ‘undesirable uses’” (41). To be sure, race still distinguished whites from blacks in how effective each could create their own regimes:
In defense of their exclusive status, Conant Gardens residents staunchly (but unsuccessfully) opposed the construction of federally subsidized public housing at the nearby Sojourner Truth site in the early 1940s, forming an unlikely alliance with conservative white homeowners’ groups in the area (Ibid).
They were unsuccessful because race still mattered, and white superiority still existed, but it is fascinating to note that each race responded in the same manner to same economic threat—the erosion of home values. In the negative economic environment of dismal Detroit housing, blacks and whites, when placed in similar situations, reacted the same way, albeit with different results. Faced with threats to their share of the chessboard, each reacted similarly regardless of which chess piece threatened their position.
Class too, is complicated. It must be defined more broadly than mere income. No doubt income is a significant factor, as the Conant Gardens case shows, but it must include something else as well. How else to explain President Nixon’s grand reordering of the national political landscape in the election of 1972? Hostile towards unions, Nixon nonetheless won the union vote while destroying white working wages, defeating perhaps the most pro-union candidate in American history, George McGovern. And 1972 would mark the peak of white, male, working class pay, during Nixon’s second term (12).
Nixon was able to crush his opponent because he understood that class could be more than strict economics, that image and perception could trump annual income. Jefferson Cowie, writing in Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class, describes Nixon’s vision. “Nixon grasped this basic sociology,” he writes, “and sought to recast the definition of ‘working class’ from economics to culture, from workplace and community to national pride” (165). Instead of investing in American workers and integration in an attempt to stabilize inequality, and strengthen the working class, Nixon offered a sort of cultural refuge:
Lacking both resources and the inclination to offer material betterment to the whole of American labor force, Nixon instead tried to offer ideological shelter to those white male workers and union members who felt themselves slipping through the widening cracks of the New Deal coalition (Ibid).
In this way, Nixon exposed class as capable of being conceived as more than income and material standing, but as a cultural artifice, a position on the chessboard to be defended.