Thursday, December 22, 2016

On privileged black women and the middle class taking aid meant for the poor

For most of my life, my greatest sympathy was for black women. I didn't have the language of intersectionality to explain why, but like anyone who wasn't a sexist racist imbecile, I knew they took flak for being female and for being black—"intersectionality" just gave academics a polysyllabic way to talk about that. My sympathy is undoubtedly why the Feminist SF Wiki said my “work features strong women characters and people of color”.

I gave black women the benefit of the doubt until the Tawana Brawley story broke. Like most people, I was outraged when I heard a young black woman had been used horribly by white men. Then I learned she had lied, and I realized my complete faith in her was both racist and sexist—if black women are fundamentally no different than any of us, they're as flawed as any of us. So if bourgeois folk deserve to be criticized for their privilege, it's both sexist and racist to ignore bourgeois black women.

I was recently in a ludicrously long Twitter discussion with several privileged black women. I don't recommend visiting it, but it had a few interesting moments. It began when someone who follows me retweeted this from @JamilahLemieux:
RT if you've come to accept that Black feminist critique of a group you belong to (WW, BM, WM...) is hard to hear, but necessary.
Remembering how the privileged proponents of privilege theory omit or gloss over class, I tweeted back:
What if we think privileged black feminists need to listen to a critique that's hard to hear, but necessary?
Another woman tweeted,
The phrase "privileged black feminists" is just mindboggling. What about being a BW is privilege?
I replied,
The adjective refers to black feminists who went to expensive private schools.
And then several other people jumped in. I very much enjoyed the discussion with Sarah Walker. The rest behaved the way I've come to expect bourgeois folk of all hues to behave, with the smug condescension of people who think that because they've had the privilege of an expensive education, they have the proper understanding of privilege.

But in the course of that flurry of twittering, I found some useful data.

For example, the notion of "privileged black people" should not be mindboggling to anyone. Several of the Twitterers were graduates of Howard University, aka "the Black Harvard", the foremost school of the Black Ivy League. In 1984, Dr. Jackqueline Fleming wrote in Blacks in College, "...Black Ivy League colleges pull the best and most privileged black students..." (emphasis mine)

The Black Middle Class, an excerpt from Black Picket Fences by Mary Pattillo-McCoy is a work from 1999 that's subtitled "Privilege and Peril among the Black Middle Class".

Henry Louis Gates offers a useful brief history of privileged black folks in Black America and the Class Divide.

"Privilege" literally means "private law". It always referred to people whose wealth guaranteed they got better treatment than the rest of us. It's probably impossible to nominate the first privileged black woman in the USA, but I will propose the first very privileged black woman: 5 of the Wealthiest Blacks Who Owned Slaves in America notes, "Widow C. Richards and her son P.C. Richards owned a large sugar cane plantation and held the largest number of slaves–152–in Louisiana."

The primary complaint of privilege theorists is that privileged blacks and women don't enjoy all of the privileges of privileged whites and men. Throughout American history, that's been undeniably true. The Widow C. Richards couldn't vote because she was a woman, and racist white people believed she was inferior because of her skin. Yet for all that she was not as privileged as a white women who was her financial equal, she was more privileged than the men she owned and the men she employed, and she had luxuries that most Americans of any hue could only dream of.

In the US in the 20th century, when almost everyone identified as middle class, Martin Luther King mentioned in the Birmingham Letter "middle-class Negroes who, because of a degree of academic and economic security ... have become insensitive to the problems of the masses". Privilege theorists from expensive schools ignore that, probably because it hits too close to home. King had a solution for black poverty; he said,
...there are twice as many white poor as Negro poor in the United States. Therefore I will not dwell on the experiences of poverty that derive from racial discrimination, but will discuss the poverty that affects white and Negro alike. ... I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective — the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.
But privileged black privilege theorists have nothing practical to offer the black working class.

The discussion touched on scholarships at expensive schools. I noted that aid is being increasingly redirected from the poor to the middle-class. See:

Special report: Once geared toward poor, black students, now major shift in TOPS beneficiaries

Who Really Gets the Most College Financial Aid? | Paying for College | US News: "New study finds families earning less than $70,000, on average, don't get enough college financial aid."