Friday, January 28, 2011

three black races in the USA? ghetto, muslim, middle class, and...?

Anyone who follows me knows I'm fascinated by the fact that African Americans see a widening gulf between the values of middle class and poor blacks, and nearly four-in-ten say that because of the diversity within their community, blacks can no longer be thought of as a single race. I've also been mulling Saladin Ahmed's claim that “Muslim,” in our current societal moment, connotes a racialized group. A couple of days ago, I ran across a blog where someone was complaining about the use of "ghetto", especially when describing young people, as a euphemism for "African American".

And, lo, I was enlightened.

My first realization was that the blog writer, a middle class antiracist, had missed the point. "Ghetto" does not mean "black." It means "poor black."

And then, the big one: If you're going to divide people into races, something I continue to think is the Age of Enlightenment's most foolish idea, there are at least three black races in the US:

1. Ghetto, formerly known as "urban", covers poor blacks.

2. Middle class, which in American means "not working class", covers the black middle and upper class.

3. Muslim covers Muslims of color and implies that white Muslims are culture traitors.

Have I missed any?

ETA: Yes. Philocrites pointed out in the comments that I missed:

4. Poor rural black folks. Does popular culture have a shorthand for them?

ETA 2: To clarify, I'm not accepting these racial categories. I'm seeing them being used and trying to understand how they're being used. I think the first two are favored by people who are avoiding talking about class, and the third, by people who're uncomfortable talking about ethnicity.


  1. "Ghetto" doesn't capture the cultural or social reality of poor Southern blacks, many of whom live in non-urban areas, either.

  2. Excellent point! Adding an ETA now.

  3. Um, as honored as I am to be confused with Philocrites, I think the ETA needs an ETA :-)

    So what about black, blue-collar workers? Are they subsumed in the middle class (even though as you note in America middle class generally writes out working class folks)?

    And what about the multi-generational black bourgeoisie? The Martha's Vineyard/Jack-and-Jill Club group that Lawrence Otis Graham wrote about in "Our Kind of People"?

  4. Man, I should not blog before breakfast. Fixed that, DSD. I think my brain simply went "Plug in pseud of smart UU here."

    Regarding black blue-collar folks, I think they're in that vague American middle class.

    The multi-gen black bourgeoisie are like the white set: American middle-class. Say otherwise, and I'll be culturally obliged to accuse you of class warfare. Part of the US myth is that there are no rich black folks, except for entertainers, even though there've been black slaveowners in North America for almost as long as there have been black slaves. Which, I am obliged to note, is not denying racism--it's saying that racism is a lot more complex than most Americans believe.

  5. BTW, the pedantic English major in me is thrilled to see you write "obliged" rather than the (IMNSHO) overly filigreed "obligated"...

  6. I remember from my childhood an older Jewish friend of my father's objecting to the use of the word "ghetto" to describe American black neighborhoods. He said that he had lived in true ghettos, and they were clean, well kept, and not used as an excuse for everything wrong with your life. I don't know what other word could be used, though.

  7. Your morning post requires a 20 screen response, so... not bothering.

    The answer to the concept of race being an outdated concept, is not to say there are actually three or four of them. I see this as en essentialist response to a problem. Fuck essentialism! Fuck race!

    Also, this is not news! Blacks have had diverging viewpoints on this forever, especially along class and educational lines! We're not this huge monolithic group, nor have we ever been.

    The classist term "white trash" is the same similar to being considered "ghetto", and while both terms are detestable, I don't see white people saying there needs to be another race of white people. Why is it acceptable to think this in this context?

  8. Tamu, full agreement with your last question; I'll never give up on "race: human". But people just like to rationalize their privilege, so they'll talk about ghetto and white trash in order to keep from thinking of poorer folks as their brothers and sisters.

  9. I gotta say, Will, I'm not sure where you're going with this post. My guess is that you don't mean the word "race", you mean some (perhaps nonexistant) term which captures the idea of 'class of people whose complexes of privilege and disprivilege are similar enough to warrant considering them as a single group for the purposes of discussions about privilege and disprivilege'?

    The main school of thought here seems to be 'well, if you go down that hole, you wind up parsing the entire race into groups containing single people, so let's talk about me and how oppressed my people are' but I do think it's worth having a good neutral term for this.

  10. This post may be unclear because I'm trying to understand how other people use these terms. To me, class is a much more useful way to describe folks than race, and I continue to think the folks who said there are two black races had adopted the language of race because they were denied the language of class.