Leondar-Wright is Communications Director for United for a Fair
Economy. Her book is
Matters: Cross Class Alliance Building for Middle Class Activists.
Leondar-Wright is based in Massachusetts. Recently she was on a
book tour on the west coast. I caught up with her at Black Oaks
Books in Berkeley.
Often progressives avoid categorizing others
by race, class, gender, gender preference, etc. But you do this
blatantly in your book. Why do you find it important to break this
LEONDAR-WRIGHT: Well, I think that due to the lack of shared language
and vocabulary for what’s going on, there are often class dynamics
in the room and we can’t talk about them. Of course, it is
a very slippery topic and nobody’s going to agree, but we can
have some working definitions. When you walk into an activist setting,
you pretty much can size up the room by race and by gender. You’re
not always right but you’re going to be in the ballpark. So
then, if dynamics start happening between people with more and less
privilege, you can get to the point, relatively quickly. Which is,
of course, just the beginning of the process. But with class, it’s
a lot less obvious. The markers are not clear-cut and I think, especially
in activist circles where casual clothes are the norm (with college
educated activists, in any case), a lot of the superficial markers
aren’t the same as in mainstream society.
you’ve worked with activists on breaking this taboo, what resistance
have you encountered towards people being identified as, for instance,
a working class African-American lesbian, those very specific distinctions
that you make?
probably done 50 classes and workshops where you break into caucuses
by class and, if you put up a definition, or if the group generates
definitions for different class caucuses, the first thing that a
lot of people want to say is how those definitions don’t work
for them. Of course, it’s true that there’s a lot of gray
area. I write about four clumps of class experience in our country.
There are gray areas between each of them and people who move from
one to another during their lifetime. Also, of course, for immigrants,
they’re moving from a different class system in their home
country that doesn’t exactly line up with the one in the U.S.
are the four classes you write about?
trying to go on lived and shared experiences that are so formative
that they give you some worldviews in common. Of course, there are
exceptions to every generalization. Starting at the richest end,
I define owning class as anyone who has enough investment income
that they don’t have to work for a living. Even if you do work
for a living, knowing that you don’t have to is really a formative
middle-class I define as the cluster of life experiences of going
away to college, getting a four year degree or more, having your
family be homeowners, and having some other assets and the type
of jobs where you have a lot of control over your time and your
tasks and, sometimes, other people’s time and tasks—professional
managerial work. That cluster is how I identify myself, as professional
middle-class. That’s who my family was. That’s who I am.
I think we kind of recognize each other as similar, even if we’re
different by race, even if we’re different by geography or
politics, we still have some things in common. That’s about
30 percent of the population.
the other end, about 5 percent of U.S. families are in chronic poverty
for a generation or more. I think that that really stamps you. Again,
no matter how many other differences you have, if you can’t
get your basic needs met, and you’re kind of outside the primary
labor market for decades or generations, that really is such a unique
perspective to look at this economy from. So now I’ve accounted
for about 40 percent of everyone.
remaining 60 percent I would say are working class and lower middle-class
people. They might have some college, but not to the point of getting
a four-year degree. They might own a house, but are probably not
able to trade up to the bigger houses that upper middle-class people
often have. So that’s the biggest and most diverse group.
speak about different focuses of activism in your book. What are
the differences between class-based tensions when you compare social-justice-oriented
activists and environmental-justice-oriented activists?
a good question. I’m not sure I’ve thought about it before.
I profiled some environmental justice activists in the book because
that seems like this extraordinary place where the class make-up
of the environmental movement has changed and that has really strengthened
that movement—the old time conservationists, a lot of them
were owning class, and then there’s a wave of professional
middle-class people getting involved and a newer wave of people
of color and low income people. They are the ones being poisoned
because facilities are getting cited in their low income neighbors
and they have really changed the tenor of the environmental movement.
There are some powerful coalitions around the country. Other environmental
groups have been like, “Oh, well that’s not really what
we’re about,” you know, “Whatever, we’re saving
the tree frogs” or something.
would say the same for the social justice movement. For example,
the antiwar movement and the efforts to stop the Iraq war. There
are some people who are organizing it with the same base as the
Central American anti-intervention movement. So many peace movements
have been made up of college educated people; a lot of it’s
based in the suburbs. There’s a story in the book about a group
that tried to organize a city-wide action against the Iraq war,
but only publicized it through email. It got the black community
really angry because most of the African Americans in that city
were against the war, but they never even got invited to this rally.
Similarly, reaching out to the military families, like Labor Against
War is doing and Military Families Speak Out. They’re people
reaching out to the working class, mostly working class, and poor
families of the Iraq soldiers.
assumptions do middle-class activists make that lead them down the
wrong road in building cross-class alliances?
me there are two broad categories of answers to that. One is overlooking
necessity and one is overlooking intelligence. Our assumptions are
based on our own life experiences as middle-class people. We were
never kept out of a meeting because of the lack of child care or
translation or geography so it doesn’t really occur to us.
Where you put the location of the meeting is going to make a difference
in who comes. Also, the physical accessibility, public transportation,
the time of day, all of those things—what Linda Stout calls
“the invisible walls” that keep working class people out
of coalitions. Then the other thing, of course, is that we all have
those class stereotypes; that anybody without a whole lot of book
learning is sort of dumb. Those stereotypes run through the mainstream
media and culture. If someone’s speaking a different language
or using a dialect, it might take you a little while to figure out
the savvy that they have, catch on that someone in the room actually
has a whole lot more to offer. You may be thinking of them as someone
who has to be taught a lot about the issue and needs a lot of leadership
development. Then later you may figure out they could teach me a
whole lot of things that are very relevant to the community that
you’re trying to organize or the cause that you’re trying
to work on. That’s especially true with the people directly
affected by the problem you’re working on. They have absolutely
crucial knowledge. You can’t do it without the knowledge that
they have. If you’re trying to work for affordable housing,
you have to have the input of the people who can’t afford any
of the housing in that area. They’re the ones who are going
to be able to say whether a certain solution works or not.
Nearby in Oakland, at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights,
Van Jones, the executive director, is a champion of bringing together
the environmental justice movement and the social justice movement.
He’s a critic of environmental activists who are oblivious
to cross-class problems and challenges. He believes that the success
of the larger movement comes from bridging that gap between those
two. How do you feel about this?
think that’s a good example of why you have to talk about class
specifically and not just about race. Often the difference between
people with more and less privilege obviously is the difference
by race because, by and large, white people have more income and
assets and education and people of color mostly have less. But,
of course, that’s just a correlation. The stereotype would
have it that it’s an absolute thing. White people are presumed
to have a lot of class privilege. White poor people often feel like
they’re invisible. And African Americans, Native Americans,
Latinos are often presumed to be poor. So middle-class African Americans,
including some of the people I interviewed for the book, complained
that people presume they don’t have the education they have.
Or that they’re not homeowners. They presume they’re single
parents even if they have a two-parent family.
cannot use race as a stand-in for class. I think that we have somewhat
sloppy thinking and we don’t know how to talk about class.
I learned so much from the interviews that I did, especially with
African Americans, about the class dynamics within the black community.
There’s an incredible history of class solidarity. For example,
of high income African Americans voting along with poor black people
sometimes against their own self-interest. They vote against candidates
that would give them a tax cut, for example. I interviewed a number
of African Americans who grew up working class and have college
degrees, but still strongly identify with and work in working class
black communities who were saying, “Who do these black ‘leaders’
think they are speaking for the whole community?” They’re
angry at the presumption and the way that the issues that mostly
affect the higher income people are used as if they’re everyone’s
issues. The issues that primarily affect the lowest income people,
like AIDS, for example, being overlooked. It’s the same in
every identity group and it’s the weakness of identity politics.
It’s important to have solidarity within any identity. But
the same thing is happening with the gay movement. It’s the
most well off, white gay men who are speaking for the whole community.
The issues that mostly affect the lowest income queers tend to get
overlooked. Same thing happened with the women’s movement and
is still happening. So you need class in the mix. We are never going
to have racial justice until we start doing a better job on class
does your inclusion in the GLBT identity contribute to your understanding
of cross-class tensions?
feel like I’ve watched this whole class dynamic play out in
a community that’s very important to me because I’m part
of it. My partner and I got married, legally, last year. We’re
from Massachusetts and so it was not civil disobedience. We were
actually doing it for real. It was very thrilling. So I do think
that’s an important queer issue. I went to a black tie dinner
of a gay group that I won’t say the name of. My jaw was just
dropping because you got the impression that if only gays could
get married, all would be well. I think getting legally married
is great and it will help erode the prejudice. But it doesn’t
make employment discrimination go away. It doesn’t deal with
the fact that so many kids when they come out end up homeless. Such
a big percent of homeless kids and kids in the foster care system,
it’s because they’re gay or perceived to be gay by their
families, or transgender, even more so. Legal marriage deals with
the healthcare issue if you’re married to an employed person.
But if you’re both unemployed it doesn’t help at all.
It doesn’t substitute for universal health care, which is what
we need. I think that the politics of the GLBT community have gotten
distorted by who’s perceived to be the leaders. There are GLBT
people at every class level in every race and ethnicity and that
should be what the leadership looks like. Instead the media image
is all these very well off white gay men. I enjoy “Queer Eye
for the Straight Guy,” but you would think that basically what
it’s about is access to high priced consumer goods.
You’ve included voices of dozens of activists, scholars,
and authors in your book. Looking back now that the book is complete,
who among them stand out as your greatest teachers?
tough because it really was a remarkable experience to do those
interviews. I learned something from all of them. A couple of people
changed my course a little bit. One was Dorian Warren. I did a presentation
at a working class studies conference and I made some generalizations,
which is always a risky thing to do. Dorian Warren raised his hand
and said, “Those generalizations don’t work for African
Americans.” He’s a black guy. He’s one of those people
that I mentioned before who grew up working class and now has a
college degree. He made these incredibly cogent remarks about class
solidarity. It’s called “a linked fate,” where African
Americans feel that their people are rising and falling together
and so it makes people vote with solidarity. It makes people reach
out across differences, such as class differences. He doesn’t
think it works perfectly. But he thinks it works better than it
does for white people. I remember him responding to that question
of “Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?”
with: “What’s wrong with the kids from Montana that they
don’t know how to have support system to find each other at
the strange new East Coast college?” Or: “What’s
wrong with the white working class people that they don’t instantly
find each other and give each other support? The African-American
students are finding themselves in a majority white situation…far
from home. They have the consciousness that they better give each
other some support to get through that experience.” So I think
he really steered me towards asking that question, “How is
class different for African Americans?”
person influenced me a lot. I had a fairly negative set of initial
questions because I was somewhat burned from some coalitions that
split along class lines and was feeling kind of hopeless when I
started this project. So I wrote questions like, “When have
you seen tensions or disagreements between people of different classes
within a mixed class coalition?” So I was asking for the negative
stories. I was, of course, also going to follow up with, “Well
what did you do about it?” I interviewed Gilda Haas, executive
director of Strategic Alliances for a Just Economy in Los Angeles.
At first I thought maybe it wasn’t going to be a very good
interview because she kind of went, “Hmmm, I don’t know.”
“Hmmmm, I’m not sure I’m thinking of anything.”
At a certain point I shifted what I was asking to “Well, what
is your group doing?” She had such a preference for framing
things positively. She was able to tell me these striking success
stories where, because they tapped into the knowledge of different
classes within their community, they won big victories. After that
I put into every interview, “Have you had any successes that
come out of working together in a mixed class coalition?” I
actually took this long story that she told and put it at the beginning
of the book, along with a couple of other success stores, because
I wanted people who were feeling hopeless and discouraged like I
was to open the book and immediately get a shot of hope that we
actually can have a lot more clout in trying to make social change
if we do a better job.
admit in the book to your own moments of classism. What can readers
do to become more aware of their classists thoughts and words?
not at all preaching like I know the answers. “Oh, I’m
the good middle-class person who never makes these mistakes so let
me enlighten the rest of you.” I was not taking that attitude.
You just have to tell each other the mistakes you make and laugh
about it and go, “Oh, I can’t believe the things I said.”
That’s a better way to work your way through it. I think cleaning
up your language is one subset of classism. There’s the part
about how you deal with actual resources and power and money differences.
But there’s also how you deal with class attitudes in your
language and assumptions. I have on my website an interactive survey
question which is, “What’s the most classist comment you
ever heard?” When I put that up, a couple hundred stories came
in within the first week. It seemed like everybody had a story and
I’ve posted some of them on the website. It is chilling how
otherwise very progressive people use language like “low life”
and “redneck” and “trailer trash.”
number of people from working class backgrounds wrote about how
people say, “Oh, you can’t be working class you’re
so articulate.” Or, “I never would have guessed you’re
so smart.” That’s a terrible stereotype. A major theme
is impugning people’s intelligence. And I think that one’s
a major theme in our political system. After the 2004 election,
there was a whole torrent of bitterness. All of the people who voted
against Bush were appalled at how many people voted for him. A lot
of people expressed that in the form of insulting the intelligence
of the “so-called” red state voters or the Bush voters.
These things just flew around the country like the H.L. Mencken
quote, “Some great and glorious day, the common people of the
land will have their wish and will vote in a down right moron.”
headline in England asking, “How can
59 million people be so stupid?” that got circulated around
liberal and left circles. People were trying to make themselves
feel better. But what they were missing is that in the political
symbolism in the United States when you call people “dumb”
you’re coding them as working class because that’s how
the stereotype runs together. You’re condemning entire working
class cultures. Now, of course, the people who voted for Bush were
disproportionately well off, wealthy people. He did better with
those earning above $100,000 a year than with any other income level.
reason that the Republicans have been able to get people to vote
against their economic self-interests, which is mostly true for
white working class people, is because they tap into people’s
legitimate class grievances and say, “Those coastal liberals,
they’re elites and they’re looking down on the regular
people like you.” And the thing is, they’re right. There
is all this elitism. There is all this looking down on working class
people by the coastal liberal subcultures. And that is the most
deadly attitude we can have. We need to say, “We may be different
from the middle-Americans. We may be different from the white working
class people in the red states, but we have some things in common.”
None of us thinks that you should be able to work full time and
be in poverty. We all agree on that. We all want health care to
be more affordable. Our lifestyles may be different. Our attitudes
to religion may be different. There certainly is a correlation of
disagreeing on some social issues and those we’re not going
to be able to unite on.
have to give up these elitist attitudes. We have to stop using southern
accents or working class accents to make fun of people or ourselves
when we want to sound stupid. We have to stop making fun of what
we think of as “tacky tastes.” The other day I was doing
an interview and someone said, “Oh, I guess I blew it making
fun of the crocheted toilet paper holder.” Yeah, you did. Because
our tastes may be different, but we’re all one country and
there’s a lot of admirable people in those other subcultures
different from our own.
is a radio and print journalist based in northern California. This
interview aired on various community radio stations in June.