the different logics of class and race

It’s common to list racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia together. These are all important and bad phenomena, but they have different logics, and I’m not sure it’s helpful to put them in a single category. Here I explore the differences by focusing on racism and classism.

Older meanings of racism were, I think, always attitudinal. To be a racist was to have negative attitudes toward a racial group, even if those attitudes were unconscious. We now speak of structural racism, which can exist even in the absence of racist attitudes. I sort of wish that we just called that problem “racial injustice,” because the “-ism” suffix connotes an attitude or mindset. But I can accept the linguistic evolution, and I certainly believe that both interpersonal racism and structural racial injustice persist and are destructive.

Classism can be made analogous to the older meaning of racism. You’re a classist if you hold someone in lower regard because of the status of her job, her working-class accent, her neighborhood of birth, or her parents’ social role. Classism of that kind is evident and harmful.

Structural classism would then mean some kind of advantage enjoyed by people due to their class. But this is where the analogy breaks down. Classes are differences in status, power, and advantage. If a society has classes at all, then it gives people different advantages. Put a different way: if a society differentiates among social roles, then it has classes, and that’s structural classism.

Racism is never justifiable, and it’s possible to envision a society that has racial diversity yet no racism. Indeed, I hope that’s where we are headed. In contrast, it’s impossible to imagine a society with classes that doesn’t have “structural classism,” if that means different levels of status, power, or money for different social roles. In theory, we could pay everyone the same salaries, but I’m not sure that would work in practice, and even if it did, it wouldn’t eliminate differences in the quality of work or the status of professions.

Further, classes may be justifiable or even good. Some argue that a classless society is the ideal. We haven’t seen one, however: communist societies produced powerful, detached social strata–the nomenklatura, etc. John Rawls argued that it’s right to pay heart surgeons more than carpenters if (and only if) that is necessary to serve the interests of cardiac patients–who would want highly skilled doctors. Rawls was not perfectly egalitarian, but he was more egalitarian than many Americans, who would make principled and sincere arguments in favor of different pay and status for jobs of different difficulty and complexity.

To say that structural racism exists is to make a critique. To say that classes exist raises the question of whether they are good or bad, and that is worthy of discussion.

One can see the analogy break down in educational settings. A university, for example, ought to be free of both interpersonal and structural racism. It should strive to be a place where your race doesn’t affect how well anyone else treats you or how you flourish. A university cannot, however, be free of class if it exists to provide the education that people need to enter certain desirable professions. If a university prepares people to be teachers, doctors, accountants, and poets, then it is producing a certain class. They could theoretically be paid the same as domestic workers and laborers; they would nevertheless form an advantaged group. A university can strive to reduce interpersonal classism, in the form of prejudice against first-generation students and its own blue-collar employees. But as long as it has blue-collar employees at all, it has classes; and as long as it promises good jobs for its graduates, it generates the class structure. Again, this may be necessary, justifiable, or even good–but it’s no use pretending that an advanced educational institution could be class-free.

Ending racism is theoretically possible and compatible with everyone’s legitimate best interests. You have no right to any advantage conferred by your race, and the very existence of such differences is caustic for all. In contrast, ending class differences might be just, if it’s possible, but it is not compatible with everyone’s interests. We like to talk about “social mobility,” because then we can focus on happy upward trajectories from poor to rich. But for everyone who moves up, someone else must go down. For instance, if the children of domestic workers have a decent chance of growing up to be doctors, then the children of doctors must have a good chance of cleaning houses for a living. Again, we could reduce the disparities in after-tax income and political power, but there will still be winners and losers as long as some people diagnose patients while others clean homes for a living.

Finally, the causation seems to be different. Presumably, interpersonal racism was an original cause (although maybe not the only original cause) of structural racism. We wouldn’t have had slavery, Jim Crow, or redlining if most white people had held most black people in high regard. But today the causal link may be weakened, for structural racism can persist even in the absence of interpersonal racism. For instance, assume that white college grads come to feel benignly and respectfully toward all other races. Still, if each college grad succeeds in getting his own children into a desirable college, those colleges will enroll mostly white students. As long as the distribution of goods in a society is racially unjust, you don’t need interpersonal racism to replicate the inequality; you just need unequal resources plus self-interest.

Meanwhile, interpersonal classism is mainly a consequence of objective differences in income, status, and power. It’s not that middle-class people are prejudiced against working-class people and give them bad jobs. It’s rather that people with bad jobs get treated worse. That pattern can turn into class prejudice, as when a person who has a working-class accent but plenty of money gets treated rudely at a snooty restaurant. But classism of that sort is not the main problem. The main problem is the real distribution of status, wealth, and power in the society. To change that is not a matter of improving attitudes but of redesigning institutions.

NCDD is the New Steward for Conversation Café! – Now What?

In case you haven’t heard, the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation has become the new steward of Conversation Café (CC). Andy has revamped the CC website, which you can check out at, and we are in the process of reconnecting with the CC network and figuring out how we can best support and grow this important community.

NCDD’s Sandy Heierbacher and Keiva Hummel will be spearheading this effort, so feel free to contact either of us if you have questions or want to help out!

We’ve created a new one-way announcement list to share news about Conversation Café happenings once in a while (no more than monthly). We encourage all of you to subscribe to that list if you have some interest in CC’s by sending a blank email to

If you’re a Conversation Cafe host or promoter (or want to be) also consider joining the new Cafe-Community listserv – a discussion list we’ve modeled after the NCDD Discussion list to encourage CC leaders to network, share information, and discuss key issues facing the CC community. To join that list, send a blank email to

Why does NCDD feels it’s important to support Conversation Café?

Back in March 2014, we had an amazing conversation with the NCDD community on the blog here about whether we should play this role, and though there were many eloquent arguments both for and against NCDD becoming the new stewards for the CC method, we decided in the end that it was important to help this elegantly simple approach survive and thrive – and we hope you can support our decision!

We think Conversation Café is a wonderful model for dialogue that can and should be widely adopted across the U.S. and the globe. Our vision for Conversation Café, in part, is that it be used to help communities address national and local crises that call for immediate dialogue.

We think CCs are nimble, accessible, and elegantly simple enough to be used very quickly by many people, and NCDD is particularly well equipped to help new CC groups use other forms of dialogue and deliberation when the time is right.

We also just want to see more people, in more places, engaging regularly in conversations that matter, and feel that Conversation Café is uniquely suited to helping make this happen.

In addition to subscribing to the announcement list or discussion list mentioned above, we strongly encourage any of you who have hosted CCs to take a minute and complete the quick form at to tell us a little about your work and interests. Our main interest right now is to learn about what is currently (and has been) going on in the Conversation Café community, and this would help us a great deal!

Sebastian Junger’s Meditation on Tribes

Why is it that American combat veterans experience the highest rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the world, while soldiers from other countries have far lower levels?  Amazingly, warriors of the past, such as Native Americans, rarely experienced PTSD-like symptoms.

In his new book Tribe, Sebastian Junger argues that much of the difference lies not in the individuals, but in the societies to which they return. During a war, American soldiers become deeply immersed in a life of mutual support and emotional connection.  Then they return home to a hyper-individualistic, fragmented, superficial consumer society.  The shift is just too troubling for many.  Life is suddenly bereft of collective meaning. There is no tribe.

It turns out that PTSD is not just about coping with memories of death and destruction; it is an abrupt loss of tribal ties and a resulting crisis of meaning. “When combat vets say that they miss the war,” writes Junger, “they might be having an entirely healthy response.”

“As awkward as it is to say, part of the trauma of war seems to be giving it up,” Junger insists. The intense, shared purpose in life-and-death circumstances is intoxicating and fulfilling. As one soldier told oral historian Studs Terkel, “For the first time in [our] lives….we were in a tribal sort of situation where we could help each other without fear.”

This theme was moving explored by Rebecca Solnit in her beautiful book, A Paradise Built in Hell, which describes how people show amazing empathy and help for each other in the face of earthquakes, hurricanes and wars. Londoners who lived through the Blitz during World War II don’t really yearn for the danger or death of that time.  They do yearn for the profound unity and cooperation that the Blitz inspired.   

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Civics Lessons Within Physical Education

As you know, the Florida Joint Center for Citizenship is working with Polk County to launch the new public K-8 Citrus Ridge Civics Academy. One of the goals of our work at Citrus Ridge is to ensure that all stakeholders understand civics as a part of life. Civic knowledge, skills, and dispositions are embedded within every course, every facet of the school, and every element of school community life. This include physical education.

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Coach Emily Retzlaff is making it happen in PE. Our Peggy Renihan had the chance to see her in action as she integrated civic learning into physical education.

In Physical Education, as a way to incorporate Civics instruction, we play a game called The Elections.  There needs to be a boundary area marked by 4 cones that make a square.  You will also need 4 pool noodle sticks. The area is big enough so the students can run safely.  Each cone is numbered from 1-4.  There are Voters; who run around and try to dodge the Candidates.  The Candidates, who have noodle sticks try and tag the Voters when their numbers are called.  When the Candidates tag the Voters, they take their vote.  When the Voters number is called they will run across the field to the other side and stay as long as the Candidates did not touch them with the noodle stick and take their vote.  The Voters change their number even if they are at a differently numbered cone.  Number 1 Voters will run to number 3 cone.  Number 3 Voters will run to number 1 cone.  Number 2 Voters will run to number 4 cones.  Number 4 Voters will run to number 2 cones.  Once the Voter has their vote taken they will find the coach and stand outside the playing area.  The Candidate with the most votes wins.

We also talked about privilege and right.  In my Physical Education Class it is a privilege to have free time or choice time.  Free time or choice time is where students get to choose what they would like to play, i.e. basketball, soccer, jump ropes, hula hoops, etc. on that day.  We talked about when they turn 18 they have a right to vote.  Free time or choice time is not a right like voting.  We used the example of driving as a privilege when the students turn 16.

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This is a creative way to get kids thinking about choices, responsibility, and yes, even elections! We are grateful to Coach Retzlaff for embracing the mission of Citrus Ridge Civics Academy! If YOU have any ideas or suggestions for integrating civics skills, knowledge and dispositions into the curriculum outside of social studies please leave a comment or email me with your thoughts. We want to make this work!

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Join NCDD’s “Democracy Machine” Confab Call on Thurs.

We wanted to share a friendly reminder that time is running out to register for our next NCDD Confab Call, which takes place this Thursday, August 25th from 1-2 PM Eastern (10am-11am Pacific)! We are excited to be hosting a call with NCDD members John Gastil and Luke Hohmann about their expansive vision of creating a “Democracy Machine” – an integrated online commons comprised of today’s best civic technology and digital deliberation platforms. Be sure to register today to join the conversation!Confab bubble image

On the call, John and Luke will introduce the NCDD network to their project of making this vision a reality. They are gathering together software designers, civic reformers, academics, and public officials to envision and build the “democracy machine” as a digital public square that would draw new people into the civic sphere, encourage more sustained and deliberative engagement, and send ongoing feedback to both government and citizens to improve how the public interfaces with the public sector. NCDD members will have an important role to play, so make sure to register for the call to find out how you can be involved!

Participants in the call are invited to bring ideas and questions about the design and development of the “democracy machine” to share with John and Luke.  We also encourage participants to read about the basic concept in John’s recent post on the Challenges to Democracy blog or read his full essay, “Building a Democracy Machine: Toward an Integrated and Empowered Form of Democracy,” by clicking here.

Don’t forget! John will also be hosting an interactive session on building the “democracy machine” during the NCDD 2016 conference, so be sure to register for the conference today so that you can continue the conversation in person!

National Multi-Level Stakeholder Consultation (Trans Action Khyber Pakhtunkhwa)

Problem: Despite the Pakistani Supreme Court’s 2009 granting third-gender certification on their national ID and the ability to vote to Khwaja Siras, individuals who self-identify as third-gendered, the community continues to face an excruciating level of discrimination, gendered violence and arbitrary state violence. Some note that the term Khwaja Sira...