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.
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 www.conversationcafe.org, 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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 email@example.com.
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.
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 www.conversationcafe.org/main-survey 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!
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.
The 24-page guide, Organizing Study Circles with Young People, was developed by Everyday Democracy [who used to be known as Study Circles Resource Center] and published in 2003. Oftentimes younger people are excluded from participating in engagement efforts, even though youth have much to offer on making decisions and building community. Study Circles are a style of dialogue process, where a small, diverse group of participants can discuss different points of view; usually with the goal of moving from dialogue to action. The guide gives detailed steps for designing a Study Circles process for young people to come together and dialogue. This process encourages youth to be engaged with a variety of perspectives, to hear and be heard, and ultimately to become more active citizens.
Below is an excerpt from the guide and it can be found in full to download on Everyday Democracy’s site here or at the bottom of this page.
From the guide…
With the growth of study circles as a tool for community dialogue and problem solving, more and more organizers in communities and organizations are reaching out to include young people in study circle programs. This is critical, since young people have a stake in helping our communities work — and they bring unique energy, insights, and assets to public conversations and to solving public problems.
Young people get involved in study circles in many different ways: in schools; as part of community-based or neighborhood programs; in after-school programs or youth organizations; as part of large youth events and conferences, and in other settings where young people spend time. Sometimes young people and adults are together in study circles; sometimes the circles are for youth only. Through this process, young people learn about issues, gain new skills, have a chance to hear and be heard, and find ways to work with others on the issues that are important to them. In short, they have a chance to experience their own potential as active and involved citizens.
Using this guide
The purpose of this guide is to help young people and adults organize successful youth study circles in a variety of settings.
Part 1 provides an Overview of youth study circles, including the rationale for participation, study circle principles, and universal guidelines.
Part 2 covers the basic steps of Organizing study circles with young people.
Part 3 describes different Settings where study circles with youth take place, and advice for organizing in each of those settings.
Part 4 offers a list of Resources.
Part 1: An overview of youth study circles
Young people are key to building our communities and strengthening our democracy. They offer vision, energy, and a distinct point of view about our public concerns. Yet too often, young people are left out of community conversations and decisions — even when the issues directly involve and affect them! Adding these voices to critical community conversations benefits everyone. Young people should be part of the discussions about issues that affect our neighborhoods, schools, congregations, and other organizations. A study circle is a very different kind of conversation for youth and adults alike. The process — making room for all voices, respecting different points of view, emphasizing listening, and searching for common understanding — helps participants address some of our most difficult public issues. Participants find their voice, get involved with others different from themselves, and find ways to make a difference.
Youth study circles …
– offer a different way of talking and listening.
– expand understanding of an issue beyond one’s own view.
– help resolve conflict and promote critical thinking.
– build relationships and bridges among all kinds of participants.
– connect teens with adults and the broader world.
– help teens solve problems and take part in solutions.
Some study circles involve only young people as participants. In this case, the circles provide a structured process for diverse groups of young people to talk about issues they care about. Fostering important peer relationships, study circles promote honest dialogue without adult interference.
In other settings, study circles bring young people together with adults. This approach builds trust and understanding between generations that are often distant or even pitted against one another. With the help of strong facilitation, these study circles provide a setting that offers a new way of hearing one another and then working together. Adults and teens alike attest to the power of this experience.
This is an excerpt from the guide, it can be downloaded in full at the bottom of this page or from Everyday Democracy’s site here.
About Everyday Democracy
Everyday Democracy (formerly called the Study Circles Resource Center) is a project of The Paul J. Aicher Foundation, a private operating foundation dedicated to strengthening deliberative democracy and improving the quality of public life in the United States. Since our founding in 1989, we’ve worked with hundreds of communities across the United States on issues such as: racial equity, poverty reduction and economic development, education reform, early childhood development and building strong neighborhoods. We work with national, regional and state organizations in order to leverage our resources and to expand the reach and impact of civic engagement processes and tools.
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Resource Link: Organizing_Study_Circles_with_Young_People
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.
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.
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!
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!
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!