The Everyday Crimes of Race and Class

Consider carefully the U.S. when children were subjected to horrific labor.

Were the children culpable for that abuse? Did children have the physical or political power to end the abuse?

Or were the adults responsible—the only agents of that process capable of ending child labor?

These may seem to be silly questions with obvious answers, but when racism, classism, and sexism are confronted in the U.S., many shift the accusatory finger to the victims, calling for the victims themselves to right the wrongs leveled against them.

Black and brown people in the U.S. did not create racism, do not perpetuate racism, and cannot end racism. Poor people do not cause poverty, and despite what pandering conservatives believe, cannot “think [their] way out of poverty.” And women are not the cause of rape culture, inequitable pay, and domestic abuse; they cannot end them either.

Change ultimately lies with those who have power—physical, political, financial, ideological.

And there isn’t a damn thing fair about who has power in the U.S.—or who does not.

And while the U.S. has mostly eradicated child labor through laws, we are still confronted with Tamir Rice—a boy, a child shot and killed by a police officer sworn to protect and serve.

Tamir Rice was a child.

For the most part, those people with power don’t give a real damn about Rice’s tragic story. There is some passing rhetoric, but there is no action to prove otherwise.

Philando Castile lies before us now. His tragic story also means almost nothing to those with power, but the lessons are dark and powerful:

“What Mr. Castile symbolizes for a lot of us working in public defense is that driving offenses are typically just crimes of poverty,” says Erik Sandvick, a public defender in Ramsey County, which includes St. Paul and its suburbs….

Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve, a professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at Temple University and the author of Crook County, which documents the problems in the criminal justice system of Chicago, said Castile was the “classic case” of what criminologists have called “net widening,” or the move of local authorities to criminalize more and more aspects of regular life.

“It is in particular a way that people of color and the poor are victimized on a daily basis,” Gonzalez Van Cleve said.

Rice and Castile were criminalized—rendered by the mere facts of race and class.

Being black or brown, poor, or female are burdens from which people cannot take a vacation. Because of systemic racism, classism, and sexism, the condition of scarcity “leaves citizens with no good choices — having to pick, for instance, whether to pay a fine or pay for car insurance,” as Castile represents.

Interpreting Tamir Rice as older than his age and violent, dangerous was nested in the police officer—not Rice.

That officer was an agent of systemic racism that justifies excessive use of force, racial profiling, and a whole host of criminalizing practices by the state.

From school-based discipline polices to zero tolerance, we have ample evidence that formal schooling creates criminals in the same ways policing creates criminals in some neighborhoods (read poor and black, brown).

But as we ignore the tragic stories and lessons of Rice and Castile—among so many others—we also ignore who controls the game.

One day, marijuana possession and sales are crimes, and then, the next, marijuana possession and sales are good ol’ business. In the first case, criminalizing disproportionately black and poor people, and in the second case, making monied white folk wealthier.

There is nothing inherently right or wrong about using or selling marijuana; only who controls the right and wrong matters.

Racism targeting blacks in the U.S. suggests the problems lie in blacks themselves. Classism in the U.S. blames laziness among the poor for poverty. Sexism deems women inferior to men and the cause of their own sexual abuse.

All of this, however, is as obvious as the opening questions.

Brock Turner—privileged, white, and drunk—and Judge Aaron Persky—white, male, and drunk on privilege—are the problems to be addressed.

The even uglier reality is that the power to admit these problems of white privilege and to do something about it rests in people just like Turner and Persky.

2 comments

  1. Chuck Jordan

    Paul, I was wondering if you have written about Octavia Butler, specifically Kindred, or used her in any of your classes. My Upward Bound students (rising seniors, all African-American) have enjoyed this novel. Lots of issues to talk about.

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