City Desk

Actually, It Really Is About Race

Experts agree: Washington's urban divisions are about dollars, not ethnicity.

So declares today's Washington Post: "Class, not race, a divider for many in D.C.," announces the headline above a report on an lengthy Post poll of city residents.  That's not just the copy desk's take, either. In the survey of 1,342 Washingtonians, 56 percent identify income as the main cause of division, compared to just 11 percent who cite race.

Unfortunately, the rest of the data suggests that both the headline and the 56 percent of Washingtonians surveyed are wrong.

Nearly every other question in the poll demonstrates that, on contentious issues, people's views are much more likely to break along lines of race than along lines of income. Take the question that asked residents to rate their neighborhood as a place to live. Some 67 percent of whites who earn more than $100,000 a year said "excellent," as did 56 percent of whites who earn less than $100,000. By contrast, only 34 percent of African Americans pulling down $100,000 declared their neighborhoods excellent, not that far above the 21 percent rating given by African Americans who make less than $100,000. That doesn't look like much of a class division to me.

Same goes for the question about the state of the District's economy. Whites above and below the $100,000-per-year mark were only two percentage points apart, with 74 percent and 72 percent, respectively, answering "excellent" or "good. " African Americans in the $100k category, by contrast, were 30 percent less likely than their white class cohorts to offer a positive response. In fact, the 44 percent of them who said "excellent" or "good" was only 8 percent higher than it was among African Americans earning less than the century mark.

A sociologist could likely point out a lot of reasons why it's a bad idea to determine "class" by the simple question of whether a household makes more than $100,000 a year. A demographer might note that class is often determined by race in D.C. and everywhere else in America. And pretty much any sentient person is aware there are a lot of complicated historic reasons why African Americans with high household incomes would feel less secure in their neighborhoods or less jazzed about the current Washington economy.

But it's also a good bet a lot of those reasons have to do with America's unique history of... race.

Implicit in the fact that an overwhelming majority of survey respondents said that class is the source of D.C.'s divisions is a somewhat sweet-natured wishful thinking. Every other country out there—even those nice, peaceful nations where no one ever owned anyone else and no one ever had to fight back against Jim Crow—is divided to some extent by class. We want to believe that we're heading that way, too. But if we've gotten closer to that sort of equality, these particular survey results don't show it.

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  • anon1

    I think the point here is to understand that race and class are inextricably linked. I think race being the more visible demographic, we often blame it for strife in the city, and class is usually not considered on the surface. I don't see it as one or the other, but both.

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