The morally lazy white middle class

By Robert Jensen

Published in Poverty & Race · November, 1999

The invitation to write this commentary asked for reaction to the “sadly dour view” on integration of Steinhorn and Diggs-Brown. Yet I don’t find the authors’ view sad or dour; their conclusion that racial integration is an illusion is honest and hopeful. Like the authors, it seems to me that the only hope of progress toward racial justice in this country requires this kind of realistic assessment of the situation we find ourselves in. Painful as it sometimes was, as I read I could see not only the lives of my fellow Americans in their book, but my own life as well.

So, I could pick nits on a couple of points (most noticeably, I found their final suggestion about an advertising campaign against racism to be strangely off the mark). My most important reaction to the book, however, is not so much to the authors’ claims as to an underlying reality that struck me. As I read, I realized that the U.S. middle class, particularly the white middle class, is probably the single biggest impediment to justice the world has ever known. While Steinhorn and Diggs-Brown, noting how quickly they abandoned the dream of integration, do suggest the magnanimity of the middle class is overestimated, I think the point needs to be stated even more bluntly.

In both domestic and international policy, it is the self-interested behavior or the inattention to injustice on the part of the middle class that makes possible the oppressive policies of the United States — the attack on labor unions and working people, the coddling of big business that produces obscene gaps in wealth and privilege, the abandonment of the poor, and the assault for five decades on any third world movement that dared to strike out on an independent course.

While it is a much more elite class that plans, executes and primarily benefits from those policies, it is a materially affluent, politically quiescent and morally lazy middle class that allows the elite strata to get away with it. In a nominal democracy in which the use of direct coercion and violence against the middle class is virtually unheard of, the complicity of the middle class has to be faced honestly.

As Steinhorn and Diggs-Brown point out, that complicity on domestic race relations is clear: The white middle class has turned its back on residential and school integration, the linchpins of any true integration of racial groups. But I would go further, to highlight how racism and complacency allow other U.S. crimes to go unpunished. As I write this, for example, the United States continues to demand that the most comprehensive regime of economic sanctions continue to be imposed on Iraq, while also conducting a low-level bombing campaign. The predictable result of this starve-and-bomb strategy is that as many as 1 million Iraqi civilians, at least half of them children under the age of 5, have died as a direct result of U.S. policy in the past nine years, according to United Nations studies.

While one can argue about the underlying rationale for the policy, at the very least decent people should be able to see that making innocent civilians suffer and die at near-genocidal levels to achieve the policy is a crime against humanity. Yet when I have confronted my middle-class cohort on this issue, I most often get a half-hearted shrug and a “that’s the way the world works” comment. Usually unspoken, but often intimated, of course, is, “What’s the big deal? They’re just Arabs.”

If anything, Steinhorn and Diggs-Brown may not be dour enough. The shameful moral and political performance of the middle class does not inspire confidence in the future for progressive politics. But, perhaps paradoxically, in the United States it may be that the middle class is our best hope for a progressive future. As hard as it is to imagine the middle class exhibiting the political will necessary for that future, it is even harder to imagine that future without the middle class taking an active role. Let us all commit to the self-reflection, dialogue and activism necessary for that transformation.