Robert Paul Wolff is a Jewish philosopher who taught at Harvard, Columbia and Chicago before becoming head of the Afro-American Studies department at the University of Massachusetts. Now retired in North Carolina, he blogs at The Philosopher’s Stone. The excerpt below is from an essay called “Free, White, and Twenty-one.” In it he takes on the political question of the week: What Can South Carolina Possibly See in Newt?
It was more or less at this time that a new and curious linguistic practice entered the public speech of America. Ordinary White working class families began to be referred to, and increasingly referred to themselves, as “middle class.” Now “middle class” is itself a rather suspicious bastard sociological category. It does not have the historical roots and deeper meaning of “petty bourgeoisie,” which conveys the notion of shopkeepers and small business owners who, although owners of their means of production, are yet not the great geldbesitzeren or haute bourgeois who command the economic heights. But it also does not merely mean “between rich and poor.” It does, in the American context, somewhat correspond to the old distinction between “suits” and “shirts” or “white collar” and “blue collar.” However, in the racially segregated America of the ’50s and ’60s, “middle class” clearly meant suburban, respectable, not living in an inner city ghetto. It meant NOT BLACK.
The Civil Rights Movement challenged the Black Codes, it challenged Jim Crow, it challenged the deeply embedded caste system of American society. And it was successful! I will yield to no one in my outrage at the discriminations that still afflict Black Americans, but I am old enough to recall what this country was like in the ’40s and ’50s, and that change has been dramatic, transformative, and irreversible.
We may celebrate this change as the greatest progressive victory of the twentieth century, but to a large number of Americans, the change has been devastating, incomprehensible, and hateful. No longer can Whites at the bottom of the economic ladder console themselves, in the dark night of their souls, with the secret thought, AT LEAST I AM NOT BLACK.