Race shouldn't overshadow economic class concerns

Two native sons have written acclaimed books: Ta-Nehisi Coates' "Between the World and Me" and D. Watkins' "The Beast Side." The books are all the rage and convey the outrage Messrs. Coates and Watkins feel about growing up black and experiencing racism on the streets of Baltimore.

Our entire nation is implicated and indicted. Messrs. Coates and Watkins brilliantly plumb the depth of American prejudice and repression. All black people, they write, are Freddie Gray — and Mike Brown in Ferguson, Eric Garner in Staten Island and Tamar Rice in Cleveland. Police brutality and mass incarceration are national evils.

We should be grateful that they and others have caused us to see racial injustice in such real and stark terms. Still, I fear that the national debate is being too narrowly framed; that race is overshadowing economic class as we seek to address the complex causes and cures for black grievances.


A focus on economic class — on the poverty and inequality that affects a majority of white people as well as black people and other minorities — is the political path that offers the most hope. We need to be more aware of the breadth and depth of the political base that can do the most good for most black and other low-income and working-class Americans.

For example, Eduardo Porter, an economics columnist for The New York Times, after studying data on the progress of African-American schoolchildren, recently wrote that 50 years ago, the black-white proficiency gap was much larger than the rich-poor gap; but today "the proficiency gap between the poor and the rich is nearly twice as large as that between black and white children."


I study a lot of data on the plight of public schools, but this was a revelation to me. And it illustrates the force of the conclusion of Richard Kahlenberg, a pre-eminent education policy analyst at the Century Foundation: "We continue to struggle with racial discrimination in this country, but class has become a far-larger impediment to a person's life chances than race."

The race vs. class dispute has long haunted and divided liberals of any color. But, of course, it's not either/or. We need to heed Messrs. Coates and Watkins and be acutely conscious of the singular suffering of black people, and attack the structural racism that underlies the breakdown of our criminal [in]justice system.

At the same time, we need to recognize the potential of a class-based political movement, and avoid misunderstandings like that between Bernie Sanders and Black Lives Matter. As a presidential candidate and U.S. senator, Mr. Sanders has been a lifetime civil rights fighter with a 100 percent rating from the NAACP; his progressive economic and social proposals exceed those of any other presidential candidate in their probable benefit to black people. Yet, protesters from Black Lives Matter disrupted several of his speeches, and the media frequently mention his struggle to connect with black people.

The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. had the right perspective on the integration of race and class politics. His civil rights campaigns evolved from a near-exclusive focus on racial equality to the Poor People's Campaign for economic justice for all.

Mr. Coates gets it too. While "Between the World and Me" has been criticized for being short on policy prescriptions, his not-to-be-missed article in The Atlantic on "The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration" points to a broad array of government actions beyond criminal justice policy that could make a difference.

Black people also appear to understand. In a national poll in 2013, only 19 percent of black people supported racial over economic class preferences in college admissions.

The time for political action is ripe. At long last, inequality in income and wealth has become a respectable talking point among Democrats and even some Republicans.

True, many political conservatives and wealthy interests will once again try to discredit the movement with cries of "class warfare." But with a populist coalition that is both race- and class-based, and with black people playing a prominent role, we will be on the right track to heed the anguished words of Messrs. Coates and Watkins and end the era of too many Freddie Grays.


Kalman R. Hettleman is a former member of the Baltimore school board and former state human resources secretary. His email is