Durham’s Most Un-Wanted: The Clandestine Clash of the Classes

“Durham is marketed, nationwide, as a place where ‘good things things are happening,’” writes Paul Scott. “The question should be ‘yeah, but for whom?’”
“Durham is marketed, nationwide, as a place where ‘good things things are happening,’” writes Paul Scott. “The question should be ‘yeah, but for whom?’”

“More than racism / It’s stay-in- your place-ism”

– “Civil War” – Immortal Technique

I remember like it was yesterday, the first time I was given “the Quiz.” It was during the early ’90s at my inaugural community meeting and I was decked out in my off-white, discount store dress shirt and bright red clip-on tie trying to strike a political convo with one of Durham’s well- to- do folk.

Before I could get “Hi my name is …” out of my mouth I was bombarded with questions: “where do you work / where did you go to school / who’re your kinfolk ?” Since my answers apparently didn’t match her standards, I was left standing there in the middle of the conference room feelin’ like Bobo the Clown with leprosy, holding a chicken wing.

While Durham is marketed, nationwide, as a place where “good things things are happening,” the question should be “yeah, but for whom ?” The view from the hood is a lot different than the view from the penthouse.

Although race is often discussed in this country, when it comes to her first cousin, “class,” well ... not so much.

Historically, deep, practical discussions on class have been replaced by theoretical, shallow arguments over race. Some historians have even suggested the Civil War was as much about the conflict between the Northern industrialists and Southern aristocrats as it was about racial superiority.

This is, certainly, not to say that the issue of race should be dismissed in America.

There have been attempts to unite poor blacks and poor whites to “stick it to the man” (i.e. the Populist Party). However, the Populist Party, Communist Workers Party and labor organizations underestimated the power of white supremacy and made a grave error in trying to put a dress and lipstick on the racist two-ton elephant in the room like no one would notice.

Both racism and classism exist, but economic inequality has been a harder and more expensive discussion.

So, although W.E.B. Du Bois was correct when he warned of the color line being the most important issue of the 20th century, in the 21st century the poverty line is of ever-growing importance, especially in our booming Triangle where it is easy to see where the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting, relatively, poorer.

Classism has always hovered over Durham like a specter. For anyone doubting the fact, I urge you to study Glenda Gilmore’s book, “Defying Dixie “ or Leslie Brown’s work “Upbuilding Black Durham.”

In the New Durham, the patronizing, catchphrase of “helping the poor” is trendy, and it sounds good in theory. But what about in practice?

Although some folk champion causes like mixed-income housing, many have the NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) mentality. Someone may sympathize with the poor from a distance, but shudder at the notion of Harry Hippie waving at her when she runs out to the driveway to pick up her morning paper in her Michael Kors house robe. Also, how many of Durham residents have placed their kids in private schools simply because they didn’t want them to sit at the lunch table with “those” people?

Even among community activists classism exists: the blue-collar activists in the hood getting chased by pit bulls while the white collar crowd makes deals in fancy restaurants while passing the Grey Poupon.

Although, there are organizations that, supposedly, have the best interests of the less fortunate at heart, the poor become political pawns, rolled out during election season and then quickly shoved back in the closet after the last vote is counted.

Instead of the better off speaking for the poor, it’s time to let the poor speak for themselves.

Until we have an honest discussion about classism, Durham’s story will continue to be a tale of two cities divided by people who had things handed to them on a silver platter and those, as local, grassroots activist Rodney Williams is fond of saying, who had to “get it out the mud.”

Paul Scott’s column appears on the first and third Saturdays of the month. Follow him on his website NoWarningShotsFired.com or on Twitter @NWSF