02/17/2009 12:29 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Class is NOT the New Race

Michelle Obama's photo on the cover of Vogue has been the talk of the morning talk shows, where one host complimented her as "your everyday working woman" who really represents "the working class mom" in the US today. Michelle Obama as "Working Class Mom"? While the price tags on her oft-cited J. Crew clothes may be a far cry from that of previous first ladies, is it really representative of the wardrobe of working class families today?

I admit I too thought the Obama daughters' inauguration day coats were cute, and I have a daughter, so I checked out the J. Crew website. Here is what I found...

Cotton ruffle cardigan $68.00; garden party dress $98.00; jeans $98.00; twinkle ballet flats $128.00; trench coat $168.00; and cotton organdy dress $198.00.

How many families can afford these prices?

The median household income in the country today is $48,000. The mainstream media continues to distort the reality of class, painting a fairly pretty picture of what it is like to be working class. We hear very little about the tremendous gap between the very wealthiest households, and everyone else. Income inequality has grown steadily throughout the 80s and 90s and the top 1% of households in the country today has a net worth greater than 90% of all households combined!

While there is little left we can actually afford to buy today, we especially can't afford to buy the argument that race is no longer salient. Headlines like "The End of White America?" and "Race Over" abound (The Atlantic, Jan/Feb 2009). In "Class is the new Race," Joel Kotkin states that Obama's "ascension to the Presidency...means[s] race is no longer the dominant issue in American politics. Instead, over the coming decades, class will likely constitute the major dividing line." (Newsweek, January 26, 2009, pp. 64)

It is about time we started talking about class inequality in the US, but it is not an either or division. We have ignored the reality of increasing class inequality for the past 30 years, but let's not make the same mistake now with race. Class and race intersect. We are all impacted by both class and race dynamics. Even in the face of legal and political gains, there is no evidence to suggest that the racial economic divide is decreasing. And the reality is that during economic downturns, minority communities suffer first and worst. Economic gains made by people of color are generally only very recent gains, and thus most tenuous and vulnerable. They are much less likely to have inherited wealth from previous generations to soften the blow during a crisis. Consider the statistics:

·The racial gap in median family incomes gap narrowed only slightly over the past 50 years
·Black households are twice as likely as whites to have a negative net worth or none at all
·Less than 10% of whites but almost ¼ of all Black and Latino households live in poverty
·The unemployment rate for blacks remains twice that of whites, unchanged since the early 1970s
·From 1970 to 2007 the gap between home ownership rates for whites and blacks actually grew, and is now being compounded by the current foreclosure crisis.

I applaud the current examination of class inequality. Maybe the vast majority of white families who have seen their standard of living decrease in recent decades, who are now losing their jobs, and homes, and healthcare, will finally see their interests are aligned with people of color. Arguing that either race or class is more salient is pointless and divisive. A very, very small number of people have reaped most of the benefits from our failing economic system, and it is about time the other 90% of us started working together to demand better.