By Sherri Kolade
Classism throughout the Black community is the elephant in the room.
Classism is defined by the dictionary as a belief that a person’s social or economic station in society determines their value in that society; also, someone’s subsequent behavior that reflects this belief that could lead to prejudice or discrimination.
According to “A House Divided” article about classism in the Black community, class divisions in the country (as many know) is not a new phenomenon.
“These class issues have a historical context in which black people were economically marginalized based on slavery and the Jim Crow laws,” according to the article, which adds that due to affirmative action policies and historically black colleges and universities developing the Black middle class, a growing prosperity has widened the gulf between “lower ends of American society” — people who are poor and Black.
“Currently, there are now two different black Americans: the privileged and the underprivileged. The privileged are the middle and upper classes and the underprivileged are the lower class,” the article added.
Peter Boykin, a full-time community college instructor at Wayne County Community College, historian, independent education consultant, and aspiring author, told the Michigan Chronicle that classism had materialized in the African American during slavery when free African Americans moved North during the Underground Railroad migrated to Southern cities like Charleston, New Orleans, Baltimore, and Atlanta.
“The intermarriage of African Americans and Whites, especially with the Creoles and mulattoes also exacerbated the class divide, especially during Reconstruction and the years after slavery,” he said, adding that the book, Our Kind of People by Lawrence Otis Graham, “brilliantly articulates” how in the 20th century, the constructs of skin color and wealth “antagonized” the selection process when it came to pledging African American fraternities and sororities.
“It was also used as criteria for joining non-Greek organizations that were social clubs or civic organizations in the African American community,” Boykin said, that the subject of is classism in the African American community is not different than that of other groups.
“In my travels to Jamaica and other parts of the Caribbean, I observed that those individuals who had access to education and money, were in power politically and socially. Classism pretty much has its roots in Europe and Asia. It existed in Africa too pre-arrival of the Europeans Manifest Destiny campaign,” he said, adding that Europeans took it to the level of exploitation.
Boykin added that in 2021, classism in the African American community is a “detriment to our progress” for many reasons.
“We still have many who have been left behind,” he said. “We must bring back the village concept which I think was stronger during segregation in order for us to truly prosper and rise to the occasion as our ancestors would have wanted us to.”
From Blue Collar to White Collar
Resident Myles Miller grew up in a working-class family that taught him the value of hard work and higher education as a means toward upward mobility, he said.
Miller, an alum of the University of Michigan – Ann Arbor, attended during the era when Affirmative Action was being scrutinized and racial tensions were at an all-time high.
“Classism amongst the Black Community on campus was rampant also. There was an obvious sense of entitlement from Black students who came from a more affluent background versus those who had to ‘get it from the mud,’” Miller said.
Coming from a UAW family (his grandfather worked for 50 years at Ford Motor Company) his father worked at Chrysler and inspired him to where he is today.
“I understood the value of blue-collar work. I worked for a supplier to GM, testing engines for Cadillac,” he said adding that he also took on some white-collar jobs, too. I have experience selling insurance as an independent agent for AFLAC.”
In the past seven years, he also worked in state and local government, first as chief of staff to the Hon. LaTanya Garrett at the Michigan House of Representatives and currently as a policy analyst to the Hon. Roy McCalister, Jr. on the Detroit City Council.
Outside of work, he is a motivational speaker, coach, and more.
“I enjoy empowering others to live the life of their dreams because I believe that too many folks are walking around living their nightmares,” the married father said, adding that his jobs caused people to treat him differently depending on where he worked. “I’ve had people feel that they could talk to me any kind of way and treat me even worse. We can fix classism by encouraging unity amongst our community and empowering each other to be our brother’s and sister’s keeper.”
Fourth Generation Detroiter Let’s it be Known
Roslyn Ogburn, a single mom of five, is a fourth-generation Detroiter, and a self-proclaimed housing warrior, who has advocated for others her entire life, according to her biography. Ogburn, who co-founded Nexus Detroit — a food pantry that provides meals to thousands of families in Detroit — said that she has experienced the brunt of classism and assumptions in many areas in her life.
“By organizing for over 20 years I’ve engaged in many spaces with those that don’t look like me — or (they) have six-figure salaries and multiple letters behind their names, it is so humorous because they try to figure out how I am in the room until I speak about the subject matter,” she said.
Ogburn said that she tries not to uplift her education or accomplishments until she is asked.
“I allow my experience, expertise, and knowledge to be exhibited,” she said.
Ogburn, who is a candidate for state representative, ninth House District for 2022, said that many times she was asked questions about her degree level, credit status and if she owned her own home.
“These questions allowed me to see how people first access, review or come up with their own conclusions about you based on these things,” she said.
Ogburn (whose great grandfather Robert Hart built his house in 1927 on 12th and W. Warren) has deep ties to Detroit – even after she was born in Los Angeles. She is the oldest of four children and attended private school and other activities for the “financially esteemed.”
“But there were days I can remember classism impacting our families in a micro-aggressive way with majority white neighbors,” she said, adding at 11 years old she returned to Detroit so her mother could take care of her ailing grandmother.
While in Detroit her family lived in a low-income housing unit.
“This was very unsatisfactory for my mother. She expected a better quality of living than the city was offering,” she said, adding that over the years she has learned the city like the back of her hand and learned the different economic levels from the historic districts, larger housing stock communities, and the neighborhoods downtown, which she said, “receive more attention and care.”
“This is a blatant example of classism,” she said, adding that she grew from living in the projects to having the “privilege” of being a housewife for over a decade where she honed the craft of volunteerism.
Ogburn, who has lived on both sides of the spectrum of social status, wants to fix the concept of classism in the Black community.
“If we understand there is an income difference but that doesn’t define who you are but yet allowing all classes to have access to thrive, achieve and be better to balance the difference is what is needed to ensure classism (doesn’t’ box us in),” Ogburn said.
Contact Staff Writer Sherri Kolade with story ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.