Some weeks ago, a law professor at the University of Texas got in trouble for saying that African Americans and Mexicans are at a disadvantage in higher education because they come from cultures that tolerate failure. Jesse Jackson flew to Austin to deliver a fiery speech; students demanded the professor's ouster.
It was all typical of the way we have debated affirmative action for years. Both sides ended up arguing about race and ethnicity; both sides ignored the deeper issue of social inequality. Even now, as affirmative action is finished in California and is being challenged in many other states, nobody is really saying what was wrong with affirmative action: It was unfair to poor whites.
Americans find it hard to talk about what Europeans more easily call the lower class. We find it easier to sneer at the white poor -- the "rednecks," the trailer-park trash. The rural white male is Hollywood's politically correct villain du jour.
We seem much more comfortable worrying about race; it's our most important metaphor for social distinction. We talk about the difference between black and white, not the difference between rich and poor. American writers -- Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison -- are brilliant at describing what it is like to be a racial minority. But America has few writers who describe as well what it is like to be poor. We don't have a writer of the stature of D.H. Lawrence -- the son of an English coal miner -- who grew up embarrassed by his soft hands. At the University of Texas it was easier for the Sicilian-born professor Lino Graglia to notice that the students who dropped out of school were Mexican-American or black than to wonder if they might be poor.
At the same time, the angry students who accused him of racism never bothered to acknowledge the obvious: Poor students DO often come from neighborhoods and from families that tolerate failure, or at least have learned the wisdom of slight expectations. Education is fine, if it works. I meet young people all the time who want to go to college, but Mama needs her oldest son to start working. Better a dollar-and-cents job working at Safeway or McDonald's than a college diploma that might not guarantee a job.
Anyone who has taught poor children knows how hard it is to persuade students not to be afraid of success. There is the boy who is mocked by male classmates for speaking good English. There is the girl who comes from a family where women are not assumed to need, or want, education.
We also don't like to admit, though we have argued its merits for 20 years, that the chief beneficiaries of affirmative action -- black, brown, female -- are primarily middle class. It still doesn't occur to many progressives that affirmative action might be unfair to poor whites. That's because poor whites do not constitute an officially recognized minority group. We don't even notice the presence or, more likely, the absence of the poor white on college campuses. Our only acknowledgment of working-class existence is to wear fashionable working-class denim.
A man I know, when he went to Harvard, had only a pair of running shoes to wear and had never owned a tie. He dropped out of Harvard after two years. I suppose some of his teachers imagined it was because he was Hispanic, not that he was dirt poor. The advantage I had, besides my parents, were my Irish nuns -- who themselves had grown up working class. They were free of that middle-class fear (typical today in middle-class teachers) of changing students too much. The nuns understood that education is not an exercise in self-esteem. They understood how much education costs, the price the heart pays.
Every once in a while, I meet middle-class Americans who were once lower class. They come from inner cities and from West Texas trailer parks. They are successful now beyond their dreams, but bewildered by loss, becoming so different from their parents. If only America would hear their stories, we might, at last, acknowledge social class. And we might know how to proceed, now that affirmative action is dead and so many poor kids remain to be educated.