Wright speaks on social class

By Joe Cahill
October 17, 2010

The brutal honesty of Dr. Paul Wright’s lecture “Class in America: the Final Frontier of Polite Conversation” resonated through Cabrini College’s mansion with one message; take away racism and prejudice against sexuality or even physique and there’s one unspoken issue that divides the nation—class.

Little thought is given to the differences that arise when one accounts for an individual’s socio-economic classes.

“Racism is incendiary.  Homophobia is incendiary.  Class is different,” Wright, assistant professor of English and co-director of the honors program at Cabrini College, said.  “Class is a slow burn.  It can fester like a wound and make its way into your heart and your soul and cause all sorts of resentments… it’s common to hear questions like ‘is it because I’m black?’ but rarely does one hear ‘is it because I’m poor?’”

Society, as Wright points out, has been classifying things for ages.  Creating distinctions between similar things is natural from an anthropological standpoint.

Western criticism based on class, however, emerged as a serious issue during the Italian Renaissance.

Wright stated that during the late Middle Ages, a war against the elite aristocrats resulted in a social meritocracy, a society where individuals worth amongst others was based on merit.

Ideas of nobility and aristocracy soon fell by the wayside, allowing wealth and commerce to be the determining factor in an individual’s social status.

“Some of the concepts that attach themselves to [this]–honor, duty, obligation and chivalry—start to slip away.  One starts to look at people in a very calculated, mathematical way,” Wright said.

In addition to history, Wright also drew upon popular culture to explain the differences between classes in American society.  He presented a segment of comedian Chris Rock’s standup routine on the differences between “rich” and “wealthy” to why class is both important and controversial amongst individuals today.

“I think what [Rock] is saying demonstrates the paradox of the American relationship to commerce and class,” Wright said.  “On the one hand, we want to imagine [class] as this empowering, emancipating, equalizing force in our world…without thinking for a moment what it would mean if everyone in the nation was as wealthy as Rock mentioned.Would it mean, as is often the case, that our wealth would come at the expense of other parts of the world?”

Class, as it would appear, is the 800-pound gorilla in America’s bedroom.  While constantly present, it is rarely addressed with the candid nature one uses while, often wrongfully, criticizing others based on race or sexuality.  Wright stated that class is the seed from which all other criticism sprouts.

“If we get rid of racism, homophobia, gender discrimination, all these things that we quite rightly want to get rid of, we’d be left to find some new way to separate the haves and have-nots,” Wright said.

Though a grim portrayal of society and our future, Wright called to attention something that is rarely addressed.  Class is an issue, and will always be a cause for distinction in society.

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Joe Cahill

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