An English Heritage plaque at Hampton Court Palace Gardens. Photo by Elliott Brown via Flickr (CC BY-ND-SA 2.0)
In an essay at White Noise, Richard Wallace considers his chances at being memorialized with one of the blue English Heritage plaques that dot historic homes in London’s (mostly well-heeled) boroughs:
I mostly think money, power and status are chimeras, eliding the serious parts of the human project… Then I periodically remember those English Heritage blue plaques that go on the walls of noteworthy dwellings, and I think: no. Fuck goodness and principle. I want to get so famous they give my house a medal.
Lack of marketable skills aside, an informal of analysis of plaque recipients reveals the real predictor of plaques: class.
There’s a distinct sense that a certain type of people are predisposed to plaque-worthiness, and the reason is probably what class-progressives already know: that it’s so much easier to get recognised for your achievements if you get a good start in life. This shouldn’t diminish the accomplishment of the great; nor should it mollify less affluent mediocrities. But when we look at these plaques, we are forced remember that English history is uniquely bound to inequality, to people ascending the apex of the world on a staircase of hunched shoulders. Repeat, repeat: David Cameron and his Bullingdon brothers, Theresa May and her fields of wheat. Blue Plaque England is not a place where we can all live. Kensington’s too small for everyone. But as unfair as it is, English Heritage plaques merely record history; nobody can argue that class division is not British. The writing is on the wall.
South Boston, my first world, extends out on the Boston Harbor like an oversized jetty. Winds that whip off the brisk, slate-colored ocean often make the neighborhood feel 10 degrees colder than the weather report, a great advantage in the summer. The grid of streets mapped onto its slopes — lettered verticals and enumerated laterals — offers relieving certainty in a haphazardly planned city known for its confusing road designations. The three-decker, a multi-family home with three individual apartments stacked on top of one another, reigns supreme here. Before gentrification swept across the peninsula and housing prices skyrocketed, entire extended families could live together in the blissful discord of tight quarters. South Boston was, and still is to some extent, the kind of place where residents nod to the people they pass on the street, because if they don’t know the passerby personally, he’s likely the best friend of one of their uncle’s drinking buddies. It is a small town in an urban metropolis. For all these reasons, and many others, some residents insist it’s the best place in the world.
My parents spent the first years of their marriage in South Boston — commonly called “Southie” by residents — living in a waterfront multi-family on Columbia Road. It was there I learned how to crawl and to push buttons on the television remote, and, when presented with my first birthday cake, to smear chocolate frosting all over my face. But a few months before my sister was born, my nuclear family moved to Milton, a “white flight” suburb south of Boston. But the house stayed in the family, and the rest of my mother’s family — my grandparents, uncles, cousins — stayed in South Boston. So it was in South Boston that I celebrated holidays. It was in South Boston that I spent my childhood summer vacations, sitting in front of the air conditioner in my grandparents’ tiny three-room apartment on East Eighth Street.
And Columbia Road once again became my home, after my parents’ divorce seven years ago and the subsequent selling of the house in the suburbs. (It’s as if the suburban experiment was just some dream gone awry.) So Columbia Road was the place I sought refuge when I left my first post-graduate job at a magazine in New York. I lived with my Aunt Jola and Uncle Jack in the first-floor apartment. They tended to me well. They offered me coffee in the morning and wine in the evening. My aunt learned my favorite foods — avocados, blue corn tortilla chips, kale — and made sure to buy them when she went to the market. She saved the Sunday Globe for me. From my bedroom window I could see the small waves of the Boston Harbor splash against the beach across the street.
But after a few months I realized I had to leave Southie. After you’ve lived in a place so different from your home and become ofthat place, you can never really go home again.
In her essay exploring race, class, and identity, Norimine describes how she fell for a man from this very place she is from — a place that is “not glamorous or exotic,” and where “many immigrant kids somehow thrived.”
I had known what I was getting myself into, falling for someone who had very strong ties to the Palouse. I was only 23 when we married, and I had never wanted to be content with the first comfortable option I got. I had wanted to move back abroad, even at the risk of losing a green card. But over time my love for Owen translated to a love for the land that made him, helped him grow. I became comfortable with the idea of living there, while Owen—thinking he had made a commitment to someone who’s going anywhere but there—became comfortable with leaving.
Those dusty, yellow-brown rolling Palouse hills that never looked more beautiful? They were decrepit to Owen, a constant reminder of the land that wasted away under chemical farming to which he helped contribute. We’d drive by and he’d point to the gashes in the hills formed by water runoff, a sign of the damage endured after decades of abuse.
We were looking at the same site but saw very different things. I had romanticized returning to the land that Owen’s family held such ownership to. Owen now saw something else—confinement.
In a personal essay for Vox, Amanda Machado considers what it means to be a Latinx who loves to hike. When she shows up at an aunt’s house in Quito, Ecuador after a three-day hike in the mountains, her aunt seems taken aback by Machado’s rugged appearance and dirty hiking clothes. To her family, her passion for something their ancestors did out of a need — to get from place to place before modern modes of transportation — seems like a step back down the class ladder. But in the United States, the class implications around hiking are the opposite. Here, hiking has largely been the domain of upper-class whites.
A 2011 report by the University of Wyoming found that only one in five National Park visitors in the US was nonwhite. For Latinxs, the number is 1 in 10.
For other forms of outdoor recreation, the numbers are bleaker: A rock-climbing survey found 3.8 percent of climbers were Latinx, and 0.2 percent were black or Asian. A survey by the Outdoor Foundation reported that just 8 percent of Hispanics participated in outdoor sports in 2014.
African-American outdoorsman James Mills called this “the Adventure Gap,” and many others have explored the reasons behind what a Sierra Club blog post called “the unbearable whiteness of hiking.” Ryan Kearney at the New Republic argued that part of the problem was class dynamics. He cited data from the Outdoor Foundation that found 40 percent of people who participate in outdoor recreation have household incomes of $75,000 or more, an income level that only a quarter of Latinx households have. (There’s a significant wage gap between white and Latinx families: College-educated Latinxs still only earn around 69 percent of what white men earn.)
Later in the piece, Machado writes about constantly feeling self-conscious about her identity and concerned for her safety out on the trail, echoing some other women of color who have been writing about finding their place in the great outdoors. In March, Longreads published Minda Honey’s essay, “Woman of Color in Wide Open Spaces,” in which Honey’s expresses her discomfort in National Parks after the oppressive whiteness of the MFA program she’d just completed.
I’d decided to spend four weeks as a woman of color in wide-open spaces detoxing from whiteness. But when I pitched my tent, I hadn’t known that about 80% of National Parks visitors and employees are white. Essentially, I’d leapt from the Ivory Tower into a snowbank. I should have known that Black folks weren’t the target audience for all those memes about the cleansing, revitalizing effects of the Great Outdoors. I should have known from the people in the images. Always white people in zip-up North Face fleeces, stretchy yoga pants, and hiking boots. But I didn’t know, and I gassed up my car and went.
And Rahawa Haile has been writing for various publications about her experiences as a black queer woman hiking the Appalachian Trail. In April she penned an essay for Outside about the trail that took her through counties dotted with confederate flags, locales where the vast majority voted for Donald Trump in the presidential election.
Heading north from Springer Mountain in Georgia, the Appalachian Trail class of 2017 would have to walk 670 miles before reaching the first county that did not vote for Donald Trump. The average percentage of voters who did vote for Trump — a xenophobic candidate who was supported by David Duke — in those miles? Seventy-six. Approximately 30 miles farther away, they’d come to a hiker hostel that proudly flies a Confederate flag. Later they would reach the Lewis Mountain campground in Shenandoah National Park—created in Virginia in 1935, during the Jim Crow era — and read plaques acknowledging its former history as the segregated Lewis Mountain Negro Area. The campground was swarming with RVs flying Confederate flags when I hiked through. This flag would haunt the hikers all the way to Mount Katahdin, the trail’s end point, in northern Maine. They would see it in every state, feeling the tendrils of hatred that rooted it to the land they walked upon.
Even the most self-congratulatory conversations about parenting young children are often tinged with an unmistakable air of guilt. Its source lies in a fundamental contradiction: We might be obsessed with our kids’ food, activities, and intellectual development, but in order to provide these things in the first place, many parents also need to outsource the feeding, playing, and teaching to people who are more or less strangers. We work; they go to day care.
Child care is a minefield of a topic, and navigating it inevitably detonates questions of class and gender, labor and social justice. It’s where politics and geography become not just personal, but also emotional (and, sometimes, heartbreaking). Here are eight stories about day care: a place working parents know all too well, but never quite well enough.
Cohn’s retelling of a fire at a Houston day care facility is harrowing; four children died because of the owner’s negligence. But his story goes beyond one specific incident, chronicling a long history of policy failure that keeps producing horrific tragedies. (As a companion piece, read Dylan Matthews’ interview with Cohn on his reporting.)
A store clerk, an African-American man in his sixties, offered to help us. I told him I was overwhelmed, that plumbing had gotten too complicated. I tried to make a joke by saying it was a lot simpler when everyone used an outhouse. He gave me a quick sharp look of suspicion. I recognized his expression. It’s the same one John T. gave me when I mispronounced his name, the same look I gave John T. when he mentioned “trash food” and social class. The same one I unleashed on people who called me a hillbilly or a redneck.
I understood the clerk’s concern. He wondered if I was making a veiled comment about race, economics, and the lack of plumbing. I told him that back in Kentucky when the hole filled up with waste, we dug a new hole and moved the outhouse to it. Then we’d plant a fruit tree where the old outhouse had been.
“Man,” I said, “that tree would bear. Big old peaches.”
He looked at me differently then, a serious expression. His earlier suspicion was gone.
“You know some things,” he said. “Yes you do.”
“I know one thing,” I said. “When I was a kid I wouldn’t eat those peaches.”
The two of us began laughing at the same time. We stood there and laughed until the mirth trailed away, reignited, and brought forth another bout of laughter. Eventually we wound down to a final chuckle. We stood in the aisle and studied the toilet repair kits on the pegboard wall. They were like books in a foreign language.
America’s best investment ever, in the whole history of our country, was to invest in the public high school and secondary school at the beginning of the 20th century. It dramatically raised the growth rate of America because it was a huge investment in human capital. The best economic analyses now say that investment in the public high schools in 1910 accounted for all of the growth of the American economy between then and about 1970. That huge investment paid off for everybody. Everybody in America had a higher income.
Now, some rich farmer could have said, “Well, why should I be paying for those other kids to go to high school? My kids are already off in Chicago and I don’t care about [other kids].” But most people in America didn’t. This was not something hatched in Washington – small town people got together and said, “Look, we ought to do this for our kids… We ought to have a high school so that every kid who grows up here — they’re all our kids — gets a good high school education.”
Julia Wick | Longreads | November 7, 2014 | 11 minutes (2,674 words)
“I am bone of the bone of them that live in trailer homes.” That’s the first line of Sarah Smarsh’s essay “Poor Teeth,” which appeared on Aeon earlier this month. Like much of Smarsh’s work, “Poor Teeth” is a story about inequity in America. It is also a story about teeth, hers and her grandmother’s and also the millions of Americans who lack dental coverage.
Smarsh has written for Harper’s, Guernica and The Morning News, among other outlets. Her perspective is very much shaped by her personal experiences: She grew up in a family where most didn’t graduate from high school, and she later chaired the faculty-staff Diversity Initiative as a professor at Washburn University in Topeka. I spoke with her about her own path to journalism and how the media cover issues of class. Read more…
University Heights High School is located in one of the poorest congressional district in America, and six miles away, the Ethical Culture Fieldston School charges $43,000-a-year for tuition and is attended by the children of celebrities. In The New York Times Magazine, students from both schools discuss coming together to share their stories, talk about class and privilege, and find the things they have in common.
ANABEL: “I’m very lucky and privileged to have the parents I have. They’ve never stressed money in my life, which has given me an idea of success that isn’t based on money, but rather happiness and self-fulfillment. This may be because my family hasn’t ever openly struggled financially in my lifetime. I don’t usually think of money in a social context — who has more and who has less — but again, maybe this is due to the fact that I’ve never personally struggled to make money or get by.”
KIANA: “I went in there thinking none of the students at Fieldston would understand what any of the kids from my school go through on a daily basis, because they’re most likely all from rich households. But my partner and I had a lot more in common than I thought we would, and these kids were not stuck up like I thought they’d be. Some of them went through similar things that kids from my school have gone through — in some cases, maybe worse.”
“When a stupid person with a smartphone flicks themselves and looks at it,” I said to the room. She replied with a raised eyebrow, “Oh?”
It’s amazing how the news seems so instant to most from my generation with our iPhones, Wi-Fi, tablets and iPads, but actually it isn’t. The idea of information being class-based as well became evident to me when I watched my friends talk about a weeks-old story as if it happened yesterday.
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Miss Sheryl doesn’t have a computer and definitely wouldn’t know what a selfie is. Her cell runs on minutes and doesn’t have a camera. Like many of us, she’s too poor to participate in pop culture. She’s on public assistance living in public housing and scrambles for odd jobs to survive.