David Brooks thinks it's wrong to compare Ferguson to pivotal moments of the civil rights era because, as he sees it, prejudice in America is different now:
... the nature of racism has changed. There has been a migration away from prejudice based on genetics to prejudice based on class....I give Brooks a tiny bit of credit for acknowledging that many people apply their prejudices to all blacks, just "based on a single glimpse at skin color." What I don't buy is what he's saying about the white poor. Brooks hangs out with a lot of swells, and maybe they genuinely loathe and fear the white poor as much as they do the black poor. But I don't see that in the rest of white America.
Today we ... have a sharp social divide between people who live in the "respectable" meritocracy and those who live beyond it. In one world almost everybody you meet has at least been to college, and people have very little contact with features that are sometimes a part of the other world: prison, meth, payday loans, a flowering of nonmarriage family forms. In one world, people assume they can control their destinies. In the other, some people embrace the now common motto: "It don't make no difference."
Widening class distances produce class prejudice, classism. This is a prejudice based on visceral attitudes about competence. People in the "respectable" class have meritocratic virtues: executive function, grit, a capacity for delayed gratification. The view about those in the untouchable world is that they are short on these things. They are disorganized. They are violent and scary. This belief has some grains of truth because of childhood trauma, the stress of poverty and other things. But this view metastasizes into a vicious, intellectually lazy stereotype. Before long, animalistic imagery is used to describe these human beings.
This class prejudice is applied to both the white and black poor, whose demographic traits are converging. But classism combines with latent and historic racism to create a particularly malicious brew. People are now assigned a whole range of supposedly underclass traits based on a single glimpse at skin color.
I certainly don't see it in the actions of cops. Yes, they can single out blacks very easily using skin color, but surely there's something -- clothing or other social markers -- that might distinguish the white underclass that Brooks thinks we're so afraid of. So why aren't poor white young males being routinely stopped by the cops? Why aren't poor whites being routinely threatened with lethal force despite a lack of reasonable suspicion of criminality, or being killed before cops have even made a real effort to determine whether they're a genuine threat? Where are the poor white adult men who've been shot while innocently examining weapons at the mall, or poor white kids who've been shot while playing with toy guns?
Over Thanksgiving, in search of entertainment my 87-year-old mother might like, we watched the 2008 film Swing Vote. In this movie, Kevin Costner plays a shiftless loser -- a heavy drinker with a criminal record who can't hold a job and who has custody of his daughter only because the mother's substance abuse problems are even worse. Yes, he clearly wants to do right by his kid; I'm sure I won't surprise you if I tell you that by the end he changes for the better. But for most of the movie he's a self-indulgent failure.
And this is considered charming.
What would a majority-white American audience think of a black actor playing a role like this? Lazy? Drunk? Shiftless? Not particularly concerned with staying on the right side of the law, or remaining employed, or waking up in time to drive his kid to school? Would he be regarding as charming? As endearing?
No, I don't buy that we have a race-blind prejudice against the underclass, with a smaller scoop of black-skin prejudice on top. White Americans think members of the white underclass are individuals. Prejudiced whites think members of the black underclass are ... those people.