4.16.2008

Class in Urban America

We Americans can sometimes find class societies like India odd. Until
we realize that class divisions are alive and well right here in the
land of the free and the home of the brave. And the tension is no
more evident than when it comes to our own kids. Pre-kids, many of us
want to change the world, live among the poor, break down the walls
that divide us. And post-kids, many of us abandon these ideals, hole
up in enclaves with others like us, doing what we can to keep our kids
from having to associate with "those people."

As a parent, I am torn. My kids will probably need more educational
help than the typical kids of Ivy League parents. (Jada is already
significantly behind in her verbal skills, and we've scheduled a
speech therapy session for this summer as a result.) Giving one's
kids a leg up through private schooling seems the most selfless of
acts. Having had the good fortune of a good education, I intend to do
what I can to see that my kids have the same opportunities.

And yet I can't help but think that these decisions are in some way
drenched with a privately held fear that our kids will not "make it,"
and will thus have to live below the class level we have striven to
achieve. If I were to enroll my child in a high-tuition school, would
it be to give them the best education possible; or would it be to
ensure that they would only be with other high-income people who alone
can afford such a tuition?

In an urban place like Philadelphia, these are very real choices.
While many suburbs tend to be fairly homogeneous from a class
standpoint (in fact, that's often why people choose them, and then
often defend that homogeneity to the death, through things like
minimum lot sizes and opposition to new multi-family developments),
cities offer lots of options at all sorts of price points. You can be
among the poor without ever having to actually interact with them, or
(gasp!) having your kids interact with them. Conversely, you can also
sacrifice your kids in a vain attempt to practice radical urban
Christian living, being ashamed of your wealth instead of thanking God
for it and being a good steward of it.

In other words, in an urban place like Philadelphia, there are no easy
answers to the question of class. I do not have to go far each day
before I am tempted to disdain the rich among me who look down on the
poor and make distinct choices to keep their kids from them. Even
more often, I check myself for looking down on the poor among me and
seeking to distance myself from their lives.

Every parental moment seems to confront me. Am I trying desperately
(if secretly) to slot my kids among the "right" crowd? Am I cheating
them from the best I can offer them? Am I teaching them to be OK with
their privileged status and yet treat all people with dignity? Are
they learning skills to advance themselves even as they learn that
sometimes Jesus calls us to "downward mobility"? Some parents know
the answers to these questions, and it is reflected in their choice of
residence. Where I live, all of this is still up for grabs.

It is my hope that as a parent, I can inform my kids of the realities
of class in urban America. I need not be ashamed to be rich, so long
as I invest that wealth in my kids in appropriate ways. I want to
connect them to real and meaningful experiences with people from a
range of socio-economic backgrounds, including the very poor who live
in our neighborhoods and go to our church and attend our schools. And
I want them to know about a God who truly does break down the
distinction between rich and poor; whose crowning representation of
His character was a person in the flesh, who became the poorest and
most servile among us, that we might be seated with Him in glory.

Post a Comment