Overlooking Class

You may not have even heard about it. It's reading period, and most of us have hunkered down in overcrowded libraries catching up on a semester's worth of work. There's barely time to read the comics anymore, never mind to sit through the evening news.

But as far as local news goes, there has only been one story since last Thursday, when a number of students from South Boston High School incited a race riot. Within minutes of the first stand-off, as white students stood outside and Black students crowded on the front steps of the school, students were hurling asphalt at the police, the mayor was sent to the hospital and the mob of reporters sent to the scene nearly outnumbered everyone else.

Yet while Boston is in the throes of a nervous breakdown and The Globe blares the riot every day as its lead story, here across the river, there's been nothing--barely a word. The stresses of reading period partially explain the inattention. But it's still hard to believe that South Boston High isn't the topic for intense debate in every dining hall across campus.

This is the high school, after all, which was the focus of the busing riots of the 1970s. The same parents from 20 years ago showed up last week, standing in the same place, shouting the same unbelievable things. It's a mythic story, one which incorporates the racial tension facing America today.

The reason for this apathy seems pretty clear--we just don't think there's that much to discuss. It happened, and it's another, terrible sign of intractable racism in a troubled, ignorant community. We simply aren't in a position to solve them.


This, ultimately, is the real myth.

No matter what we might think of the quality of teaching at Harvard, there is one thing it does do well: teach us to find answers to problems. But only certain problems. From the first lecture to the final applause at Commencement, never once are we forced to think about what it is we're trying to achieve, or what this university has to do with real life.

This disconnection rarely shows so clearly as it did this past weekend. When we and the media talk about events like the South Boston riot, we always talk about race. And seemingly, this is how the drama last Thursday played itself out--Black versus white, neighborhood against neighborhood. Approached this way, the problem doesn't demand a challenging answer--only twinges of self-righteousness. When whites hate Blacks and vice versa, it's not our fault. We know better.

But the issue isn't race. It's class, and the frustrations of poverty. The people involved in the riot, Black and white, have been systematically denied just treatment--decent jobs, safe neighborhoods, good schools. These are things they once could count on.

At Harvard, we carry this deception even further. We never talk about economic injustice, only about race. We defend this race-based outlook by saying that Black students "tend to be" less well-off than white students.

This is true. But the way it is applied, this perception is often prejudicial. We often assume that skin color is the most important aspect of someone's upbringing, no matter what the individual's personal history.

This is the stereotype that causes the intense frustration of South Boston's poor whites. Like poor Blacks, they have had few advantages. Their schools don't compare with those in the suburbs, yet the suburbs and the media only seem to talk about injustice in Black neighborhoods. The whites of South Boston know the kind of liberalism practiced here and they don't think much of it. One popular bumper sticker reads "Liberals Suck." And many of them despise places like Harvard, which perpetuate this false liberalism to future generations of leaders.

It's no wonder they resent the residents of these Black neighborhoods. Though there is absolutely no excuse for racism, there is a cause--economic injustice and the real fear it breeds.

Through such easy trickery--talking about race instead of about class--we can block ourselves out of the picture. We ignore the way our education and privileged status lead to frustration across the city. Instead, we can localize the problem in South Boston, call it unsolvable and go back to work.

We ignore the fact that we don't pay our union workers a decent wage. We never think about why Cambridge's universities erect new buildings in neighborhoods which won't (or can't) fight back, often at residents' expense.