While leaving my house to walk to the local grocery story the other night, I passed one of my roommates and asked if he needed anything.
Standing in the foyer of our glossy living room, he looked down at my tennis shoes and asked, “You’re walking there? Through that part of town?”
I crooked my eyebrows and thought for a second. “What do you mean, that part of town?”
He shook his head. “You know what I mean. You should really be careful. Why put yourself in danger?”
While I appreciated my roommate’s concern, his questions troubled me. I’ve lived in this particular neighborhood of Washington D.C. for more than a year, and although certain sections of the city have higher crime rates, I have never felt the slightest inclination of a threat the dozens of times I’ve walked through the streets my roommate fears.
Some might say his uneasiness is a form of racism. Yet I have many wonderful friends (including my roommate) who embrace people of all ethnic backgrounds but continue to distance themselves from certain sectors of society. I believe this fear is rooted in a less talked-about but highly pervasive bias that divides a vast portion of our world.
Most of us think of India’s caste system or Europe’s feudal age when considering endemic class divisions. The reality is this form of prejudice continues to plague most U.S. cities and leads honorable men and women throughout the world to belittle entire social sectors based on economic status.
I find it interesting that most politicians now claim to work for the well-being of the “middle-class.” This tactic works effectively because the vast majority of American’s want to perceive themselves as above government-dependent poverty and below undeserving, astronomical wealth. We leverage our status as hard-working, upstanding citizens to feel superior to those on the fringe. Blessed are the middle-class.
The problem is economic status does not determine personal character, intelligence, morality or lifestyle. Sure, there may be trends regarding education, crime and addiction, but broad trends should never lead us to stereotype individuals we do not know.
I appreciate the way the Epistle of James describes this bias. “If you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” the author writes.
This passage alludes to a powerful truth: All people everywhere have value and dignity. We should therefore avoid distinctions based on material possession, and rather seek to honor those around us based on the merit of their God-given humanity.
Oddly, many social-justice minded individuals view the world in a sort of reverse classism that esteems the poor and condemns the rich. Of course we ought to strive to undue poverty and promote justice, but the same partiality described by James occurs when we attribute spiritual health to the poor and hardheartedness to the rich. Both prideful homeless people and generous wealthy people exist, thus we make dangerous assumptions by lumping all into single categories.
Rather than believing the lie of social division, let’s cross these imaginary borders with wisdom and form relationships on the other side.
Does classism affect your town or city? What’s a practical step you can take to stop it?