Race and Class: Taking Action at the Intersections

Discussing race without including class analysis is like watching a bird fly without looking at the sky: it’s possible, but it misses the larger context. Intersections of race and class are complicated and personal, and they need to be acknowledged. Yet in the United States, so little talk about class occurs that great confusion surrounds these intersections. As the coordinator of the Race/Class Intersections program at the nonprofit Class Action (www.classism.org), I have heard from many people who say our conversation is the first time they have publicly discussed the intersection of race and class. They search for the right words to express the complicated relationship between these categories, and find that it defies existing frameworks.

Much of Class Action’s work takes place at institutions of higher education. We work with professional and administrative staff, students, and community members to identify and dismantle class barriers and biases, and to build opportunities for cross-class alliances. Class remains largely invisible on college campuses, as most institutions do not include class in their campus dialogues, diversity training, or curricular offerings. The lack of discussion about class has led to confusion about the race/class intersection, with race sometimes becoming a stand-in for class. This is problematic not only for the many first-generation college students who are people of color, but also for students whose race- and class-based identities do not intersect in stereotypical ways.

Complicated Junctures

When race becomes a stand-in for class, it creates conflict for students of color who are presumed to be from low-income families and for white students who are presumed not to be. We hear the terms “working-class whites” and “middle-class blacks,” but not the terms “middle-class whites” or “working-class blacks.” But it is unnecessary to name what is normative. Thus our discussions about “the working class” and “people of color” make working-class white students and middle-class students of color invisible, which can be devastating to these students. At the same time, our language suggests indifference to working-class people of color, who are accepted as the norm. In order to serve the full range of students on our campuses, we must deal with issues of racism and issues of classism, and we must understand how they intersect.

Research confirms ever-widening disparities in educational achievement and enrollment among Latinas/os, African Americans, and low-income students, as compared to their white middle- and upper-class peers (Kelly 2005). Because school resources are tied to local revenues, students from low-income communities, who are disproportionately people of color, are more likely to have inexperienced teachers, limited resources, and little access to role models or mentors (Annie E. Casey Foundation 2008). They enter college without adequate preparation for success, and their transition to higher education is often difficult. Moreover, families with limited income may not be able to spare their hardworking college-age children, who could contribute financially rather than plunge the family into debt with education loans.

The challenges related to resources are often compounded by the psychological pressures low-income students, particularly low-income students of color, face. College definitely has a “class culture,” and it isn’t the culture of working-class or lower-income students. Research tells us that college is a middle-class experience and that many low-income students feel pressured to assimilate (DiMaria 2006). Race and ethnicity may deepen these students’ feelings of isolation, especially if they come from families whose culture and language differs from that of majority students. Perception and judgments of faculty and peers have an impact as well. Because affirmative action is a hot-button issue, students of color may find themselves prejudged by their peers and professors, even as the numbers of (typically white) legacy admissions exceed the number of affirmative action admissions.

The presence or absence of cultural, social, and academic capital can also have a profound impact on students. Pierre Bourdieu describes cultural capital, or what you know, as the forms of knowledge, skill, education, and other advantages a person has that confer higher status (1986). Knowing the rules of etiquette (such as which fork to use) or understanding references to theater are examples of cultural capital. Social capital, or who you know, refers to resources based on group membership, relationships, or networks of influence and support (Bourdieu 1986). To these Will Barratt adds the concept of academic capital, which students begin to attain in the home (2007). Second-generation students come to college with accumulated academic capital, which they apply to gain more through excellent grades, honors and awards, and participation in academic clubs. Students of color and lower-income students may have significant cultural or social capital within their own communities, but the dominant academic culture might not recognize or appreciate these forms of capital.

Supporting Students

If educational institutions are to embrace all of their students and staff, they must address the impact of race and class on the experiences and successes of students. Acknowledging the existence of class on campus is an important first step. Some elite colleges, recognizing that few students from lower-income families are attending their schools, have recently increased financial aid to recruit high-achieving students from low-income families. But getting poor and working-class students through the door is only the beginning. Institutions need to take additional steps (including revising the curricula, providing support services, and reducing cultural barriers, as detailed in the sidebar) to provide adequate support so students can succeed and thrive.

For more theory and research on these topics, see “Class in Education,” a recently published special issue of the journal Equity and Education guest edited by Felice Yeskel, Class Action’s executive director. Class Action also provides a range of resources to assist campuses on our Web site: www.classism.org.


Annie E. Casey Foundation. 2008. Race Matters toolkit. www.aecf.org.

Barratt, W. 2007. Talking about social class on campus. NASPA NetResults. wbarratt.indstate.edu/documents/talking_about_social_class.htm (accessed November 5, 2007).

Bourdieu, P. 1986. The forms of capital. In J. Richardson (Ed.), Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education, 241-58. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

DiMaria, F. 2006. Working-class students: Lost in a college’s middle-class culture. Education Digest: Essential Readings Condensed for Quick Review 72 (1): 60-65.

Kelly, P. 2005. As America becomes more diverse: The impact of state higher education inequality. National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, Boulder, CO: Lumina Foundation for Education.

Yeskel, F., Ed. 2008. Coming to class: Looking at education through the lens of class: Introduction to the Class and Education Special Issue. Equity and Excellence in Education: The University of Massachusetts Amherst School of Education Journal 41 (1): 1-11.

Rhonda Soto is the coordinator of the Race/Class Intersections program at Class Action.

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