Spotlight: Levine discusses issues of race and class in her latest work

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

In the Jewish community, Rhonda F. Levine, professor emerita of sociology at Colgate University, is best known for her book “Class, Networks, and Identity: Replanting Jewish Lives from Nazi Germany to Rural New York.” For that work, Levine interviewed Jewish refugees – some of them local – about their lives after they arrived in America. Her new, ambitious work, “When Race Meets Class: African Americans Coming of Age in a Small City,” focuses on people’s lives as they occurred over a 15-year period.
The publisher describes “When Race Meets Class” as “a rare, 15-year ethnography, [that] follows the lives of individual, low-income African American youth from the beginning of high school into their early adult years. Levine shows how their interaction and experience with multiple institutions (family, school, community) and individuals (parents, friends, teachers, coaches, strangers) shape their hopes, fears, aspirations, and worldviews.” According to Nancy DiTomaso, distinguished professor at Rutgers Business School, “‘When Race Meets Class’ provides a much-needed contribution to the understanding of how race, class, and gender reproduce inequality.” Elijah Anderson, William K. Lanman professor of sociology at Yale University, added, “This is a work of importance, and one that should be read far beyond the academy.”
Levine’s interest in questions of racial inequality is not a new one. “For close to 50 years (since the time I was in college), I have been actively involved in movements for greater racial equality and some of my contacts [were those] I first made doing anti-racist work in the early 1980s, so I was not a total unknown within the African American community for political work,” Levine said in an e-mail interview. 
“I taught courses on racial inequality for several decades and one perspective that resonated [was that] many in the public domain sought to explain racial inequality as a consequence of negative behavior on the part of low-income African American youth and their families,” she added. “This perspective basically argued, if the youth were ‘less oppositional’ or if ‘parents cared more,’ then low income African American youth would have the same opportunities as their white middle class peers. Race was not the problem, rather values and behavior were to blame for persistent inequality between races.”
That not only seemed unfair to Levine, but a wrong interpretation of the data. “I did not agree with this perspective and, although there were numerous studies to suggest otherwise, few if any actually gave voice to the youth themselves,” she said. “I wanted to hear from the young people directly of their experiences, especially what it was like for them to be black.”
One purpose of her research was to discover the mechanisms of inequality. “My main concern in the book is the general question of what accounts for persistent racial inequality in the 21st century,” Levine said. “While much sociological work details the causes and consequences of racial inequalities, far less research analyzes the mechanisms reproducing the very structures of inequality. The bountiful research linking group level characteristics – such as race, class and gender – to unequal outcomes – such as inequalities in educational achievement, employment, income and social mobility – often fail to account for the social processes underlying aggregate inequalities.”
In order to understand the stresses and dilemmas faced by African Americans, Levine looked more closely at people’s personal experiences. “I argue that it is not enough to merely illustrate an association, for example, between race and educational attainment, income inequality, and social mobility, but rather the study of mechanisms allows us to pinpoint the dimensions and critical turning points shaping life trajectories,” she noted. “The question I wanted to address is not what causes aggregate trends of inequality, but how they are caused. In other words, how do lived experiences – at the micro level – shed light on the macro structures of racial inequality?”
Levine noted that it is not only the choices that people make that affect the course of their lives. “In sociological terms, while it is true that individuals make choices that impact their lives and life trajectories – the micro level – they do so within a set of circumscribed conditions – the macro level,” she said. “From a 15-year perspective, we see more precisely how structural inequalities of class, race and gender mattered in shaping life [choices] for the African American teenagers and young adults. In turn, because of the precariousness and constraints underlying their decision-making and behavior, they often made ‘bad choices,’ and consequently reinforced the very structures of inequality that they faced and continue to face. For low-income black youth coming of age in a small city high school becomes a time when class and race factors become palpable and intensified in everyday life. Having fewer financial, social, or cultural resources than their white counterparts, black students are at a disadvantage as soon as they step foot in school.”
Parts of what she learned surprised her. “What was most amazing to me is just how complicated the lives are of low-income African American youth and, even as they face the challenges of a racialized class structure, they hold on to very middle class values,” she noted. “For male athletes, coaches can provide important resources that the youth would otherwise not have.”
She noted that these young people are also often forced to become adults earlier than their peers, but not with the results that one might expect. “While low-income African Americans may become adultified at a younger age than their white middle class peers, most took longer than their white middle-class counterparts to complete their education, live apart from parents, have a full-time job and become economically independent, marry and start families of their own,” Levine said. “While the time it takes a person to be on their way to a meaningful, satisfying and productive life should not matter, it does matter if we are concerned with eroding structural problems presented by both race and class factors. A late start into middle-class employment means a loss of time to accumulate transformative resources in the form of savings and/or investments that can translate into wealth accumulation and with it the ability to help out family members and/or pass class advantages on to the next generation. Without it, racial wealth gaps remain intact and a racialized class structure persists.”
As for what can be done to help, Levine noted that “schools need to be more aware as to how students are racially marked, however unwittingly, and the consequences of racial marking. Race matters. Discipline in schools needs to be less racialized, as does curriculum. As far as the larger society is concerned, I would suggest people support policies and programs that do not minimize the impact racism still carries in our society, whether it be in the school, the labor market, or in the larger community. We are far from having a level playing field.”