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Class And Race Are Not The Same Thing

David Schraub tries to defend John Edwards against the charge that his advocacy for the poor is inconsistent with his wealth. He states, correctly, that "Human beings have a moral obligation to try and remedy unjust systems of which they are the beneficiary." But the point isn't that rich people shouldn't care about the poor, it's that people who care about the poor should not be, or should cease to be, rich.

Schraub draws an analogy to race:

As I clarified in that post, this is not saying that said beneficiaries are responsible for the unjust state of affairs. White people are, by and large, not responsible for the web of White privilege which gives them their advantage. Rich people should not be looked upon as evil because they amassed wealth.

However, I think we need to be a bit more hesitant to assimilate class issues to the identity politics paradigm that works so well with respect to race, gender, and some other oppressions. A key difference here, which bears on the tension between Edwards' wealth and professed ideology is this: white privilege can't be given up, but rich privilege can. Further, while racial justice must be achieved while retaining the full scope of racial diversity, the whole point of progressive class politics is to eliminate (or at least reduce) the class diversity, moving the very rich and the very poor toward middle-class-dom.

John Edwards had no say in being born white, and nothing he can do can do can change his whiteness. So he's an innocent beneficiary of white privilege, and can therefore without contradiction fight against it. However, wealth is not something that just happens to you -- especially in Edwards' case, as he's a "self-made man" rather than a trust fund baby. He took deliberate actions over a long period of time to earn that money, and he could easily divest himself of it.

White privilege isn't fungible -- Edwards can't take a racially-profiled traffic stop on himself to spare a black person from it. But wealth is fungible. While some degree of wealth is necessary to sustain him in his quest to combat the structural causes of poverty, it's absurd to think there's some justification for buying a second mansion:

... 28,000-square-foot estate that Edwards and his family call home ...

A main home has five bedrooms and six-and-a-half baths. It's connected by a covered walkway to a bright red addition known as "The Barn," that includes its own living facilities along with a handball court, an indoor pool and an indoor basketball court with a stage at one end. Nearby, the family has cleared space for a soccer field.

With a current building value of $4.3 million ...

Anyone so pampered that they couldn't go on without that kind of luxury deserves pity, not a job running the country. Edwards should perhaps schedule a meeting with Peter Singer to talk about other options for spending his $4.3 million dollars. There are lots of organizations out there -- with focuses all along the scale from relieving immediate suffering to activism about root causes -- that could make much better use of that money. What's stopping him from building a public YMCA for the underprivileged instead of a private one for just his own family?

Edwards may in fact do quite a bit to help the poor were he elected president (I haven't researched his proposals in any detail). His ownership of a ridiculous mansion does not prove that his commitment to the cause is totally vacuous. But it is not a morally innnocent happenstance comparable to his white privilege.


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