Moral Content and its Discontents, by Phillip M. Richards

Moral Content and its Discontents:

Caste and Class in a Central New York Town

by Phillip M. Richards


Phil Richards, Colgate Professor of English.We are a family of academic gypsies or so we might have been called in an earlier, more prosperous time in middle-class American life. I married my wife in 1983 after coming to Howard University in Washington to finish a dissertation at the University of Chicago. A year later, I moved with my wife and daughter to Arkansas to take a teaching job in an obscure university in the state’s northeastern tornado plain. Nearly twenty years ago in 1987, we came to New York where a similar breakdown in the rural world brings middle-class academia and rural people face-to-face in class conflicts. During that period I have had fellowships in French Central Africa and at the National Humanities Center. I have spent a year at a think tank at Boston University and taught in a French University in Grenoble.   As I watch Central New York’s rural world deteriorate and brilliant young faculty depart Colgate on temporary appointments, I am now aware of myself as part of the last significant cohort of lower and middle class intellectuals to participate in the peculiar leisure-class world of the American academy—one more fading phenomenon of the post-war, economic miracle which democratized the American professoriate to include even the products of stable, working-class black families like my own. The world of the tenured professor is now a peculiar world of privilege, resentment, and uncertainty. The consequent conflicts of our region, which shape academic life in our innocent, rural New York valley, also illuminate the inner terrain of an American society increasingly divided by class. And as my privileged post-war cohort approaches middle age, it finds its resentments reflected in the moral values, which it passes on to its children.

It might be argued that my parents, poor rural blacks who migrated from the rural South to the urban industrial North in the late forties, faced more severe dislocations than I. My most profound Sunday breakfast memories were those moral fables that explained their movement from rural Southern Virginia to Northeastern Ohio, stories that seemed to blend with the Old Testament stories and New Testament parables that I heard in church. As recent migrants, our lives are more remarkable for our certainty about the meanings of their day-to-day lives: the unquestioning belief that we were being drawn to a good, which connected Christian virtue, middle-class prosperity, and domestic order. Despite their lives in a deeply segregated post-war Cleveland society, my parents passed on to their children a conception of moral citizenship grounded in Christian virtue.

As a Fulbright professor in Gabon, I encountered eerie echoes of my own moral education in the neat Francophone households of African colleagues a generation away from their natal village worlds. Also familiar were their attempts to keep in touch with the moral sphere of their fathers. Just as my parents returned South in the summers, these Francophone intellectuals went back periodically to the village of their ethnie. One of their most prized possessions was inevitably a four-wheel drive vehicle with which to climb hills, ford streams, and negotiate unpaved roads from the city to the family’s village in the country’s forested interior. Nearly every other weekend or so, they would drive their families from Libreville to tiny forest enclaves three or four hundred miles away. Although these trips were intended to transport provisions to their relatives, the parents were also providing their children with moral lessons. The youth were being shown their place in a network of moral and social obligations that bound the ethnic group, extending from the country’s rural interior to the cosmopolitan cities and even beyond to France, Canada, or America. There are many four-wheel drive vehicles in our academic New York village, but they do not keep my colleagues and their children in touch with such binding traditions. As my wife and I seek to provide our children with a moral education, we notice the lack of the deep cultural ballast which stabilized earlier ethical worlds we have known: the stories of wisdom and networks of family.

Our children have, to be sure, gained the skills of citizenship and social life from living in small Southern towns, large African cities, and a French village. Raised by rural Southern Protestants, my wife and I have tried to translate the moral world of our parents to our children. Our attempts have, however, faltered, and we suspect that we have seen a similar problem among the mobile white academic families of our age. When we were in Arkansas — separated by at least a thousand miles from any American region we knew – we, like the small group of black faculty, took our five year old to the local black Baptist church. This immediately distinguished us from most of our transplanted white academic peers. Few Northern academics, who tended to come from secular backgrounds, would have anything do to with the local churches.. However, for the black Southerners who taught at the school, and for the local black middle class in general, the church was the linchpin of cultural lives much as it had been for our family in Virginia, Kentucky, and South Carolina.

My wife and I attended church in Arkansas largely out of a desire to pass our Southern black Protestant traditions—however attenuated—to our daughter, then five years old. Moving from the privileged skepticism of her faculty children classmates, she went on Saturdays and Sundays to the black Baptist church where her best friend was the minister’s daughter. We got to know the pastor’s family, watching them dominate the Southern town’s small black community politically, personally, and surreptitiously in a wholly typical way. The mother, the local black school’s principal, was the unofficial arbiter over the women and girls of the small rural congregation of black college professors, school teachers, farmers, tradesmen, and elderly retired women. The minister, who seemed to be in evidence everywhere in the town, drove a huge red Cadillac, often to squire his second youngest daughter—blind since infancy—to her classes at the local state university where I taught. Despite this young woman’s beautiful voice—it quickly became my sole reason for going to church—she was not allowed to go to Memphis where she might have made a lucrative living singing back-up in the rhythm and blues studios.

For two years, our family read deep in to the book of religion, caste, and race in a Northeastern Arkansan town. And one summer on vacation in South Carolina, our daughter surprised her devout grandmother by announcing that she no longer believed in God. “These things happen in academic communities,” we explained to the shocked old lady, who noticed that neither of us looked terribly faithful anymore. “God was,” our daughter went on to explain, “A story created for social needs.” We have never really pursued the matter further with her. If she were to be compelled to choose a religion, she allowed once in passing, she would prefer the Catholicism of her Arkansas school: it offered quick and convenient relief of sin. As an agnostic, she has always been very polite, accompanying us to church on social occasions.

We left Arkansas with its world of evangelical churches, spring revivals, and prayer meetings for a small academic town in upstate New York. Two or three years after arriving, we watched the white faculty parents of young children become involved in the church. As they did so, a familiar pattern arose: no social, natural, or cultural trauma in that region of the South was unaccompanied by the fracturing of congregations along lines of class and doctrine. The economic health of Central New York collapsed as family farming decayed and military bases, industries, and corporations, departed. In the midst of their economic troubles, the local rural and middle classes acquired their own religious fervor. Conflict between them and the university teachers came to a head as the town’s local Baptist church lost its minister to retirement, and hired a young Kentuckian whom the college faculty parents found too conservative. Many of the college faculty left to join a doctrinally more liberal Anglican parish. The stricter, more traditional members of the congregation also left to join a new evangelical congregation, one of several that had sprung up within the area. The cultural concerns of the evangelicals led to the opening of a conservative Christian school, and now church membership, as well as school affiliation, which used to bind many of the adults and children of the community has become a mark of the town’s deepening fractures of class and status.

Besides faith and church affiliation, cultural identities we learned to recognize in rural Arkansas, the children’s sense of class belonging in this Central New York town are reinforced through the rituals of sport. Out on the large playing fields where the faculty and townspeople gather, they segregate like the black and white students in the university cafeteria.  The divisions between the Ivy League college folk who come out to the fields in their tweeds and woolens are reproduced in various parts of the community’s school’s life. During elementary school and much of junior high, the faculty and town children play and grow together. This ends as the local girls begin to pair off with the boys who will become shopkeepers, insurance agents, small businessmen, and perhaps farm workers in this decaying rural town.

By this time, the faculty youth are already looking ahead to their departure from the town and the region. One identifies them in the school’s hallways by the Harvard and Bryn Mawr sweat shirts that they have acquired in summer trips East with their parents. Most of them will go to elite liberal arts colleges like Carleton and Swarthmore. By the eighth and ninth grades, they are already preparing for these schools not only in foreign language and math classes, but also in the playful sessions where they practice those quasi-bohemian attitudes, which now decorate college student life at such institutions. Returned from college during the summer, the faculty children sit at night on the town sardonically watching the town’s children pass in their beat-up jalopies. Significantly, the faculty children, who must leave this small town nestled in an isolated valley, express some fear about the meaning of their departure into a world whose complexities they can only infer from the divisions of the town. A number of years ago, a graduating high school speaker regretted in his valedictory address that in this small town, the school had prevented him from ever becoming acquainted with people unlike himself.

We have watched as first our daughter and then our son grew up in this world, defined by divisions of disparate people who are not like ourselves.  We observed as our daughter played softball, basketball, and finally field hockey with the town girls in junior high. My wife and I are only a generation or so away from the direst kind of rural poverty ourselves, and we had no trouble taking her to visit friends who lived in trailer parks not much different from what we had seen among certain relatives in South Carolina or Kentucky. When the children divided among themselves and we found no place academically for her in the school, we sent her to boarding school. Now as we sit with our son at the dinner table, we consider a small community increasingly divided by class. A recent school board race this summer featured opponents from the wealthiest echelon of the university community and a faculty member at a nearby state vocational technical university. Seething underneath the meeting were the different interests of a lower and middle class community which must prepare itself for such economic and technological possibilities that will locate itself near the valley. At the same time, the audience’s academics consider whether the high school will sustain its precarious prestige until their children graduate.

I still do not think that racial or class diversity is possible at Colgate, largely because our most compelling attraction to our market niche is an upper class homogeneously white, culturally conservative student body. We cannot afford to lose this market niche in such an economically uncertain time as this. Indeed, as we admit more full pay students to help pay our operating expenses, the maintenance of our segregated white upper class ethos will become more important, however many minority and scholarship students these fully paid tuitions make possible. Indeed, this demographic ensures the growing inequality between rich white students and their less wealthy, often minority peers. This inequality will only solidify the social and cultural boundaries of the wealthy, who the Campus Climate Survey tells us are happiest in Colgate’s white upper class social environment, tend to socialize with themselves, and identify with students of their class.

Given the racially segregated nature of this college, one must be concerned about the extent to which the university may assume its intellectual and academic status as a public sphere in which academic opinion may be shared. There is of course a slippery slope from the school’s identity as a homogeneous community rigidly bound by norms of race and class to the open public sphere of the classroom. The intolerance of difference lodged in the in the white upper class fraternity and informal student associations will necessarily lead to a racialized classroom where minorities are not accorded membership in the school’s academic society. White students and teachers who are uncomfortable with minorities in their social and cultural lives will be equally uncomfortable with them in the classroom. The special privilege of the school’s core white constituency can only provide it a special leverage in enforcing these racial distinctions.

Our moral understanding of the local world around us therefore stems less from an inherited world of religious fables than from our emotional response to the town’s divisions. Our efforts to raise children in a stable community are inevitably thwarted by social effects which emerge naturally out of the economic collapse of Syracuse, the local city, and its nearby towns, the loss of factory work. The increasing number of disoriented poor white children in the school, and even the shifting housing neighborhoods of the tiny town become points of reference for explaining the angers provoked by our son’s day-to-day experience. When our son sets out to raise funds for his little league, he is accompanied by a boy from one of the town’s professional families. His young friend boasts that he will direct him to all of the rich families in the neighborhood. “Do not,” he says with blithe assurance, “bother with these poor people around here.” We take this in: the boy has already grasped the social world we know and in our own way pass on to our children.

I am of course repeating truisms, well known to the faculty, who live in Colgate in a homogeneously white academic community that rigorously segregates itself from its lower-class neighbors.  These neighbors are experiencing a radical economic collapse and show signs of many of the severe dislocations and disorientations: drug use, single parent families, extended families supported by single grandmothers, poor academic performance, high drop out rates, high attendance in “resource rooms” and “special needs” programs that serve the interest of a flourishing professional clique of school “psychologists” who segregate the low performing academic poor from the high achieving middle and upper middle class academic students. This group is at least as leery of threats to its white upper and upper middle class values as the students. They imitate the student’s racial anxieties not only out of the reflex described by Veblen in The Higher Learning but also out of severe “status anxieties” and fears for their professional futures.

t is nonetheless startling to realize that class resentment shapes so much of our understanding of the local world and the understandings which we now pass on to our children. Looking back, the prosperous fifties and early sixties seemed to promise endless fulfillment to the entire breath of the American middle and lower class. This prosperity no doubt fueled belief in the loving interracial communities such as those expounded by the civil rights movement. But if one segment of the baby boomers studied by Michael Lind and Jennifer Hochsberg moved on to a highly privileged technocrat and managerial class, another has sharply and emotionally collided with the material limits of contracted academic institutions and their surrounding social worlds. Those who feel thwarted in their drive for fulfillment already experience resentment; the ethos of ressentiment can now be found as easily in American middle class life as in the nineteenth-century bourgeois Europe of Frederich Nietzche and Max Scheler. Our resentments may indeed mark our transition from the infinite promise of nineteenth century America to the Europeanizing economic constrictions experienced by late twentieth century middle class—in particular a large intellectual class emerging out of the post-war boom.

After our Fulbright in Gabon, we arrived back in Central New York, to find our house in a near wreckage: the consequence of a two year stay by working class renting family from out of town. The house was in shambles, its new carpet ruined with food stains, my son’s few outdoor toys destroyed, the basketball hoop torn down, and the yard filled and beer cans. In the manner of the working class people of our part of town, they had spent their evenings on the porch smoking and chatting; tiny matches saturated the front yard. And to his dismay, my son saw that his property had taken the worst beating. Five years and another sabbatical later, Our son, now a ten year old, links his American return from Africa to the disappearance of his cat, the loss of a wagon, the loss of the large army of small toys that he used to deploy on the cover of his bed. To be sure, he understands this event as one more consequence of the region’s poverty, the rental family’s father’s loss of a relatively lucrative job as a truck driver, the breakdown of their marriage, and the disorganization of the household. This is how life in the region works. He has inherited our own ressentiment: he understands morality largely in terms of how it thwarts the fulfillment of his own gratification.

To be sure, the social understandings which flow from resentment link us in sometimes unpredictable ways to the people around us in our village. Our daughter’s experiences and friends in the local schools have given us a special closeness to the local rural youth and their middle-aged parents, whom my wife now counsels at the local state vocational technical school. As the family farms decline, these young whites fill her office along with the lower-class black urban students from Brooklyn’s Fort Greene and Bedford-Stuyvesant. As federal supports for rural production decline, white farm families too have experienced an impotence that emerges naturally in the once stable working class families who can no longer provide for their children as they wish. Among them are the teen-age pregnancies, broken families, and dislocated personalities, pathologies that one associates with a differently colored urban world of poverty. The white and black teen-age poor now wear the same blue jeans and listened to the same rap music that the black lower class has melded out of its despair. Some are friends of my daughter who went to the school’s social events with her middle class and poor town friends who attend the schools. Some went on from this local community college to New York’s elite state universities such as SUNY Buffalo and SUNY Stony Brook. The very best went to Cornell.

At other times these shared resentments have been a source of racial tension between our families and us. We are, however we may see ourselves, well-to-do professors in the eyes of recently dispossessed farmers searching for better schools and more secure town life. A colleague of Indian extraction—one Indian parent makes her non-white in the near white homogeneity of our community—reports that she has heard that the townspeople are angry with brown people in large cars. This is a reference which, we decide at the dinner table, refers to a four-wheel drive Toyota we once had as well as a miscellaneous Saab. These events clearly have an impact on the evolving moral sensibility of our son’s view of the world. Although this view could probably not be defined philosophically, it is grounded in the natural anger of transient families, their increasingly fluid social arrangements, and a set of stories about mobile families. As our region declines, he no longer rides the bus—for the poor white children newly arrived in town from the eroding countryside tend to call him nigger. He undoubtedly associates the anger he feels with them with his disgust at the loss of his toys. He nods, saying nothing—this is the way the rural world of Central New York works.

This consensual ressentiment is completed by our colleagues at the school. As the university undergoes a process of downsizing, young professors encounter professional limitations which parallel the economic downturn experienced by the carpenters across town. This anger among the academic classes has been a part of graduate education in the humanities since the early seventies. In Arkansas, we encountered already disgusted, if grateful, white colleagues from elite graduate schools that had taken jobs at an obscure state university. Their class angers blossomed as they came face to face with the white rural poverty of a collapsing mid-southern town: small badly dressed white children with bad teeth and their poorly kept elders with gnarled limbs. Our middle and upper-middle class white colleagues in the mid-South had been able to segregate their children from the children of the nearby decaying lower class in a Catholic lower school, although few of the university professors had any religious commitments. Such segregation was not available in Central New York and the tensions that brought the upper- and lower-class in conflict over their anxieties to class are probably the most important aspect of the moral world in which the young people are raised.

Among the faculty, moral resentment stems from a profession that offers little possibility for advancement to even the most successful teachers and writers of books. More importantly, resentment floats through a community where professors recognize conditions that thwart their children’s educational opportunities in the future. This is a world which the nervous local school administration attempts to hide from professional parents whose children’s admission to elite schools depends on the region’s continued reputation for academic excellence. This excellence will depend on the presence of high achieving children of faculty families. Yet the teachers—especially the younger elementary school teachers—are not afraid to speak frankly of conditions that will inevitably drive that population away: the traumatized young transfers to the new school who often suffer from learning disabilities, changes of household, and poverty in a region where social services have been cut.

The resentments that divide a society also recreate community in odd ways by revealing unexpectedly shared points of view. Looking over our experience in Arkansas from the perspective of a decaying Central New York, we now find odd moments of moral insight in the South. At the dinner table we like to discuss my first experience teaching Richard Wright’s autobiographical essay, “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow”, to an all-white composition class at Arkansas State that included a fortyish helicopter pilot, and a Vietnam Veteran from the South. In the midst of a particularly inept line of questioning, I posed a question about the general meaning of the story which shows Wright’s first encounters with racism in fights with his young white peers in an Arkansas town. Angered perhaps by Wright’s unexpected reference to Arkansas, the veteran replied “It’s a white man’s world”, which is truly Wright’s point, albeit stated in a way that might surprise the writer as a literary critique—but then again not. Similarly, in the midst of an idle discussion turned serious, an Arkansas realtor asked my wife whether she would like to live in a state where everyone had a Volvo such as ours. Although we viewed the issue of race and class domination from a different viewpoint than the realtor and the pilot, we shared their perception of a rapidly changing society in which traditional social hierarchies were eroding. From completely different points of view and interest, we sensed the same flux, and its socially disruptive meanings, as they.

A new set of sentiments and understandings, oddly shared across racial lines, may help to explain the growing white middle class interest in narratives of black middle class life. On its face, the attitude of resentment would seem to militate against the possibility of acquiring wisdom in the shifting mobile world of self interest and its temporary alliance. The black experience from sub-Saharan Africa to the New World has for the last four hundred years been an extraordinary span of dislocating movement of whole populations. And most recently, black middle class intellectuals have written forcefully about the disorientation they have experienced along the way to upper- and upper-middle class status. These newcomers to the academy of ressentiment are perhaps the proper specialists in dislocation for the white middle and upper-middle classes. John Wideman’s Brother’s and Keepers, Brent Staple’s Parallel Time, McCall’sYou Make Me Want to Holler, Henry Louis Gates’ Colored People and Lorene Cary’sBlack Icemight be seen as above writers concentrating on American class mobility and its discontents. Their works might be seen as treatises on the subjects of unsatisfying social ascendancy and its disorientation, elusive pleasures, delusions, and therapeutic nostalgia. The great slave narratives of the l830’s 40’s, and 50’s were written and widely received at a time in which large numbers of whites moved westward and experienced themselves the trauma of lost homes, cultural frames or reference, and social ties. Our current interest in African American studies may be driven by the fact that black literature inevitably echoes the deepest fears and anxieties of a white middle class.

I find much of this recent popular black autobiographical literature unsatisfying though in respect to the task of moral education that I discuss here. Although they describe the inner ethical terrain of American social mobility and its frustrations, these recent writings—unlike their ancestors Frederick Douglass, Richard Wright, and James Baldwin—lack moral illumination. Shelby Steele’s account of a middle class African American character fails to suggest a moral ethos which I wish to pass on to my children—no matter how acutely it mines my own ethical dilemmas. And I find myself wishing for a language in which to describe the mother of the family who rented our house on the year that we went to Africa.

That family too had moved to town from the countryside with the hope of placing their children in the Hamilton schools. In an economic downturn, the father lost his job as a truck driver. As the family’s economic situation deteriorated, she set up an informal day-care center in our house, which, by report, swarmed with children. Carefully as her domestic arrangements fell apart, she painstakingly gathered and paid the rent.  Had she not paid, we would have had little recourse against her. My view of the village tells me that she comes from a different world in our community than I, and it is for this reason that her faithfulness seems like a kind of virtue that I might want to emulate: it signals the possibility not of angry impotence, but moral strength. Her sense of responsibility indicates her observance of an unarticulated social contract which ought to underlie democratic societies at large, but which is now made impossible by class and race.

Phillip M. Richards is the Arnold Sio Chair of Diversity and Community in the English department at Colgate University. Learn more about Phillip Richards here.

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1 thought on “Moral Content and its Discontents, by Phillip M. Richards

  1. Christa Pandey

    I am somewhat perturbed, that the coordinator for diversity in his department sees only a vast chasm in his environment. Surely, many of us (we are a European/Indian mixed couple with a long association in different American universities) have been on the receiving end of the distancing, whether in the university, in conferences or socially. But we also found that if we made the effort we could bridge a few divides. We found that there is a general insecurity of locals toward the “otherner.” It is up to us migrants to alleviate that fear. We must not project our own prejudices into the others. We are accomplished citizens of this country and that should be enough to hold our heads high and live our lives by a compass that is not derived from our environment.


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