Notes on a Scandal: When Race Meets Economics – By Donathan L. Brown

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Donathan L. Brown*

Historically, our collective failure at discussing and addressing issues of past and present racial disenfranchisement and the grievances they produce has caused must strife that continues to remain widely uncontained and unresolved. However, oftentimes treated as separate entities, the intersection of race and economic status continues to paralyze progress today. Whether with regard to Indian Removal and the series of federal treatises that were comprised in order to secure “land grabbing,” or, the overall economic state of slavery, that is, the many deep seated fiduciary restraints imposed on slaves by the overarching Southern White agrarian governing body, the clashing of race and economics has existed for centuries.[1] With regard to race and economics, by no means should this relationship be viewed solely as synchronic– a diachronic look across America will not only reveal this relationship, but illustrate its reoccurrence, as with the case at hand, the Valley Club of Huntington Valley and the racial and economic countervailing forces therein.

Our understanding of inequality in America continues to suffer from a peculiar symptom that consistently sequesters race from economics.  Without fail, discussions of disenfranchisement along with overall mobility severely downplays the collective role both race and economics bare upon not only how we discuss disenfranchisement but also how we seek to dismantle those mechanisms we believe to perpetuate such forces upon us. If nothing else, we have developed and honed our ability to discuss the racial inequality within law, leaving much to be desired. For example, Chief Justice Roger Taney’s majority opinion in the 1857 Dred Scott v. Sanford case that argued African Americans could not, and were not included in the “political community” of the nation, or, to even more contemporary examples, what continues to surface is that as a nation, we have been more attuned to this intersection, race and law, than any other.[2] Therefore, in what follows, this brief essay argues that our understanding of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Committee’s recent finding of probable cause of racial discrimination at the suburban Philadelphia Valley Club, can be better understood through the lens of enemy construction.[3] By understanding the rhetorical construct of enemies, or how we construct and identify those we believe to be “others,” we can better understand the case before us.

At the Intersection of Race and Economics

As this case demonstrates, the intersection of race and economics is alive and well. To say, as the Pennsylvania Human Relations Committee has, that probable cause of racial discrimination was clear and present; the rhetorical trope of enemy construction emerges as a foundation for inquiry. For example, in order for discrimination to occur, there must exist a rhetorically constructed image, racial or otherwise, that defines “them” from “us.” Enemies, largely defined by their perceived lethality against societal progression and stability, on a macro level, threaten the well being of society, whereas on a micro level, they endanger the liberty and pursuit of happiness of specific groups and must be eradicated. Whether defined and articulated as a foreign nation or group of people, their existence must be rectified.

Strategically constructed in and around cultural and behavioral variables, enemies are usually defined in opposition to how we view ourselves, denying the existence of resemblance. To utter, as did one member of the Valley Club, “what are all these black kids doing here?” evokes not only race, but also an economics of place.[4] Because we identify enemies in opposition to how we view ourselves, being African American only partially articulates such sentiments, whereas their presence “here” introduces the socio-economic element within this member’s astonishment. Although the Valley Club affirms the legally obligatory non-discriminatory orientation along the lines of race, sex, creed, color, nation or ethnic origin, by no means does this include class. In the United States for example, as with other countries such as Germany, Canada, and the United Kingdom, we operate under what is popularly referred to as a “free market” economy.  Under a free market economy, buyers and sellers are responsible for the choices they make, whereas free market economics allows pricing to determine who does and who does not receive various goods and services.[5] While the Valley Club cannot legally discriminate along the aforementioned lines, the power of the free market allows them to “out price,” therefore strategically defining who they are and who they serve, while constructing the enemy, that is, who they are not, and who they do not serve.

The late Studs Terkel was correct when referring to race as “America’s obsession,” for oftentimes race is the single most reoccurring variable discussed in America, at least along the lines of inequality and diversity.[6] However, as a result, our understanding of inequality in America is generally deduced to dialogues on racial diversity, ultimately framing race, not race and economics, just race, as America’s top enemy. With the case before us, it is imperative to excavate what lies below surface level, that is, at the intersection of race and economics rests a discursive formation laced with discriminatory tendencies. If enemy construction is to succeed at illuminating the countervailing forces present within this case, it is imperative that we discuss not only the targeted group, but also the ideologies present within constructing the characteristics of the enemy itself.

It is equally imperative for the understanding of the events that transpired within the Valley Club case that we not solely identify race as the enemy therein. To utter, as one member did, “this is not the community where these kids live,” unearths a politics of place that underscores both race and socioeconomic status. Our continuing dilemma in America along the lines of racial diversity has blinded many discussions to a point where we have become obsessed with identity while failing to grapple with socio-economic inequality.[7] Because both race and class are the enemies herein, it is quite salient to argue that both race and class matter.[8] To say “this is not where these kids live” blatantly affirms (1) a geographic politics of place, whereas the Valley Club exists outside their spatial boundaries, (2) a clear and present racial order and (3) an understood socio-economic niche that does not cater to “economic others.” With these fluid variables, we are able to witness that enemy construction exists as the base of this conflict. In order for one to fit the build of the enemy, there must be a conscious undertaking that seeks to eliminate the prospect of identification.  Here, the enemy is rhetorically constructed around race and socio-economic status.

Closing Thoughts

Only constrained by space, this essay reflects an attempt at recalibrating how we dissect and discuss discrimination and inequality. The Valley Club case serves as an all too familiar reminder that both race and socio-economic status matter. Through the lens of enemy construction, my purpose was to briefly illuminate the discursive and intertwined ideology that adjoins the varying levels of discrimination in this case. As racial and economic others, enemy construction arms us with a different orientation that refocuses how we approach, discuss and discern discrimination.

* Instructor or Rhetorical Criticism and Public Speaking, Texas A&M University. B.A., Illinois College; M.A., Syracuse University; Ph.D. candidate, Texas A&M University.

[1] While many are generally familiar with the state of economic disenfranchisement fostered under slavery, the same cannot be said regarding Native Americans amidst “western expansion.” See Leroy Dorsey, We Are All Americans, Pure And Simple: Theodore Roosevelt And The Myth Of Americanism (2007); David Livingston, The Geographical Traditions: Episodes In The History Of A Contested Empire (1992); Richard Drinnon, Facing West: The Metaphysics Of Indian Hating And Empire Building (1980);    Ray Billington, America’s Frontier Heritage (1966);

[2] Dred Scott v. Sanford, 60 U.S. 393 (1856).

[3] Within Rhetorical Studies, enemy construction carries tremendous applicability. Most commonly found useful when discussing presidential rhetoric and war messages, this rhetorical process can be applied to the study of organizations, specific groups of people, statutes, etc.  See Eran Ben-Porath, Rhetoric of Atrocities: The Place of Horrific Human Rights Abuse. 37 Presidential Studies Quarterly, 181-202 (2007); John H. Butler, Somalia and the Imperial Savage: Continuities in the Rhetoric of War, 66 Western Journal of Communication, 1-24 (2002); Robert L. Ivie, Tragic Fear and the Rhetorical Presidency: Combating Evil in the Persian Gulf, in BEYOND THE RHETORICAL PRESIDENCY (Martin J. Medhurst ed., 1996); Robert L. Ivie, Metaphor and the Rhetorical Invention of Cold War Idealists, 54 Communication Monographs, 165-182 (1987); Robert L. Ivie, Images Of Savagery In American Justification For War. 47 Communication Monographs, 279-294 (1980).

[4] This closely resembles what Kirt Wilson refers  to as a politics of place. See Kirt Wilson, The Politics of Place and Presidential Rhetoric in the United States, 1875-1901, In Civil Rights Rhetoric And The American President (James Arnt Aune & Enrique D. Rigsby eds., 2005).


[6] The late Studs Terkel will be best remembered for his Pulitzer Prize winning work on oral histories along with his dedication to discuss issues of race and socioeconomic status in America. See, Studs Terkel, The Great Divide: Second Thoughts On The American Dream (1988); Studs Terkel, Race: How Blacks And Whites Feel About The American Obsession (2005).

[7] See Walter Benn Michaels, The Trouble With Diversity: How We Learned To Love Identity And Ignore Inequality (2006).

[8] One current example that illustrates this point well is the debate over reparations. See Vincent Verdun, If the Shoe Fits, Wear It: Analysis of Reparations to African Americans, 67 Tul. L. Rev. 597 (1993); Randall Robinson, The Debt: What America Owes Blacks (2000); Darryl Fears, Slaves’ Descendents Sue Firms; Filing Seeks Reparations From Profits on Free Labor, WASH POST, Sept. 4, 2002, at A22; Comission to Study Reparations for African Americans Act, H.R. 40, 108TH Cong. (2003); Charles J, Ogletree & E.R. Shipp, Point Counterpoint, Does America Owe Us?, ESSENCE, Feb. 2003; Charles J. Ogletree, Repairing the Past: New Efforts in the Reparations Debate in America, 2 Harv. C.R.-C.L.L. Rev. 38 (2003); Eric Posner & Adrian Vermeule, Reparations for Slavery and Other Injustices, 3 Colum. L. Rev. 103 (2003).

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