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Class, Dismissed: Working-Class Youth and the Evasion of Socioeconomic Inequality in an Affluent Suburb

By many measures, inequality in the United States is at an all-time high; the racial wealth gap remains, and
income inequality has more than doubled in the last three decades (Pew Research Center 2020). And yet, in
many communities, people struggle to talk about inequality. Scholars have repeatedly found evidence of an
aversion to open discourse about race and racial inequality in both the general population (Bell & Hartmann
2007; Bonilla-Silva 2003) and in educational contexts (Lewis-McCoy 2014; Pollock 2004), although some
recent work has questioned the dominance of the “colorblindness” paradigm (Berrey 2011). Similarly,
previous work has found that people are generally uncomfortable discussing class, although the extent to
which a taboo holds against talking about class varies across the income spectrum (Sherman 2017; Silva 2019;
Zaloom 2019). Despite that general discomfort with discussing class, however, previous work has found that
in some contexts, people may be more inclined to address class inequality than racial inequality (Johnson 2006;
Khan 2012; Mueller 2017; Warikoo 2016), arguing that class is the real driver of inequalities. That said, how
youth from marginalized groups make sense of racial and class inequality in diverse contexts remains unclear.
Given the salience of race in the United States, we might expect marginalized youth to foreground race and
downplay class. But given the pervasiveness of race-evasive discourses in diverse (especially predominantly
white) spaces, we also might expect marginalized youth to minimize race and emphasize class.

This is a timely inquiry, as against a backdrop of rising inequality and persistent reticence to discuss inequality,
communities that were previously overwhelmingly white and affluent are becoming increasingly diverse (Frey
2014). With that in mind, this dissertation uses the case of an affluent, predominantly white suburb
(“Kirkwood”) to illuminate how a privileged but racially and socioeconomically diverse community talks
about class inequality. Using ethnographic methods, I focus on a group of working-class ninth-graders (all but
one of whom are students of color) who live and attend school in Kirkwood. Drawing on extensive
participant observation, in-depth interviews with both students and teachers, and review of school
documents, I find that despite working-class students experiencing academic and extracurricular disparities,
reporting feelings of not belonging, and struggling with issues of food insecurity, Kirkwood students and
community members frequently evade talking about class, even going so far as to assert that class inequality is
a non-issue in their community. Surprisingly, they also frequently pivot from class to race, deviating from the
color-evasiveness more often described in previous research (Bonilla-Silva 2003; Pollock 2004). I argue that
the color-conscious, class-evasive discourse among students and adults in Kirkwood is evidence that, under some
circumstances, members of predominantly white communities will choose to engage issues of racial
inequality, but that that does not automatically extend to engagement on issues of class inequality. Taken
together, these findings offer implications for the study of discourse around inequality as well as the work of
advancing equity in increasingly diverse schools.

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