Class in America (and the Lack Thereof)

Readers, you might not think Internet reports of a Metro-North commuter gone berserk after she was reprimanded for loudly using profanity during a cell phone call has anything to do with this blog. That she went into full-metal brat mode and declared that she was too educated to use foul language might not have any bearing on The Latte Cafe, you might say.

But you would be wrong!

The humiliating accounts of her overbearing conduct have gone viral, cost her a position at an international bank, and have spun off discussions about race and class in America.

At first, I was going to refrain from posting any identifying information about Hermon Kaur Raju. But just when she ought to have gone into hiding, she created a YouTube page where she reposted the video in a misguided attempt to vindicate herself. She also claimed to be a victim of racial profiling, so she injected race into this. I was willing to write it off as a case of stressed-out yuppie gone frantic. But Ms. Raju has done herself in by keeping the video alive and mounting her defense on some very shaky logic.

Ms. Raju is of Indian origin and the conductor who tried to get her to curb her terrible behavior is a Black American. Both are women. I’ll be generous here and ignore her provocative comments about “that black woman” whom she incorrectly accused of being loud and profane, and of “those people” whom she’ll never share a train with again. I’ll focus on class, which a few other readers and commenters have wisely done. The thinking, according to some conversation threads, is that the woman might have behaved that way because she came from a culture that still operates within a tangible, if not officially rigid, social order. From the Brahmins down to the untouchables, the thinking goes, Indians have a centuries-old social system that could explain why someone who obtained a degree from NYU would believe herself to good to be civil and cooperative in a public space, much less a confined public space like a train. Raju never expressed contempt for non-caste Black women in general, just that particular one. 🙂  Raju clearly thinks that she has no obligation to behave in a palatable manner in public, and that she is too good to let a mere ticket collector tell her what to do. Does she think that a train conductor must be an Ivy League reject, or a failed professional who is not worthy of common ladylike decency? Apparently so.

Were it not for the contemptible way that she treated the train conductor, I might feel sorry for Raju, enough to ignore it on this blog. But there is that darned YouTube page that she maintains. I  sense that class—Americans prefer the term “socioeconomic” class— will exert a stronger and stronger hold on American society. The reasons are plenty: the middle class is being pressured to carry heavier financial obligations for their health care and retirement. College educations are increasingly expensive, potentially putting it—and upward mobility—further out of reach for the population that needs it most.

These sorts of incidents happen every day in America—educated and affluent people, some of whom are full of themselves, virtually spitting on service workers. It goes beyond elitism and speaks to an unacknowledged and growing contempt for people who don’t earn livings as service professionals. An incident unfold before my eyes a few years ago while on a weekend jaunt to Washington, D.C. If you’ve spent any time in The District, or The D, you’ll know that loads of educated, ambitious, entitled, self-important and obnoxious (except for the Obamas) yuppies flock there. I had ducked into a drug store to buy a bottle of water, and queued up behind a white man in his 30s to pay. For some reason, the cashier, a black man in his late teens or early 20s, had messed up the order. That’s annoying, of course, but it did not warrant the vicious upbraiding that the white man laid down while the clerk fumbled through solving the problem. The white yuppie belittled the clerk’s intelligence, threw out remarks like “it’s basic math,” and essentially treated him like a nothing, a nobody for him to kick around. It was pathetic and disgraceful, which is why I called the white guy a nasty name. He threw me a scowl.

And years ago, I mean almost two decades, I was riding a city bus back home. The bus was within a mile of my stop, when a passenger, a petite and effeminate white man, got all worked up and began shrieking at the driver, a Black woman. “You’re driving a bus because you’re too stupid to do anything else!” He repeated that several times before storming, rather clumsily, off the bus.

Just last month or so, I was on a story assignment in midtown, and had carried my laptop to the event. There was no reliable wi-fi in the building, so I hauled my machine over to the New York Public Library, a majestic and stunningly beautiful building that you must see if you are ever in the area. Anyway, I was rushing to the reading room to try to find a spot to write and send my story, and got on the elevator. When my floor came up, I peaked at the sliding elevator doors to check for the right floor number, a habit from riding the elevator in my building at work. It wasn’t there, so I was looking all around for the right floor. Some man in his mid- to late-50s sneered: “You have to look at the sign over the door. This is a reading building, can you read that?”  I didn’t have time to tell that fat, flatulent pig to drop dead. I could only just roll my eyes and make for the reading room so I could get my story out.

In all the cases I’ve mentioned, people who were educated, presumably successful and upwardly mobile had made the lowest presumptions about a Black person’s intelligence, and proceeded to behave despicably. As I said, I don’t want to assume that racism alone drove the disgusting behavior that I saw years ago, and that the whole world witnessed last week. The victims were Black because we’re in the Northeast, a racially and ethnically diverse part of the country. I’m sure that white bus drivers, train conductors and other service workers elsewhere in the U.S. come under similar tongue lashings from well-to-do, bilious tyrants.

When it comes to interracial dating, people’s misconceptions about folks from other cultures are driven by a volatile mix of racial heritage, immigrant nationalism, and their respective places in our social structure. A working-class Black woman might experience a public slight at the hands of a white woman, then conclude the mix up stemmed from some malevolent, racist feelings on the part of the latter. Meanwhile, that same white woman might be socially awkward, have more money and education and be used to dealing with a different crowd, using different language to express herself. She might not know how to explain herself when confronted with the robust ways in which Black women express themselves sometimes. Voila. A misunderstanding ensues, the Black woman goes home in a martyr’s huff, and the white woman might move on to something else. Do you think that Black woman might ever consider dating that white woman’s brother, son or friend? Probably not.  Before people date interracially, chances are that they’ve lived on much broader horizons than those who have not. They draw from experiences in travels, education and work places to understand the subtleties of odd behavior in others, and don’t always put it down to racial prejudice. Then, of course, you might have people from lower middle and working classes who cross color  lines and pair up. Whatever the case, common causes, common classes, bring people together. Reader, look around you at all the married people you know. Most of them, it is safe to say, grew up within miles of each other, or worked long hours in the same circle of professionals.

We will be shocked at Ms. Raju’s antics on the Metro-North for only a few more minutes. After the snickering, forwarding, Facebook liking and finger pointing stops, I hope the incident will force Americans to confront our complex class structure in the making. In Ms. Raju’s case, her one hope is that she is young enough to change her ways, overcome that irksome personality of hers, and develop habits that make her much more likable in public.

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