“Privilege is provisional,” writes Margo Jefferson in Negroland, part memoir, part history of African Americans like herself who grew up “middle class” in Chicago. “Privilege can be denied, withheld, offered grudgingly and summarily withdrawn […] Keep a close watch.”
One of the first memories I have from living in the middle-class South Asian-heavy enclaves of central New Jersey, where I moved from Queens in 2000 at the age of twelve, was of my father being screamed at by a cop. It was early morning, and the sky was light blue, and my baba had been playing his usual lite.fm radio, with Whitney and later, Billy Joel blaring. He was wearing his dark suit and tie and a dark blue shirt, and was dropping me off at school after I’d again slept in. I was going to be late, and was nervously tapping my feet, as he took the backroads, humming and bopping his head side-to-side.
Finally, at an intersection, he allowed a car to pass, and tapped the gas to continue, until we spotted red and blue colors flashing from some dark corner of the street. Quickly, my dad flipped off the radio, placed his hands on his steering wheel, and kept still, as the officer berated him from the driver side window, telling him to never let anyone take a turn at an intersection again, that it wasn’t my dad’s “job” to direct traffic. It wouldn’t be the last time either of us would be yelled at like that, and neither of us spoke about that for the rest of the ride.
When I returned home from school on sunny days, I was excited to ride my bike amid the sprinklers still turning, swaying. I called my close friend, Faizan, who I’d known since moving to New Jersey. Faizan’s parents would drop him off with his bike and we’d ride through the surrounding neighborhood as our parents talked inside our home, sharing some tea and gossip.
“Go faster fat ass!” I’d yell, being one of the shortest boys in school, and hence, having developed a Napoleon complex in record speed.
Faizan grinned, and easily caught up to me. We would drift past the other houses, the lush green lawns, the cars left to sparkle under the sunlight. Unlike Queens, we wouldn’t have to worry about cars riding right behind us, or random people jumping us. We were safer here, in many ways, and the air felt cleaner too. I could breathe, and I extended my arms wide, feeling the air filtering between my fingers. Sometimes, we’d see a white person staring at us, after having returned from work, briefcase in hand, and laughter would fill our lungs.
“Nothing highlighted our privilege more than the menace to it,” Jefferson adds, “Inside the race we were the self-designated aristocrats, educated, affluent, accomplished; to Caucasians we were oddities, underdogs and interlopers.”
Since the 2000s, the ‘burbs, quintessential pockets of the “American Dream,” have become increasingly racially and ethnically “diverse”. In my family’s part of New Jersey, some suburban towns have become predominantly “non-white” and mainly Asian, such as Edison, where the streets are lined with saree shops and H-marts. Interestingly, I’d rarely see East Asians and South Asians mix. We still retained our own “communities,” blocks away from one another.
There were definitely more white people than what I’d been used to, having spent the first years of my life in the city, but again, we had our temples and mosques, our stores, our slices of the neighborhood, which proved useful following the racist backlash attendant to the attacks on 9/11. There were entire days when many of us never had to interact with someone white, especially over the weekends.
My friends and I in our slice of the suburbs also had access to an education that the friends I’d left behind would not have, unless they scored high enough to get into a specialized school. But for many I knew, that would not be the case, and instead, they’d navigate a public school system gutted under Mayor Giuliani, in a city where being “middle class” was truly mystical, as good-paying jobs had drifted away.
Deindustrialization, which began earlier in New York City than elsewhere in the country, had been a fact of life, as major businesses relocated to towns where a white-collar workforce could drive to, and where they could construct giant parking lots, and provide other “amenities” for some sections of the workforce.
The purpose of the suburbs, following WWII, was the manufacturing of a constituency of workers who’d see themselves as anything but. Of course, at the start of this transformation of the U.S. hinterlands, through private developers mainly, the suburbs attracted mainly white residents, many of whom were afforded cheaper loans to buy their slice of the American Dream.
“The single-family dwelling became the paragon of middle-class housing,” writes Kenneth Jackson in Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States, “the most visible symbol of having arrived at a fixed place in society, the goal to which every decent family aspired.”
As Marx would’ve said, the suburbs work to mystify reality. The fact is, despite some of the material advantages my parents and others I knew growing up had, compared to our counterparts in Queens, we were still having to work and exist in a society that required payment to live. Yes, we had pensions. Yes, we had lawns and driveways. Yes, we had the employer possibly attending the same mosques or temples as us, willing to shake hands with people, donating for another wing to someday be added. I still think back to when my dad’s boss, also Desi, appeared one day at the local temple, and how the men rushed to him, smiling wide, laughing at everything he said.
Still, you’re dependent on said boss for having that connection to the “good life,” as presented in movies and shows. I also remember thinking whenever we’d go out shopping for groceries in Edison, just a few minutes’ drive, and looking at the cashiers and other workers, mesmerized at how long they’d have to stand, believing that at least I didn’t have sweat running down my back at the end of each workday. My parents, who were far more liberal than some, reinforced in me the worldview that I would go to university, earn my degree, perhaps earn another, and someday also work in a job with some level of prestige and higher income. To not also be standing on my feet all day, with the sweat burning my pores.
“In Negroland we thought of ourselves as the Third Race, poised between the masses of Negroes and all classes of Caucasians,” Jefferson writes. “Like the Third Eye, the Third Race possessed a wisdom, intuition, and enlightened knowledge the other two races lacked. Its members had education, ambition, sophistication, and standardized verbal dexterity.
Some of what is described is true: that it is more likely to meet a higher standard of “assimilation” when developing oneself from within the sprawl. To attain a white-collar role, one must find ways to also attain a higher standard of education, usually. This doesn’t suggest that a person is more well-rounded immediately, but chances are, you are having access to types of knowledge that others will not. My own journey proves this as I’ve had the opportunity to enter graduate school and, in that process, have had the privilege of reading texts and learning theories that others won’t.
With more people of color caught in the sprawl, however, it means more people are susceptible to feelings of difference and distance from others who, ultimately, share some common interests but happen to wear a uniform all day, or attend a different religious site at the end. Of course, most people of color, regardless of social position, have been trending Democrat, including most Asians and Latinos, which is a product of the GOP being the vanguard of explicit bigotry and nihilism. This is not to argue that there aren’t pockets of support among some “people of color” for odious figures such as Trump, or the latest monster slithering onto the national stage. There has been recent polling showing that many Latino men have now expressed some support for Trump or someone like him. That said, in areas where I’m from, the northeast, most South Asians and non-white people lean toward Democrat, both at the local and national level.
But voting Democrat doesn’t suggest sharing progressive views, especially economically. In New Jersey, where there is a growing population of South Asians, a critical constituency in many parts of the state, more “establishment” type politicians within the party have continued to hold onto their seats, or passed it on to the trusted neoliberal few. This is not always the case, as we’ve also seen in New York, far more Desi progressives and self-identified socialists being elected Nevertheless, a split personality emerges. Confusion, self-loathing, and desperation pervades, obfuscating and carrying on the delusion. In some ways, confronting reality can be incredibly painful, sometimes heartbreaking. It is sometimes too much for someone to realize that the narrative of “success,” of being the talented tenth, the future leaders and symbols of “success,” has always been liable to fall apart is crippling emotionally.
Sometimes, it’s rational to cling to delusion, or to what is familiar. Perhaps place more of the financial burden on one’s credit line but at least in the meantime, still be able to buy some dinner in Edison, buy some new clothes for the next temple visit, or even to just spend more so the lawn can still look fresh and clean like everyone else’s. Sometimes, as a person of color in such a position, pride is all you have.
David Roediger explores the descent of the “middle class,” as those who still labor for a wage, for a boss, are now facing issues and lacking the economic security they’d once been promised. As the racial diversity has increased in parts of the middle class, so has income disparity and precarity. Ironically, as cities have become more and more gentrified, its refugees spill outward, at first in the immediate surrounding areas, until those places become prime locations for luxury condominiums, half of them likely to remain empty as the rents keep skyrocketing. In East Brunswick, which Faizan and I called “home” until we moved into other suburbs in other states, you can find newer people moving into trailer homes, or smaller houses attached to one another. Many now live closer to the traffic, the smog causing eyes to go dry in a matter of seconds.
“You drive like a grandma.”
“Wow. What a great comeback.”
“You drive like a grandpa then.”
“Such a bright mind!” Faizan exclaimed, and laughed. “Wow, clearly you’re a writer!”
“Shut the fuck up,” I responded, though grinning and peering outside as Faizan navigated traffic along Route 18, the major freeway that cut through several neighboring towns. As was our tradition now for the past several years, we’d often visit our parents, spend a few days there, and make time to drive around. It is a suburban tradition to have to drive for hours, just like we did when undergrads, shuffling between classwork and work-work. If you want to be some place, you have no choice but to drive. We’d mix in with the growing traffic, talk shit about people, about shows, about music, and then get to a point where we would need food, preferably somewhere not shrouded in trees and closer to the shopping malls and gas stations instead.
“No pizza,” Faizan requested.
“I brought lactose pills…” I said.
“You’re such a liar, you piece of shit,” Faizan replied.
I laughed, as he continued to complain over how distrustful and irresponsible I was, and how I was just another Dirty Desi from Dirty Jersey, a land of landfills and eerily quiet roads. A land where the sound of construction could always be heard.
After a while, we ate, and because of the pandemic, chose to do so while leaning on the hood of Faizan’s car. The cars passed. Still honking. Still belching out burnt gas and smoke. Eventually, I noticed Faizan’s sandwich lying on the hood, as he had taken to texting, non-stop. I knew based on prior conversations that he must remain in constant communication with people at the lab where he works. I reminded him to eat, but he just nodded, and kept texting.
Roediger explains: “Because being middle class involves a set of unrealistic expectations—of improvement of living standards across generations, of putting kids through college without debt, of a dignified retirement, of balancing labor and leisure—-life in the middle class has come to seem not only less desirable, but more and more impossible.”
The bargain that many white-collar people of color had made decades ago has now revealed itself to always have been a ruse, a lie. Underneath, the smiling mask was Uncle Sam, teeth dripping with blood. Underneath, Uncle Sam has always been a consolidation of forces that would’ve constantly been searching for easier ways to make money, to cut down on labor costs, to increase prices on what should’ve been universal goods, such as housing and healthcare, food, and higher education.
Anxiety and depression, insecurity, are on the rise. Roediger states, “Much of the misery of the middle class fits well within narratives of sudden descent in material terms, but much also involves psychic pain in good times as well as bad.”
For Jefferson, as she was met with racism and sexism mingling with the expectations placed upon her by her parents and the rest of her “community,” suicidal ideation had become normal. She admits this in Negroland, and the disclosure is courageous, but it’s still painful to read. I do not feel that way, fortunately, nor do any of my friends, to my knowledge. We laugh, we yell at each other when we need to, we adapt, and yet, every time I see or hear them, I can sense the heaviness in one’s voice. They, in turn, ask me if I’m getting any sleep. Usually, this is when they get to see me over Zoom, as I’m putting together another syllabus, followed by hours of research and writing for an article that could possibly help pay for the groceries.
“Let me say with care that the blame is not symmetrical: my enemies forced my loved ones to ask too much of me,” Jefferson writes, which to me, is only half-true.
The pressure to keep pace, to sustain one’s position in life, is a combination of reasons, including how hard our parents worked, and how much they don’t want us to fall as compared to the white people who may think less of us. But there’s the looming reality that for many of us, especially South Asians I know, we have our own material interests too that twist our sense of humanity into wanting to stay where we are, by any means necessary. For some, it truly is the case they would rather side with their bosses over the needs and interests of others like them, and certainly, those they will perceive as “below.”
Fanon, the famed anti-colonial writer and psychiatrist, examined how members of the “middle classes” or what he called, the “colonized intellect,” would find ways to rationalize their existence. How they’d rationalize sustaining some feeling of being superior to the masses, or the peasantry. This happens, not just by choice, but rather because of the materiality of the distance between the colonized intellect and their supposed brethren who live further away, on the periphery of the major cities/towns, or in the slums.
Even when he does develop some sympathy for the fate of others, he still expresses a politics very akin to the colonizer “who means well”. He still views others who share his racial/ethnic background as an Other.
“He places emphasis on customs, traditions, and costumes, and his painful, forced search seems but a banal quest for the exotic,” Fanon stated in his essay, “On National Culture,” which examined this need and possibility for the colonized intellect to join the anti-colonialist and socialist struggle.
In the meantime, others shall pursue ways to sustain their existing social position, working longer hours, possibly picking up more jobs/hustles. Anything to avoid the “descent” into the rabble, as Barbara Ehrenreich had once noted in The Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class, an expose of middle class life in the early 1990s.
“The professional middle class,” she wrote, “was born with the delusion that it stood outside of the class struggle—waged then between the workers and the ‘robber barons’—as neutral arbiters and experts.”
A few months prior to writing this piece, Faizan and I met again in E.B. and planned on driving around for hours as we usually did. Faizan, however, let me know the day prior that he could only hang out for a couple hours, and that most likely, would have to grab dinner at some fast food place again. I didn’t mind so much, since I had more writing assignments I was also working on and interviews to do. I still had people I needed to talk to for an article I was hoping I could get paid for so I could feel less guilty about my latest grocery run, which included chocolate coated pretzels.
The night of, I pick Faizan up, and he’s already on his phone texting. He asks me how I’ve been, thanked me for still wanting to hang out. I try and smile, but there’s a growing pain behind my eyes. I had already taken a few Tylenol, along with some chocolate pretzels, hoping it would hold me over as we explored our old neighborhoods.
“Did you watch The Batman?” I try to prompt a conversation, as Faizan took in a deep breath, gazing out at the whirlpool of gas stations and diners. The asphalt sounds crunchy, as we make our way through Edison and Iselin. Potholes galore.
“I did when it was in theaters,” he finally said, and flashed a smile. “What did you think?” he asked instead.
The pain had gotten worse. I blinked.
Later that night, I returned to my writing and putting together a syllabus. Faizan would text me saying he was sorry he wasn’t as focused. He had some deadlines to meet. I told him, no worries, and that the hard work would obviously pay off. He texted, same to you. Not going to lie, I said to him, I want a pension. LOL, he replied.
“Whether the middle class looks down toward the realm of less, or up toward the realm of more, there is the fear, always, of falling,” Barbara Ehrenreich once said.
That fear sticks to us, weighs us down like rain, black and brown.
Alex, whose family is from Puerto Rico and Monserrat, grew up in a suburb just a few miles from where my parents still live., While on his break from work, eating a sandwich so he can feel safe without his mask on, expressed to me how easy it is to develop an attitude in which one desires the status quo. Not out of some deep-seated fear of what some white people will think but rather, because of a more personal motivation.
“I know a lot of people who watch MSNBC a lot and really believe what they’re being told,” he said, between rushed chews. “Sorry, sorry,” he’d apologize, and continue to explain how numbing it all can be, living where we have. “You think differently from what your best interests can be, if you still work,” he said, “But also, you learn sometimes that you’re better than other people of color too.”
Alex and I are both members of the local Democratic Socialists of America chapter, and have been for a few years now. Sometimes, we talk over the phone about certain revolutionary texts, and discussions that are occurring in our chapter. Nowadays, we talk about politics generally, especially internationally, such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the U.S. empire’s ability to mold itself anew, to survive somehow.
Neither of us really speak to people in our neighborhoods yet. When we bring up topics around our parents, or around people closer to our age but who have “made it,” it can be emotionally chaotic and draining. Usually, everyone nods, and then moves on, or in some instances, we’re taken to be anti-Democrat, from the right, when we’re not. Shouting usually follows.
“It’s sometimes a lot to do and think about,” Alex admits, crumpling the aluminum wrapper. “Can we finish this up later?” he says and changes the subject: “Have you seen The Batman, by the way?” and proceeds to tell me a joke about it, to which I burst out laughing. My memory fails me exactly, but it was a riff on a Matt Christman line having to do with the next grittier version of The Batman character being played by someone just wearing a trash can and wielding a hockey stick.
The next time I see Faizan, I share the joke with him, and we laugh together as we sit outside somewhere, the lines around our eyes deepening, headaches forming behind each eye.
Sudip Bhatacharya is a doctoral candidate in Political Science at Rutgers University. He is also a writer, organizer, and you can find his other work at outlets like Protean Magazine, CounterPunch and Reappropriate, and the Aerogram.