is more than a powerful autobiography. Sociologist Dalton Conley has written a treatise on the social construction of race and class through the lens of a boy growing up in the housing projects of New York City during the 1970s and 1980s. Conley begins:
I am not your typical middle class white male. I am middle class, despite the fact that my parents had no money; I am white, but I grew up in an inner-city housing project where most everyone was black or Hispanic. I enjoyed a range of privileges that were denied my neighbors but that most Americans take for granted. In fact, my childhood was like a social experiment: Find out what being middle class really means by raising a kid from a so-called good family in a so-called bad neighborhood. Define whiteness by putting a light-skinned kid in the midst of a community of color. (p. xi)
In this book, Conley skillfully weaves stories of his experiences as a White person to explore definitions of race and class, asserting that "race and class are nothing more than a set of stories we tell ourselves to get through the world, to organize our reality" (p. xii). The result is a useful tool that educators can use to examine concepts of race and class with high school, college, and graduate school students.
Conley’s memoir begins before he is born. He describes his family’s decision to move a few blocks south, from a tenement where they had been repeatedly burglarized to the projects of the Lower East Side. Conley’s family was poor and, unlike their neighbors, White. However, skin tone did not define his family as much as the choices they were afforded because they were White. He writes that his family could have chosen to "move to a White, working-class neighborhood in the outer boroughs or in New Jersey. . . . Our neighbors, by contrast, were largely unwelcome elsewhere for reasons of race and financial status" (p. 9). One of the first contradictions Conley experienced was that he did not fit in with any particular race or culture, rather, he "felt culturally more similar to [his] darker-hued peers than to the previous generations of [his] own family" (p. 7).
For the remainder of the book, school is the main backdrop for the lessons Conley learns. His description of his experiences in elementary school brings the social construction of race alive for readers. When Conyer’s mother enrolled him in school, the principal explained to her, "You see, there is no White class" (p. 44) and asked her to choose the Black, Puerto Rican, or Chinese class. "The choices our race gave us," Conley writes, "were made quite explicit — by a government institution, no less" (p. 44).
Conley’s mother enrolled him in the Black class, where he witnessed his classmates receiving corporal punishment when they misbehaved. He never received the same treatment, regardless of his behavior. "I even tried to get into fights in that school," he writes, "fights I knew I would lose; I wanted to feel the relief of being struck" (p. 46). The principal explained to Conley’s mother why he was treated differently, saying, "We know that White parents spoil their kids so [his teacher] doesn’t strike Dalton" (p. 49). Conley was given the choice to receive the same punishment as his peers or move to the Chinese class, where the teacher did not use corporal punishment. His mother moved him to the Chinese class, where, he writes, "My Chinese language skills improved, and my black hair grew longer and straighter — as if I were unconsciously trying to assimilate" (p. 50).
Conley stayed in this class until a child molester was found in the school’s bathroom and his parents decided to move him to another school. He explains that his parents "knew the magic words and when to say them" (p. 53), and were able to circumvent the requirement that Conley attend his neighborhood school to enroll him in P.S. 41, an elementary school in upscale Greenwich Village. Conley wonders if his parents had access to this knowledge because they were White and therefore possessed "social capital," or social connections that develop into benefits for those involved. "The losers in the arrangement," Conley writes, "were the local schools, which not only lost funding but also the students whose parents enjoyed the most ‘social capital,’ that is, connections" (p. 52).
Conley describes himself during his years at P.S. 41 as "a part-time, after-school honky . . . returning to the projects on the school bus each afternoon while most of [his White] classmates . . . sauntered home through safe Greenwich Village streets" (p. 79). At this school, being White did not define Conley as it did at home in the projects. However, at P.S. 41 Conley got his first lessons about social class:
It was a strange combination: I felt humbly thankful for the opportunities I was enjoying . . . yet simultaneously was developing a sense of superiority over my . . . neighbors. This quiet sense of snobbery was a way of displacing my sense of class inadequacy onto people who I now saw as even lower down the ladder than me. (p. 80)
After elementary school Conley went to Intermediate School 70, which enrolled children from a variety of races and classes, and where he hoped to "sew the two halves of [his] life together" (p. 133). However, middle school proved no simpler than elementary. According to Conley, "academic tracking reproduced, to some extent, the larger society’s hierarchy of race and class" (p. 133). In Intermediate School 70 there was an academic or high track and a lower, non-academic, vocational track. He writes, "These classes [in the lower track] were populated predominantly by minority students, a fact to which I failed to ascribe any importance at the time. Journalism was replaced by sewing, history by typing, and science by wood shop" (p. 170). Conley gravitated toward the poorer students who "sat inside, eating our federally subsidized hot lunches, while the Village kids went to the local shops for food" (p. 133). He was eventually placed in the lower track: "Being in the lower track gave me a touch of coolness that I had never experienced; . . . the two halves of my life, it seemed, were finally being sewn back together" (p. 170).
Toward the end of middle school, Conley began to develop his understanding of cultural capital. After moving into an apartment complex for artists in Greenwich Village (subsidized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development), Conley found it "difficult . . . to understand why artists had become an identifiable group, like the poor, who really deserved help" (p. 211). While living in Greenwich Village, Conley enrolled in Stuyvesant High School, an elite public exam school. Though happy with the school, Conley did not fit in with his peers. "I paced in circles like a closed-up laboratory animal, wishing I were back in our old neighborhood, where at least I had my skin color to blame for not fitting in" (p. 214). He recalls, "Nerdiness seemed to level most racial boundaries, and the friends I had crossed ethnic and national boundaries" (p. 219).
In the final part of the book, Conley builds on the social construction of race and class by examining the death of a friend, the incarceration of other friends, and his own role in setting an apartment fire. These examples and Conley’s focus on the educational system are effective, in part because they are so personal and in part because he examines the oft-ignored concept of Whiteness. His use of school as a backdrop through which to examine these social issues is also effective because he contradicts a popular argument that schools are places where equal opportunity exists, regardless of race or class.
Conley concludes his memoir:
I cannot say that it was racism that got Jerome shot or that landed me in Stuyvesant or that sent Marc to prison. Nor can I conclude definitively that it was class that propelled me to the school district across town or got me off the hook when I burned down Raphael’s apartment. . . . But when I add up all these particular experiences — as I have done in this book — the invisible contours of inequity start to take form. (p. 227)
Conley notes that even the fact that he wrote his memoir is indicative of race and class. "This is the privilege of the middle and upper classes in America, the right to make up the reasons things turn out the way they do, to construct our own narratives rather than having the media and society do it for us" (p. 119). Honky
entertains and educates. It is a unique autobiography and a powerful text on the social construction of race and class, a powerful book for educators to learn from and to use to teach others.