Thursday, August 6, 2009

Race and Class in the Commons

This week we have a guest blogger. Frances Kunreuther is the Director of the Building Movement Project, which works to strengthen U.S. nonprofits as sites of democratic practice and advance ways the nonprofit sector can build movement for progressive social change.

This is the week of the Professor Gates / Sergeant Crowley beer with the President, and there has been lots of discussion in my circles about race and class. I might not have connected this to the commons, but then I went to Amtrak to get a ticket that required me to wait in line. So there I am waiting in this line that is snaking through Penn Station, when I and those around me notice that the Acela line, the one for those who are taking the really expensive and fast train, is only a few people long. Before I know it, several people – all of them white and well-dressed – just dunk under the bars that are keeping us neat and orderly and head for the short line.

Me, I am always the moralistic one that thinks that justice will prevail. So I am astounded that they are all served and none are sent back to wait with us or called cheaters. I am just seething, especially since the woman directly in front of me is older and clearly disabled, anxiously waiting her turn. Plus, like many other in our line, she is a person of color. She frequently looks at the short line but I assume she calculates the risk of losing her spot isn’t worth it.

After I made it to the window (and suffered my own Amtrak humiliations), I told the agent helping me that I was upset by the way the two lines worked and explained what happened. She nodded knowingly and told me I should go talk with the supervisor at Customer Service. “Make sure you talk to a supervisor because there is nothing we can do,” she warned me.

I followed her instructions and talked with the supervisor. Again, I told him how upset I was and how I thought it was racist that the white people who really looked pretty much like me could be served as if they had high class tickets and the in the other line were the “have nots” who, by the way, had also paid a pretty penny for their tickets. A tall African-American man, the supervisor looked at me and said, “No, it’s about class and really there is nothing we can do. If we don’t serve them we are reprimanded.” He then gave me a number to call to make a report.

On the way back from the station, I just kept thinking about the Commons. Maybe it’s talking with Kim and Caroline here at the Building Movement Project, but I wondered if Amtrak was in the Commons, I thought about the separation between those that paid more and those that didn’t. And I noted I could accept the indignities until I realized how it wasn’t about money – it’s embarrassing but I wasn’t actually wasn’t fighting that the high-priced ticket holders had better service. What got me was the unspoken way that once again some people will just always fare (no pun intended) better than others.

So I did call the number the supervisor had given me – 1-800-872-7245, which leads to the infamous automated Julie. I waited for a reservation agent, I waited to be transferred to Customer Relations and then I had a long discussion with the woman on the phone who said she completely agreed with me but that the ticket agents are not allowed to say anything when someone goes into the wrong line because it is considered bad customer service. “Some people would say it was racist,” she told me, “but anyone going into the Acela line would be served. It just works for the people who know how to game the system.”

But I wonder on these dog-day afternoons of summer in New York City how different it would feel if we all got a fair shake. Maybe Professor Gates and Sergeant Crowley are wondering the same thing.

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