A few months ago I was on a long plane ride when something rather startling happened: Someone sitting near me was actually polite.  He was in the seat immediately in front of mine, and before reclining he turned to look over his shoulder and asked—asked!—if I would mind if he leaned a little bit into my tiny bubble of cabin space.

I later saw him at the baggage carousel and decided to say hello.  I was further amazed to discover that it was easy to converse with him.  We exchanged pleasantries, and I mentioned how surprised I had been to encounter a polite passenger on an airplane.  He bashfully demurred.  I asked whether he had been in the military.  Yes, he had.  I can usually tell, I replied.  From there we soon turned to hometowns: he, Dallas; I, Metairie, Louisiana.  A little jocularity about our football woes, and then we shook hands, addressed one another as “sir,” and went our separate ways.

The man was black.

Encountering a dignified person in public is in itself newsworthy these days, but beyond good manners my interlocutor had the social grace that used to be common down home.  By all contemporary accounts, my fellow passenger and I should have been at each other’s throats.  Slavery, et cetera.  And yet, there was nary a hint of awkwardness.  He was just plain well mannered.  Our interaction, brief though it was, reaffirmed for me something I have been suspecting for years: We don’t have a problem with race in America; we have a problem with class.

To be sure, one does not need to reflect too deeply to arrive at this conclusion.  After all, the media and the universities tell us that we are mired in race warfare; but the media and the universities lie.  Therefore, we are not mired in race warfare.  It does not even rise to the level of the modus ponens.

But there is something much more going on here than the usual dezinformatsiya.  In piercing the torrent of rhetoric and discovering that class, and not race, is where our trouble lies, we arrive at the truth that you must not under any circumstances be allowed to perceive: Class is order, and race is war.  An orderly society will not need the media-university-government complex to shout orders down at it from the parapet, because such a society will easily order itself.  It’s Hayekian.  But if we were an organically orderly society, then what would become of our self-appointed guardians?   They’d be as ants without any aphids to milk, Democrats with no taxpayers to fleece—teats on a bull, as it were.  And that would be bad for the business of America, which is the perpetuation of our native idiocracy.  So the media, and the universities, and Washington all yelp about racism, and ignore, willfully so, the very broad and natural affinities that human beings have for one another based on the much firmer foundation of class.

What is class?  There are several definitions, but I will ignore most of them (e.g., “class; n., a drably painted room in which millennials sit rakishly and text one another nude photographs of themselves while someone from Brainwashers Local #4517 tells them about Betsy Ross sewing the first rainbow flag at the Battle of Stonewall in Barackteen Seventy-Six”) and focus on just two.

First, class is the ability to act as a lady or a gentleman.  It is not at all hard to do, but it seems to be the one thing, besides uttering declarative sentences without the annoying lilt at the end, that the yuppie booboisie cannot quite get their heads around.  Class is really just common sense, but that’s as rare as hen’s teeth now.  To review, then, let’s run down the list of rules.  No flatulating or eructating in public.  No flip-flops, no jammies, no spaghetti straps, no hipster mustaches, no vulgar T-shirts.  No foul language.  And, rounding out Class 101, no face tattoos.

Classiness, the quintessence of class, is that inner monitor which prevents someone from causing personal offense.  At a dinner party, for example, someone with class will strive to put his companions at their ease.  On a train, someone with class will yield his seat to a lady.  In conversation with strangers, the classy person will not ask about politics, because politics is divisive and class is that broadness of soul which seeks unity on higher levels.

By way of illustration, imagine Rosie O’Donnell.  Now imagine her opposite.  The latter is a good working definition of class.

Second, class is roughly compatible with socioeconomic status.  There are those who have wine cellars and those who do not.  Some people drive their own cars, some people have others drive their cars for them, and some people take the bus.  “Upper class” used to conjure images of John Jacob Astor and Princess Grace of Monaco.  “Lower class,” Ralph Kramden and Oliver Twist.  “Middle class,” Ozzie and Harriet, George Bailey, or, for the cynical, George F. Babbitt.

Even today mainstream historians, newspaper journalists, and other professional liars continue to treat class in this way, as though it were a purely Marxian category that had nothing whatsoever to do with what the Heian aristocracy used to call the yokibito, the “good people,” the better sort who knew how to exchange poetic double-entendres and act with discretion in matters of emotional delicacy and courtly rank.  (Sei Shonagon, a Heian lady, wrote an entire book filled with her withering opinions about boors and morons—opinions which she was too classy to speak of to their faces.)  But this conflation of class-as-classiness and class-as-purchasing-power is precisely where we have gone wrong.  Class has very little to do with money.  After all, Kim Kardashian is a billionaire.

After the Black Lives Matter phase of the left’s attempt to make America as deeply unhappy as Friedrich Nietzsche got underway, I started thinking a lot about class, and in particular about someone I knew a long time ago: Sheby.  I doubt very seriously whether more than ten people in the world remember her today.  In the eyes of those whom we are always told are “upper class,” Sheby was a nobody.  She was a poor black woman with an ample bosom and a dazzling smile who used to live in a black neighborhood in downtown New Orleans.  For the Marxists, Leninists, and Gramscians who dominate our idiocracy, Sheby was definitely lower-class, perfect fodder for the revolution.  But Sheby had more class in her little finger than everyone in the jet-setting idiocracy put together.  She was living proof that class was, and always will be, a matter of the heart and soul, and not of the epidermis and the pocketbook.

There is a phrase we would sometimes hear growing up: “po’ white trash.”  Sheby never said it around us, of course, because Sheby was classy.  But we didn’t need anyone to teach us what it meant—it was obvious just from putting the words together with their object.  Po’ white trash never held down a job.  They stank.  They pilfered money.  One had to count the silverware after they’d been seen in the neighborhood.  They got liquored up and “raised Cain” and then had to leave town for a while.  They sold drugs and lived in a van.  One simply didn’t associate with people like that.  Po’ white trash were about as welcome in our environs as was the Klan.  In fact, they were exactly the same thing.

Sheby, on the other hand, was a woman of our own kind, despite our obvious chromatic divergence.  Now, compared with Sheby I suppose we were well-to-do.  My grandfather was a pensioner and my grandmother sold Avon door-to-door, and they lived in a small house in Gentilly Woods with big cracks in the ceiling plaster caused by city buses that used to pass by and shake the foundation.  But my grandparents had a car—an old Ford straight out of the Zapruder film, to be sure, but a car nonetheless.  And they had a little extra money to be able to bring in a housekeeper.  And so Sheby used to come in for a few hours once or twice a week to do the laundry and get dinner started while my grandmother was out making her rounds.  When we were visiting my grandparents’ house, Sheby would sometimes sit down on the settee and dandle us and smile big and bright.  The blush in her mahogany cheeks was like late afternoon sunlight on a linseed-oiled cherrywood chiffonier.  My grandfather would drive her home in the evening, back to the black neighborhood, and then he would come home to white Gentilly Woods.

Carpetbaggers and Yankees and scallywags cannot abide human complexity of any kind, and so, as those groups have largely imposed a totalitarian regime in their own likeness on our land, it seems odd today to think that the world managed to turn on its axis in spite of the monstrous injustice of Sheby’s living in a black neighborhood and our living in a white one.  But I assure you, dear reader, that it was the most natural thing in the world.  We loved Sheby, and she loved us.  We respected her.  That’s precisely why we never dreamed of “gentrifying” her perfectly good black neighborhood by opening up a Jamba Juice on her street corner or a hot yoga studio above her local grocery store.

I did not know any such Utopians growing up, black or white.  Nobody was clamoring to smash the old tradition and uproot practices that had grown up slowly over hundreds of years in some of the most difficult cultural soil in world history.  Race in the South makes Avicennian ontology look like paint-by-numbers by comparison.  There are a million considerations in every exchange, and the mental tallying of half a millennium of terror and forgiveness tends to freight Southern conversations between white and black people with a heavy load.  But we were never abolitionists, never even close.  We were never really anything at all.  We knew there was a pall hanging over all of us, but we knew also that that pall was sinful human nature and it couldn’t be sloganed away.  We were Stoics, I guess, as Walker Percy used to say.  We took the hand we had been dealt and tried to make the best run of it that we could.  No sense reshuffling, really.  Every card in the deck is about the same.

In my lifetime I have seen race relations worsen time and again in direct proportion to the emphasis that our cultural elites place on puritanical absolutism along the color line.  It seems a false friendship which is predicated on the myth of human perfectibility: If only we would squint real hard we’d be able to see through the fog occulting all of our hearts.  But is that ever going to happen?

Sheby was too sweet and gentle in her soul to think ill of anyone, I am sure, but let’s imagine that I meet a black person today who has made some disparaging remarks about white people.  Well, so what?  All the more reason to try to be friends with him, I would say.  We all know it’s wrong to be rude, and that not everyone who looks alike acts or thinks or believes alike.  That much is apparent.  Given time, civilized men will work all of this out among themselves.  But the Puritans won’t let grace perfect nature—they insist on doing the job themselves.

The big lie about race relations in the United States today is that somehow both everybody and nobody is a racist.  It’s the least helpful Venn diagram ever devised.  Something so obviously drawn up by the idiocracy that it must be rejected.  We must try again by asking a different question.  What if we have a class problem, and not a race problem?  People with class don’t judge others on the color of their skin.  But we aren’t allowed to talk about class, because to do so would be to admit that almost nobody who lives in a big city has a lick of it left.  So, we keep on rolling the stone up the hill, wondering why it always rolls back down again.  And we’ll keep rolling it until we realize that we don’t have to do it anymore, don’t have to keep wearing out the same Sisyphean circuit.  We can quit fretting so much about race.  Time to work on class, instead.  Now there’s a motif with some potential.  But be warned: Race is cheap, but class comes with a price.

Think about Paula Deen.  I have been to her restaurant and had the pleasure of eating some of her cooking.  That kind of cooking is a matter of applying heart more than applying heat, and it makes it all the better to know that Mrs. Deen said some unkind things in the past and then knew she had done wrong and was sorry for it.  If you want to eat something that hasn’t been prepared by a sinner, then you are going to have to get used to eating raw.  Only, don’t feed yourself—or were you just now thinking that everyone else in the world was a sinner but you?

A few years back I was at a symposium down in Alabama, and a local restaurant was hired to cater one of the outdoor lunches for all the attendees.  It was just grand—big old tinfoil casserole platters filled with macaroni and cheese, collard greens, black-eyed peas, square-cut green beans, mashed potatoes and gravy, and sweet rolls.  And there were about 100 gallons of lemonade and 200 of sweet tea.

Everyone on the catering team was black.  They were sweating in the thick, drenching sun while dolloping out peach cobbler and slabs of baked ham, and while I was in line watching them I got to thinking about what might go through their minds as they prepare all of that food each day.  Maybe they sometimes ask themselves why all the black people are always standing up and serving the food and all the white people are always sitting down and eating it.  Maybe they have told some racist jokes, and maybe they still do from time to time.  I prefer to imagine that they do.  Anyone who tells you that he’s never thought ill of anyone is not to be trusted with making red beans and rice.

One man among the group of workers wore a big wooden cross outside his restaurant uniform, but his face was not the placid mask of the holy roller; it was the hard-lined countenance of a man who has looked into his own heart, recoiled in horror, and set himself the task of taking up his cross each day and carrying it on the road to redemption.  A real man, in other words.  An Aristotelian striver.  He didn’t come out of the box ready to storm Heaven with his own self-righteousness.  He has to fight for it.  It costs him his whole life to be even a little holier than he was when he got started.  (By the way, Yankees, Stoic endurance is the secret to making good cornbread.)

Learning to bear with your brother and cut him some slack because you are wrestling your own demons, too, is where civilization comes from.  And from civilization comes class.  It can’t be imposed from outside.  It has to be earned with suffering.  This is why the North could teach us how to build assembly lines, but still hasn’t figured out how to build a nation.  How’s all that working out in Afghanistan and Iraq?  Find any enduring freedom there yet?

We got a glimpse of Sheby’s suffering when her husband died.  We sent her a little money to help out with the funeral expenses, and she sent us a thank-you card that to this day still brings tears to my eyes.  Sheby was just barely literate, it turns out.  We never knew.  Her handwriting was that of a six-year-old child.  But her misspelled words of pure gratitude were like harp chords played by angels.  If the world is just and everything works out in the end, then Sheby is among that heavenly number now.  By contrast, go read the latest Van Jones tweet and ask yourself if that’s the road to reconciliation.

Our racial situation in the United States today is that we don’t have one.  We are supposed to pretend that there is no classiness, only socioeconomic class.  But Sheby, and a lot of other people down home whose skin color is tawnier than the paper bag that used to be the test for getting into Preservation Hall, had the other kind of class we’re considering here.  She had the class born of her humanity, and her humanity—especially for a black woman who came of age under Jim Crow—came from refusing to return ugliness for ugliness.  It was a civilizational inheritance, and it didn’t get thrown into place overnight.

Sheby might just as well have dictated the Meditations to Marcus Aurelius.  But I doubt she would have wasted her time trying to talk sense into Robespierre.