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Wednesday, October 18, 2006 

The Race-Class Taboo

The quandary in this country, classism has become sort of a no-no in America to speak about because there is a myth that this country is assumed to be classless. We are constantly bombarded with the notion that this is the "land of opportunity." And if you didn't "make it" it was your fault for not taking advantage of all the tools that are there for the taking. We are reminded of this everyday, whenever we enter a business, an educational institution, and/or government facility and see the equal opportunity clause posted for us to see that states: "We do not discriminate on the basis of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation..."

Racism is not manifested solely through a persons attitude or act toward another. It is deeply embedded in our system and structures through instruments of power and control, which is not consistently achieved or maintained through numerical strength but through the construction and preservation of a biased system.

According to research written by Alan Berube, Overcoming Barriers to Mobility: The Role of Place in the United States and UK, in the US, it is becoming increasingly less socially mobile. The reality is, in today's society, if you are born into poverty, you are most likely end up dying poor. If you are born into riches, you will remain wealthy. If your parents are middle-class, the chances of you moving up on the economic ladder have now become nearly impossible.

During the 90s, roughly 40% of US families remained in the same income bracket in which they began at the completion of the decade vs 36-37% in the 1970s and 1980s. More than half the households at the bottom remained there after 10 years.

He also stated that the location within the city played a major role in social mobility. A person living in a deprived area is kept poor in several ways. Poor neighborhoods tend to separate people from their work geographically; schools are less likely to offer high-quality education; crime rates are higher, particularly for violent crime; and health care is poorer. Social expectations to hold a job, stay away from crime and avoid risky behaviors are lowered in poor neighborhoods, too.

Poverty is regarded as a consequence of an individuals' decisions, attributes and/or moral failings instead of being seen as the exploitation of the working class by the business elites. To understand how classism was taken out of the racism picture, we have to know the history and role of white privilege in this country. White working class people are considered as both oppressor and oppressed. They are oppressed by non-working class white based on class, gender and sexuality, and based on religion, culture, ethnicity, age, physical abilities and politics. At the same time, they are privileged in relation to people of color. Sharon Martinas provides an excellent summary how white privilege was developed:
In the early 1600's, 50 wealthy Englishmen bought stock in the Virginia Company of London. Their stock options included large parcels of (indigenous) land in the new colony of Virginia, as well as the right to govern the colony.

These English gentlemen did not intend to work their lands in Virginia. To get workers, they contracted with English merchants who delivered impoverished English teenagers and kidnapped African people.

Workers were regularly whipped, nearly starved to death, denied days of rest, and were refused permission to marry. ... Under these conditions, African and English servants struggled to survive and resist their common oppression. They traded together, they made love together, and they made war together against their masters. Most servants were armed, since the wealthy used their servants to protect the frontiers against "hostile Indians."

Virginia records document ten servant revolts in the mid-1600's, culminating in the famous Bacon's Rebellion of 1676. African and English servants, free workers and farmers, demanded land and pay for their labor. They burned down Jamestown, the colony's capital. ... Colonial land-owning legislators responded with a series of Slave Codes, enacted from 1680 through 1705. These codes legalized chattel slavery ... and severely restricted the rights of free Africans. The codes equated the terms "slave" and "Negro," thus institutionalizing the world's first system of racialized slavery.

As the codes tightened the legal noose around enslaved Africans, they simultaneously loosened the legal bonds on English indentured servants. English or "white" servants were granted specific forms of *privilege* or *preferential treatment* which was specifically denied to slaves, or "Negroes."

All these "privileges" were specified as being available only to "white" people. However, if any poor whites acted in solidarity with any Africans, they would be physically branded, and their privileges removed. Thus the term "white" became synonymous with "privilege"* in colonial law.
Basically, it was a method used by the business elites to dupe the poor white working class into believing that they have non-monetary privileges in society therefore, indoctrinating them into believing that they are better than the ethnic minorities - giving rise to the concept of "White privilege."

Journalist and Professor Robert Jensen further explains, white privilege is not that straightforward but complex – a unspoken caste system among whites:
White privilege, like any other social phenomenon, is complex. In a white supremacist culture, all white people have privilege, whether or not they are overtly racist themselves. There are general patterns, but such privilege plays out differently depending on context and other aspects of one's identity (in my case, being male gives me other kinds of privilege).
In a society as thoroughly and violently racialized as the US, working class whites and people of color are not seeing what is seriously at stake - the challenges of creating a true united anti-racist force that can resist the contemporary racist strategies of divide-and-conquer. In other words, there is a constant competition among different social groupings for who is "more oppressed."

What is taking place now, the primary benefits many working class whites enjoyed are disappearing - such as wage increases and the instability of full employment because of outsourcing - therefore, leaving an uncertainty in their children's future, since it has been clearly assumed that a "child is expected to do better than their parents." Secondary benefits are also diminishing, such as limited financial resources to pay for educational opportunities for white working-class youngsters because of college tuition rates continue to rise and the constant cutting of federal grants. Existing social services that used to be in place to create social mobility - medicaid, medicare, TANF - are being reduced. The impacts of these diminishing privileges are endangering the legitimacy of the white supremacy system, and the system is now relying on scapegoating to maintain order.

At this point, I would not be surprised that some white people are getting bent out of shape. Before moving on, here are a couple of questions white people should consider before getting defensive - Do you think that in the United States being white has advantages? Have any of you ever benefited from being white in a world run mostly by white people? If so, if we live in a world of white privilege - unearned white privilege - then how does that affect the notion of a so-called existing level playing field?

Still not convinced? The answer these questions: What was the company or government agency, or contractor to which you had applied for a position or contract, which you believe discriminated against you?

Second, when did you apply for this job or contract?

And, finally, who was hired or given the contract ahead of you, and what evidence do you have that they were less qualified, objectively than you for the position?

Until we start defining equality in terms of opportunity rather than in terms of moral responsibility, capitalist America will continue to provide the working class with the illusion of equality while it proceeds to exploit them.

The racism many white people feel are not from minorities, but from other whites - the wealthy, which explains why white privilege complex. The subjugation that is being rendered is more subtle, by the creation of private spaces - First Class accommodations, country clubs, five star restaurants, and other private spaces. Why do you suppose the wealthy are willing to pay a hundred dollars a plate or pay more to fly class? Why are they willing to pay more to live in secluded neighborhoods?

In the US, the idea of individualism is a much-celebrated theme in the national myth, this focus on the individual extends beyond rightist libertarians to the Right as a whole. The Right provides two misperceptions to continue this hoax. When it comes to racism, the Right most often dismiss the very idea of racism and consider it as having no merit, strongly affirming that racial incidents and outcomes are solely a problem between individuals. For the most part, the Right alleges, "racism is a thing of the past."
liberal programs as affirmative action have little to do with fighting racism; rather, they are aimed at camouflaging the embarrassing reality of black failure to meet merit standards of academic achievement and economic performance. One of my main conclusions is that even though we now have substantial numbers of Hispanics, Asians, and Middle Easterners in this country, racism remains primarily a black-and-white problem. Many people may not like Korean or Mexican immigrants, but there is no systematic belief today that holds these groups to be inferior. Yet four centuries after blacks were brought to this country against their will, the suspicion of black inferiority persists. This suspicion helps to keep racism alive and so hinders progress toward a race-neutral society. Only by recognizing and confronting cultural pathology and becoming fully competitive with other groups, I argue, can African Americans discredit racism and join whites and other ethnic groups in claiming the fruits of the American dream.
When it comes to portraying the white working class, it is always the old stereotype of the white supremacist or the non-educated white trash hillbillies who refuse to get over the South’s defeat of the civil war. For the past 40 years, white (particularly non-Southern white) liberals, progressives, and others on the left have mistakenly assume that white supremacy were only a matter of ignorance. That once they were educated, things would become the liberal paradise. It did not work out that way. It is such an easy meme for progressives to repeat. It puts the problem outside of New York or Massachusetts or California or any time progressives might actually have to work on the polite forms of fascism.

But why do so many otherwise clear thinking people on the left share the misperceptions? Why is West Virginia and Alabama first on the list whenever the KKK comes up and not Michigan or California? Folks in Michigan know that the KKK is there, and folks in California know about the neo-Nazis among them. Who are these snake oil salesmen? The obvious answer is, the extremely wealth, the political elites, the ones who want to keep the status quo and the mass media is their tool to continue this division.

Any time you turn on the TV, you continually see junk shows like The Jerry Springer which reinforces these stereotypes. Springer's show has gone out of its way to reinforce our view on white trash or the uppity minority.

The same goes for the news. When it comes to stories dealing with the rural areas or the inner city, reporters are always interviewing people to who fit the stereotype.

The same thing can be view with primetime TV shows like "My Name is Earl" which depicts male rednecks as lacking an education, ignorant, uncouth, poor hygiene, etc. And when it comes to female, (urban and white trash) they are portrayed as sexually promiscuous (Dukes of Hazards).

There is a fundamental reason class is "America's forbidden subject." It is time for white people to go beyond good intentions and begin to face, and to tell, the truth how how the privileges that come with being white gives you advantages, some subtle and some obvious, some overt and some covert, some material and some ideological.

I have said this in college and will proceed to say it over and over again. Since poverty is not concentrated among one group of people it serves as a starting point for healing the racial divisions in America. Once people are willingly to accept these facts, it is then the status quo will change.


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  • From Tejas, United States
  • Un Xicano who is tired of the current status quo.
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