How Racism Explains America’s Class Divide and Culture of Economic
Cruelty (An Excerpt from Under the AffluenceThe following is an excerpt from my book, Under the Affluence: Shaming the Poor, Praising the Rich and Jeopardizing the Future of America (San Francisco: City Lights, 2015).
“That the United States has long had a less complete system of social safety nets than most other industrialized nations is by now well established. Despite a brief period of substantial government intervention on behalf of the poor and unemployed from the 1930s through the 1960s, for the past forty-five years there has been a steady retrenchment in these efforts, fueled by a persistent and increasingly hostile rhetoric aimed at such programs and those whom they serve.
The historical weakness of the labor movement in the U.S.
While the fact of less adequate safety nets is evident, a clear understanding of why the U.S. has been so much stingier than others in our provision for those in need is less clearly appreciated. Among the most prominent explanations, especially offered up by liberals and those of the political left, is the historical weakness of the labor movement and the lack of a labor-based party in the U.S.
American Race and Class re Tim Wise
Stronger labor movements in Europe have been able to wrest concessions from the owners of capital and political elites that have been harder to come by here: more complete unemployment compensation, and better health care and educational guarantees most prominently. It’s an argument with significant historical resonance, but it still begs the question: why?
Why has there been no effective labor party to develop in America
Why has it been so much harder for labor unions to gain strength in the United States? Why has there been no effective labor party to develop in America, even as they have been quite common elsewhere? Why have working class consciousness and the political movements that typically flow from that consciousness been generally weaker here than in other nations?
Although there are likely several answers to these questions, there can be no doubt that among the biggest is the role of racism in dividing working class folks along lines of racial and ethnic identity. The development of the class structure in the United States has been, from the beginning, interwoven with the development of white supremacy. Indeed, a fair reading of those dual histories suggests that white supremacy and the elevation of whites as whites above persons of color, even when both shared similar class positions, has been critical in the shoring up of class division.
Race a weapon with which elites have divided working people from one another
Race, in other words, has been a weapon with which elites have divided working people from one another and prevented white working folks from developing a strong identification with their counterparts of color. Unless we address racial inequity and racism—and especially as lynchpins to the maintenance of economic inequity and class division—it will be impossible to solve these latter issues. Sadly, most Americans appear not to comprehend this truism. So, for instance, in a recent survey, while eighty percent claimed the government should focus “a lot” or “great deal” of effort on addressing economic inequality, only twenty-six percent said the same about the issue of racism and racial inequity, suggesting that the connections between the two are not well understood.
The Role of Race and Racism in the Dividing of the American Working Class
The history of whiteness as a wedge between working class persons, and as a key element in the perpetuation of economic inequity, goes back to the early colonies in the Americas. As theologian and scholar Thandeka explains, discussing the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries:
The legislators (in the Virginia colony) also raised the status of white servants, workers, and the white poor…Until then the European indentured servants had lived and worked under the same conditions as the African slaves, the chief difference in their status being that the Europeans’ servitude was contracted for a specified period whereas the slaves, and their progeny, served for life.
White indentured servants were not slaves-for-life
In 1705, the assembly required masters to provide white servants at the end of their indenture with corn, money, a gun, clothing, and 50 acres of land. The poll tax was also reduced. As a result of these legally sanctioned changes in poor whites’ economic position, they gained legal, political, emotional, social, and financial status that depended directly on the concomitant degradation of Indians and Negroes.
Racism was established deliberately in Colonial North America
The decision to elevate poor and landless Europeans above blacks and indigenous peoples was a conscious one, made so as to vouchsafe the position of the elite relative to the masses, which position was threatened by the possibility of cross-racial, class-based rebellion.”