Class myths

Posted: 7 July 2016 in Uncategorized
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As I argued back in May, “American politics has always been about class. And this presidential election is no different.”

Nancy Isenberg agrees that “the 2016 election is about class.” So, she sets out to debunk 5 myths about class in the United States.

Class myth number 1: The working class is white and male.

America has never housed some monolithic entity called the “working class.” As early as 1791, Alexander Hamilton argued that those best suited for factory work were women and children, which became the norm in textile mills until child labor laws were passed in the 20th century. Chinese workers built the Transcontinental Railroad; immigrants labored in the Ohio steel industry; whites and blacks toiled side by side in 20th-century Louisiana sawmills.

Today’s working class is even more diverse. A recent study found that more than half of all Hispanics and African Americans identify as working class. Additionally, about 50 percent of women see themselves as working class. Another report predicted that people of color will make up the majority of the American working class by 2032.

Class myth number 2: Most Americans don’t notice class differences.

The desire to erase class divisions goes all the way back to Benjamin Franklin, who believed that the North American continent would flatten classes into a “happy mediocrity.” . . .

Today, record inequality divides the rich and the poor. Our country’s wealthy “1 percent” takes home 20 percent of all pretax income, double their 1980 share. For most middle-class and lower-income families, income has either stagnated or fallen. In short, Americans have not escaped class hierarchies, but reinvented them generation by generation.

Class myth number 3: Class mobility is uniquely American.

Since America’s founding, its politicians have promised a society unbound by class. . .

But in reality, it’s harder to rise above your class in the United States than in just about any other developed country; economic mobility is much more possible in places like Japan, Germany and Australia.

Class myth number 4: With talent and hard work, you can rise above your class.

It’s a tale as old as Horatio Alger: Anyone can make it in America, no matter their upbringing. As CNN put the notion , “Through hard work and perseverance, even the poorest people can make it to middle class or above.”

But actually, it’s hard to rise above your income level. In cities such as Atlanta, New York and Washington, a child raised in a poor family has a less than 10 percent chance of becoming wealthy in his or her lifetime. It’s not much better in other parts of the country.

Class myth number 5: Class oppression isn’t as significant as racial oppression.

Class power takes many forms. Its enduring force, its ability to project hatred toward the lower classes, was best summed up by two presidents 175 years apart. In 1790, then-Vice President John Adams argued that Americans not only scrambled to get ahead; they needed someone to disparage. “There must be one, indeed, who is the last and lowest of the human species,” he wrote. Lyndon Johnson came to the same conclusion in explaining the racism of poor whites: “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”

There is, of course, a lot more that can be said about class in the United States, including the fact that not everything in politics can or should be reduced to class.

However, dispelling some of the significant, oft-repeated myths about class is an important first step in recognizing and eventually eliminating the class problems that affect—and infect—the American polity.

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