Quick Thoughts on Race and Class

A friend of mine recently posted a Facebook note discussing the entwinement of race and class.  In it he posted two quotes from two very different people. The following are some quick thoughts I had in response to the quotes.


"What more do they have to complain about? Who can they blame but themselves? Slavery is gone, segregation has been gone for four decades, hell, affirmative action is still government policy. Perhaps they’ve been spoiled by all of the handouts. Regardless, there’s no helping a group of people that, for some reason beyond me, does not want to be helped." –Former New York City mayor and Republican presidential candidate, Rudolph Giuliani

"The current baby-boomer generation of whites is currently in the process of inheriting between $7 trillion and $10 trillion in assets from their parents and grandparents — property handed down by those who were able to accumulate assets at a time when people of color by and large could not." Tim Wise, excerpt from White Like Me.

What Time Wise said deserves much attention, for many reasons. First of all, we live in an industrialized capitalist country. That means there are three major classes: capitalist, coordinators, and workers. Subsequently, at all times, wealth is going to go concentrated in the hands of the capitalists–roughly 2 percent of the population–and then in the hands of coordinators–about 20 percent of the populations. And the concentration of wealth at the top tends to pass on to future generations without much, if any, actual work involved. Robin Hahnel in his book, The ABCs of Political Economy, stated:

"A study published by United for a Fair Economy in 1997 titled ‘Born on Third Base’ found that of the 400 on the 1997 Forbes list of wealthiest individuals and families in the US, 42% inherited their way onto the list; another 6% inherited wealth in excess of $50 million, and another 7% started life with at least $1 million."

Hardly picking yourself up by your bootstraps.

This is not a new phenomena in American capitalism. Therefore, if our country was founded on slavery and the subjugation of black people, as it was, then obviously not many of them will have a stake in the wealth that was accumulated in a time when they were systematically denied the right to accumulate any.

Well, what about after all that Jim Crow stuff and slavery ended, as Giuliani asks? What about the social mobility that has happened since the second half of the 20th Century? What about the better off sections of the working class and coordinator class? Being in the working class doesn’t necessarily mean you are poor, true. Class is more about power than it is income; income is just a by product of your bargaining power. However, social mobility is not as easy as politicians and mainstream economists make it out to be, even for the white worker. There was a time, however, when it was easier. In "The Death of Horatio Alger," by Paul Krugman, cites a "classic 1978 survey found that among adult men whose fathers were in the bottom 25 percent of the population as ranked by social and economic status, 23 percent had made it into the top 25 percent." However, this was only the 30 years or so after WWII–only a fraction of this time was after Jim Crow segregation was outlawed, and racism still was rampant. So, again, most Blacks were denied the chance to benefit from these opportunities.

Since that time, social mobility has dropped for mostly everyone. It’s worth quoting Krugman’s article at length:

"Now for the shocker: The Business Week piece cites a new survey of today’s adult men, which finds that this number has dropped to only 10 percent. That is, over the past generation upward mobility has fallen drastically. Very few children of the lower class are making their way to even moderate affluence. This goes along with other studies indicating that rags-to-riches stories have become vanishingly rare, and that the correlation between fathers’ and sons’ incomes has risen in recent decades. In modern America, it seems, you’re quite likely to stay in the social and economic class into which you were born." This was in 2003. Things have gotten much worse.

This period of workers getting less and less of a piece of the economic pie, was marked by a crisis in much of the American manufacturing industry. One industry was hit notably hard–the Auto Industry–and Black workers were affected the most. A study recently released by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, "The Decline in African-American Representation in Unions and Auto Manufacturing, 1979-2004," illustrates this fact. It says, in 1979, "2.1 percent of all African-American workers were employed in automobile manufacturing. By 2004, this share had fallen by more than one-third to 1.3 percent. By contrast, the share of white workers employed in auto manufacturing fell just 0.2 percentage points from 1.3 percent to 1.1 percent. The share of Hispanic workers also fell by 0.2 percentage points, from 0.8 percent to 0.6 percent."

All of this coupled with rising rates of incarceration of Blacks since the 70’s, only begins to show that Blacks don’t merely suffer more so than whites in the economy and political system. Racism and white supremacy as a system of oppression has actually shaped the defining roles of our economic and political institutions–where Blacks are relegated to low skill, high intensity labor, low paid jobs in the economy (if any), and are criminalized for merely being Black. In times of worsening conditions for all workers, unless the right progressive measures are taken, it will only exacerbate racial socio-economic inequality. We are seeing this happen already with those affected most by the sub-prime mortgage debacle.

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