Classism or Class Struggle?

As the debate over media reactions to Charles Ramsey (one of the rescuers of three kidnapped women in Cleveland) began to stir, I was reminded of literary critic Terry Eagleton’s comment that only in the United States do we talk about something we call “classism” – as though class relationships and class struggle were really just matters of impoliteness, disrespect, or discrimination.

I agree with Slate’s Aisha Harris, who points out the disturbing tendency for working class African-Americans to become internet laughing stocks. But the real problems that these people face in their lives are not due only – or even mainly – to the fact that others look down on them. The real problems these people face in their lives have to do with the social and economic instability in their communities, the low wages and gritty working conditions at their jobs, the lack of education and health care resources – and the multiplication of these grinding forces over generations. It is true that in the U.S., racial discrimination has meant that African-Americans have often ended up stuck at the bottom of the working class. But what if we could flip the magic switch and eliminate racism tomorrow? Would that be enough to lift the poor out of poverty?

If I own a sweatshop garment factory and hire only women as poorly paid sewing machine operators and only men as better paid managers, I would be guilty of sex discrimination: unfairly choosing to assign positions of status and reward based on an irrelevant form of difference. But imagine that I mend my sexist ways and now hire an equal number of women and men as managers and machine operators. The problem now facing my factory full of poorly paid sewing machine operators is not one of discrimination. The problem now facing my factory full of poorly paid sewing machine operators is that my private ownership of a vast productive resource (the factory itself) allows me to take advantage of those who happen not to have factories of their own but still need some way to earn a living. Because I possess what they need to survive, I can make them work for me under whatever conditions I choose. I put the fruits of their labor in my pocket, pay them a subsistence wage, and laugh all the way to the bank. But this need not involve any form of discrimination. My workforce and my managerial staff could represent a rainbow of diversity, I myself could be any combination of race, gender, sexual preference, or religious belief, and still my sewing machine operators could be brutally exploited right up until the moment that my cheaply constructed factory walls collapse on top of them.

It is cruel and disgraceful to laugh at the impoverished condition of the poor. But simply holding back our laughter does nothing to change that impoverished condition. In real terms, the U.S. today is significantly less discriminatory than it was before the 1980s: an African-American has been elected President, women have been appointed CEOs of major corporations, and the income gap between women and men – while still significant – is steadily shrinking. Yet, the economic gap between the rich and the poor is growing. And it grows not because of racism, sexism, or “classism” but because of class power.

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