Jason Dias: No Such Thing As American Classism

Written by Jason Dias

Racism isn’t classism. Period.

aNewDomain — I come from a nation with a class system, albeit a redundant and fading one.  In Britain, money is almost done replacing class  – but not quite.

If you sound lower class, you can sure be treated lower class. We Anglian folk aren’t usually mistreated for our voices. Cockneys might be. If you’re from rural Wiltshire (sounding a bit like Hagrid) then people might think you’re a bit of a rube. 

But there are definite benefits to sounding like you matriculated from Cambridge or Eton.  For starters, everyone on the national news sounds kind of like you —  this is what they call Received Pronunciation. 

Your voice, in other words, tells people where you grew up, where you went to school, and thus what sort of person you are.  And you thought there was only one English accent.

Well, whatever.  We think Texas represents America, so there you have it.

Me?  I talk like an American, thanks very much.  It saves a lot of confusion, explaining, repetition when American folks can’t understand.  Mostly I sound Midwestern, like your TV news anchors, but I enjoy some East Coast affectations. Cwoffee. Wadah. Dwog. That kind of thing.

Americans don’t have any class.

Let me rephrase that: The United States never really had a hereditary class system to abolish. 

It doesn’t much matter where you went to school, not in the same way it matters in Britain – or mattered the last time I was there at the end of the 80’s.  Back home, if you descended from nobility, you might be poor or crazy or even criminal, but you still got a certain amount of deference and preference to the quality of your blood.

Nothing like that here.

Almost nothing.

Whenever we get into a serious discussion of race, a defensive white American is likely to try to divert the discussion to classism.  As in, racism is not the problem; classism is the problem.  In other words, people of color don’t have trouble being employed or getting to school or earning as much for the same work because of their skin color, but because their individual choices have lead them to lower-class occupations.

Here’s the problem. Henry Louis Gates, of course, is a Harvard professor.  In 2009, he came home from China, where he had been working on a television documentary about ancestry, to find he could not open his front door. He had his driver help him force it open. 

Meanwhile, the neighbors saw a black man forcing a door in their upper-class neighborhood and called the law.

The police showed up.  Dr. Gates was understandably nonplussed — by this time, he was at home presumably unpacking his things. The officer involved asked some questions, Gates responded with increasing anger — and after demonstrating that he was in his own home. 

Eventually, he was arrested for disorderly conduct.  The police believed he was in his own home and had the right to be there; They arrested him for disrespecting them, for being angry at their intrusion.

They later dropped the charges, and the nation had a brief discussion, and Mr. Obama made some comments he had to eat over beer later.

Now Dr. Gates is a famous documentarian, university professor, writer, world traveler.  He speaks Harvard.  He arrived home with a driver.  If anything argues against this being a classist problem, it’s that last thing.  He arrived home with a driver.  He was still arrested in his own home.

In the business, I’ve given you what’s called anecdotal evidence: a story that may or may not be representative of the trends in the data.  Unfortunately, it is completely representative.

Here’s an example:  Researchers sent out a number of resumes, all identical except the names.  People with ethnic sounding names got reliably fewer call backs.  Ethnic names say nothing about class, only about race.

Additionally, money buys a certain amount of class here.  Why else would anyone even consider for the briefest moment listening to anything Donald Trump might have to say, ever?  Why would nobody close to him confront him on his ridiculous comb-over?  At home, we’d consider him a ridiculous blowhard and move on; here he gets airtime and people ask him to run for election to our highest office. Ridiculous.

Now in a place where money buys class, and race is related intricately to money, the classist argument has another problem: classism is racism.  Because white people – oh, a minority of us to be sure – have owned the means of production for so long and profited on the slave labor of people of color (as well as Irish and Scottish transportees) White people are most likely to inherit wealth, black people are least likely. 

Check this out.

When we look at something like this, above, we have to bear in mind that the people in the one percent are almost all white, and people of color are extremely over-represented at the other end of the scale.

So, there are two problems here. One, we aren’t strictly worried over class.  We’re worried over race and that’s demonstrable.  Second, we have about the lowest social mobility we’ve ever had, and have trapped people of color in lower economic status — what passes for class in the United States.

It would be lovely to believe we’ve done away with class, and even lovelier to believe racism died with Mr. Obama’s inauguration.  There is just too much evidence to the contrary.

For aNewDomain, I’m Jason Dias.

Cover image: “Henry Louis Gates Jr” by Jon Irons – http://www.flickr.com/photos/phlootman87/464569118/in/photostream/. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Henry_Louis_Gates_Jr.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Henry_Louis_Gates_Jr.jpg