Class in America

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By Benjamin Tillotson

CapitalistSystemPyramid.jpg Picture from Social class in America and a VERY brief history of Capitalism at Notes from the Ninth Circle.

Ever since Europeans made first contact with the Native Americans, America has been a place of the haves and the have-nots. Although we often see class in three categories, upper, middle, and lower class, it is really a system in which resources are maintained by a select few individuals, leaving the rest of us to fight over what’s left, which tends to be just enough to keep us complacent. This system did not occur by accident. There are institutions in place that enforce the status quo, while at the same time creating an environment where the very concept of class becomes obscure to many people (Wolf).

Almost from our birth, we are brought up on the myth of the “American Dream”. This is the idea that everybody is judged by, and are destined to succeed based on their merit. This highly individualistic ideology discounts factors that can, in fact, make the American Dream nearly impossible to achieve for entire groups of people. Unfortunately, we are socialized to such an extent that difficulty in attaining “success” is seen as a personal failure.

The media plays a major role in maintaining the current class structure. Television bombards us with images of, and about, the wealthy. The middle class is made to relate to these images and feel included as the larger representation of what defines “us”. Extravagant vacations and the trading of stocks and bonds are made to seem relevant to their lives, when these are typically activities of the rich. The middle class are being used as a buffer between the poor and the rich. By associating themselves with the rich, the middle class both enforces the status quo, as well as helping to marginalize the poor.

The little airtime dedicated to the poor portrays them in a negative light, usually given to issues of homelessness or drug abuse. These stereotypes create a sort of numbness in the middle class towards issues of poverty, creating a blame the victim mentality (Wolf). These priming and strengthening of stereotypes also reinforces the sense of accomplishment in their middle class position in society, a feeling that their position was earned(Wolf). Countless studies have shown the influences of television on its viewers, especially children. The media socialization of class issues keeps us blind to the real issues with class inequality as well as the steps that are necessary to , at the very least, expose our current system of class stratification for what it is.

Unfortunately for millions of Americans, the government for the people, of the people, and by the people, does not hold their best interests at heart. From the very beginning, the government has enforced a system that keeps white men with money in high esteem. In fact, the term “white” was first used in this country to appease unrest and create a sense of privilege for poor whites (Wolf). These can be seen as an early “middle class”. They were needed by the wealthy as a buffer against minorities and the immigrant population. The history of America is full of blatant cases of the United States government favoring white people above others. During the Great Depression, Federal aid was distributed exclusively to whites, even though minority populations were often in the most need due to the discrimination that they faced in the first place. When the media discusses the Great Depression, images or references to minorities are seldom depicted, in favor of the white “okie”.

During World War II, women and minorities gained a temporary rise in their class status when labor was a commodity in short supply. As troops returned home following the conflict, whites wanted “their” jobs back. This process of dispossessing these workers from their jobs way approved and enforced by the United States government. The government used the resources created by the booming wartime economy to extent generous loan arrangements for returning troops to buy affordable housing, creating their stake in the American Dream (Race). The government denied these same resources to minorities, even those who had put their lives on the line for our country. This systematic denial of equality was used as a tool to maintain the status quo of the white middle class, but also reinforced it by creating additional barriers, both physical and emotional, between whites and minorities (Race). Our current capitalist system is not meant to facilitate massive upward class mobility (Johnson). By favoring some over others, the government is able to effect people’s destinies to the extent that it can maintain the class stratification system.

Although we internalize much of the environment around us, from the media we access to one on one interactions on city streets, our own attitudes also enforce the system of class stratification. We are taught that hard work is all that it takes to move up the social ladder. This is reinforced through the media, schools, and our families, and can reflect on how we view others and their achievements. Ironically, the message of hard work leading to success directly benefits the wealthy, who get richer off of our hard work.

The haves and the have-nots can be affected by this in different ways. Those with privilege can feel reinforced in their “earned” status, as well as buy in to stereotyping when analyzing others supposed shortcomings. The have-nots can also buy into this system, feeling that their problems lie with them individually, rather than being inherent in the system which they are forced to live. We must force ourselves to look deeper than the media images of individualistic success and realize that success often has very little to do with the individual. The middle and lower classes are really fighting the same battles (Johnson). The vast majority of the wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few, leaving the rest of us to fight over a slice of the pie that keeps getting smaller and smaller. This buffer system has correlations in history, and the buffer, in this case the middle class, needs to support their own interests and work with the lower class to bridge the gaps of privilege and perceived differences between them. If history teaches us anything, progressive change rarely happens from the top down (James). The power of the wealthy lies in their ability to portray their reality and make us believe it, controlling through division. The wealthy know that power lies in numbers, and real change will only come when we come together and say that enough is enough.

Class is one of the most divisive issue in our society (Johnson). Those in positions of power, like the media and the government, want us to buy in to the idea that class is related only to money. This view only gives credence to the belief in the American Dream, that class can be correlated to a dollar amount. This discounts the millions of Americans, due to race, sex, orientation, and other “reasons”, are already ruled against by those in power (James). This stratification of the class system grants privileges to some, and discrimination to many, based on almost anything but merit. Clearly our class system distinctly lacks any semblance of “class”.

Works Cited

James, Selma. Sex, Race and Class. Falling Wall Press, 1975.

Johnson, Allan G. Privilege, Power, and Difference. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill, 2006.

Race: The Power of Illusion, episode 3, The House we Live In, California Newsreel, 2003.

Wolf, S. Rowan. The Dialectic of Social Inequality: Understanding Race, Class and Sex in the United States. 2007.

Student Author Winter 2012

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