RACE Vis-À-Vis CLASS IN THE UNITED STATES

By Powell, John A.; Menendian, Stephen | The Crisis, January/February 2007 | Go to article overview

RACE Vis-À-Vis CLASS IN THE UNITED STATES


Powell, John A., Menendian, Stephen, The Crisis


In his groundbreaking 1903 treatise, The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote, "for the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line." A century later, and a full generation removed from the battles of the Civil Rights era, many now suggest that class, not race, is the greatest cleavage in American society. They fear that talk of race and the evils of racism obscure the more powerful politics of class and divide those sharing a common economic interest. Such claims hinge upon what is meant by race and class, and assume that the two are separable, conceptually and strategically.

In truth, neither race nor class is well understood. Perhaps the most critical flaw in our formulations of race and class is that they are assumed to be phenotypical markers or economic locations ahistorically derived and acontextually applied. Our current understanding of race and class did not arrive as the culmination of inevitable objective, historical logic. Race and class acquired meaning over time and are not comprehensive outside of that development.

History Lessons

From the American Revolution to the Industrial Revolution and Civil War, race and class were uncertain markers in a struggle that ultimately shaped many of the institutional arrangements under which we live today. Through the ideology of the American Revolution, the indentured European servant became a free white laborer while black slavery remained firmly intact and protected by powerful economic interests and guarded by our Constitution. To reconcile the love for liberty with the reality of slavery, Americans adopted an uncomfortable narrative of black inferiority and racial otherness. These developments ensured that the newly emergent industrial working class clearly identified as white.

Immigrants arriving in this country forcibly negotiated a color line protected by law, custom and ideology. The first Immigration and Naturalization Act, unanimously passed by the first Congress, restricted immigration to free whites. The ways in which the Irish, for example, competed for work and adjusted to industrial morality in America made it all but certain that they would adopt and extend the politics of white unity. From this nation's inception, the race line was used to demarcate and patrol the divide between those who constituted the "We" in "We The People." It was no surprise when in March of 1857, the United States Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, declared in the Dred Scott case that all blacks - slaves as well as free - were not and could never become citizens of the United States.

Even when freed blacks were brought into the political community after the Civil War and granted citizenship, a now well-imbedded narrative of black inferiority and legacy of separation ensured that whites did not see themselves as having commalities with blacks. According to economists Alberto Alesina and Edward Glaeser, much of the difference between American and European welfare systems can be explained by racial heterogeneity. In a pattern that persists today, opponents of welfare programs deploy racialized narratives to rouse a majority in opposition. In contrast to the generous Civil War pensions, provisions to the Freedman's Bureau were short-lived, meager and stigmatizing. Many believed that welfare provisions to freed slaves were undeserved, and the Bureau was characterized as an immense bureaucracy whose programs were likely to make blacks lazy, de pendent and prone to live off of "handouts." Racism contributed to the undoing of Reconstruction, but the failure of Reconstruction to secure Blacks' rights as citizens and free laborers accelerated racism's spread until, by the early 20th Century, it had fully pervaded the nation's culture and politics, with profound class consequences, complicating the efforts of reformers for generations.

Not only were blacks excluded from the bevy of New Deal programs, race was carefully used to narrow these programs, limit their applicability and ultimately to reverse their trajectory, to the detriment of similarly situated whites. …

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