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If you're born black, female, brown, queer, you're going to die black, female, brown, queer. Related Gully Coverage

Rich and Humble George
What a combo!

Nader's Vanishing Act
Is this the third party we need?

U.S. Election 2000
Posturers, panderers, pretenders, and special interests.

Letters to the Editor
Our readers on class.


Manuel Carreiro with glue machine. Bill Bamberger

Election 2000

Defining Class in America

by Kelly Cogswell

"Sometimes Mrs. Turpin occupied herself at night naming the classes of people. On the bottom of the heap were most colored people, not the kind she would have been if she had been one, but most of them; then next to them—not above, just away from—were the white-trash; then above them were the home-owners, and above them the home-and-land owners, to which she and Claud belonged. Above she and Claud were people with a lot of money and much bigger houses and much more land.

"But here the complexity of it would begin to bear in on her, for some of the people with a lot of money were common and ought to be below she and Claud and some of the people who had good blood had lost their money and had to rent, and then there were colored people who owned their homes and land as well... Usually by the time she had fallen asleep all the classes of people were moiling and roiling around in her head, and she would dream they were all crammed in together in a box car, being ridden off to be put in a gas oven."

Flannery O'Connor, "Revelation"

OCTOBER 16, 2000. Flannery O'Connor wrote the story "Revelation" almost 40 years ago, but her pig-farmer's analysis of American class is still dead on in its complexity.

Of all our social configurations, class is the least stand-alone, the most dependent on a complex web of other factors, including race, gender, and geography. It is also the most changeable one. There is upward mobility, however difficult it may be. But if you're born black, female, brown, queer, you're going to die black, female, brown, queer. At the most, if you're black and rich like Bill Cosby, you may become an honorary white, but never as good as a born one.

Some people actually think class is just about money and global corporate domination by the likes of Bill Gates. If that were true, then its targets should be arbitrary. They aren't.

America's under- and over-classes are defined by race, ethnicity, sexual identity, gender, education, and culture. Look at Al Gore and George Bush, our chief presidential candidates. Politics aside, they are identically white, male, rich, Ivy League graduates whose daddies were plugged into power.

Bottom of the Class
Sure, there was about fifteen minutes in U.S. history when the white underclass and the black were more or less on par, which is when they were both indentured servants. There may even have been sixty seconds when the Native Americans were treated like trading partners. Neither lasted.

Massachusetts legally instituted black slavery in 1641, though indentured servitude continued for whites. Native Americans were summarily cheated, slaughtered, and impoverished. Even the poorest whites were better off. That's how class first became a race thing in America.

It still is. Post-slavery, Americans have pushed a variety of other ethnicities to the bottom of the heap mostly inhabited by African Americans and Native Americans, including, at times, ethnic whites like the Irish and the Italian. These days it is mostly poor Latin American and Asian immigrants.

Sexual and gender identity can also be sentences to poverty. Many queer girls and boys are kicked out of their homes and schools before they can get even a basic education. They are blackballed from jobs both because of who they are and because of their lack of skills. That's one more downward spiral you can't blame on corporations.

In most cases, poverty is not just the impersonal result of profit margins: it is a weapon. It is how society punishes minorities for their existence. Keeping us in our place is as important as limiting the number of hands grabbing for the Golden Apples.

Keeping a Good Man Down
So why are there straight white people at the bottom?

A generation or two ago, one reason was the demise of the family farm, and the growth of agribusiness. Today, I agree, it's the changing global economy. Good-paying factory work is shifting to undeveloped countries, unions have croaked, and the once lower middle-class white workers are squeezed. There's simply not enough good blue-collar jobs for all of them.

collarsAmerica's new economy is high tech, and more white-collar than ever before. And it's nearly impossible to go from the assembly line to the office.

Getting your foot in the door depends now, not only on race and gender, but almost more importantly, on the other intangibles of class: culture, education, access. Just being a white man is no longer enough in our brave, new global economy, although it sure gives you an edge if you can solve your intangibles problem.

For impecunious white men, this actually reverses the traditional upward mobility equation. It used to be that a good job eventually moved you up the social ladder. Now you need to lift yourself up a rung or two before even landing a "new economy" job interview. Just like blacks, browns, queers, and women have always had to.

The Mobility Recipe
It's not just about learning algebra. To enter the middle-class employment club you must learn to speak Standard White English fluently, and eat, dress, walk, and even think differently. Even if you're born white.

Ambitious lower-class parents of all races know this. They tell their kids to tone it down. Speak softly, relinquish your stick. Learn to like beige, and for godsake, if you sound like Rosie Perez, or Slim Pickens take a few diction courses. My mother had fits about our use of the word 'ain't' and 'yeah' instead of 'aren't' and 'yes'. She screamed in fury when our hick selves said 'warter' instead of 'water', 'pungin' instead of 'pumpkin'.

This kind of 'education' is like digitalis. A little can save your life, too much kills you. The more you 'educate' yourself, the further you get emotionally and culturally from the support of your family and friends. You despise them and yourself. The pressure is intolerable. I got as far as graduate school where I crashed and burned so spectacularly I think they're still talking about me.

Those that do succeed usually have a mentor to help along this socialization into a class, and into increasingly small circles of influence. This happens in almost all societies, and in every segment of every society, not just in the land of corporate politics.

Which is why all polls show that, instead of joining Nader's workers' revolution, or even Gore's gradualist evolution, the least affluent white males of America will overwhelmingly vote on November 4 for George W. Bush, who holds out his hands like a preacher promising to lead them instantly into that elite ring.

Related links:

University of Wisconsin, History 101 Lecture, Professor Messer-KruseVirginia, Two Peculiarities of American Slavery: Origins of Racial Slavery.

For a look at changing class distinctions in Europe see Nine Characteristics of the New Inequality in Europe. Great resources.

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