The American Dream is a common trope in much of the United States’ mythology. The core of its ethos is that with hard work and dedication, anybody can achieve success and prosperity. While optimism and perseverance are admirable traits, the path to financial success in the United States is not as simple and straightforward. The chances of one becoming wealthy in this country are slim to none, and there exists many barriers that impede upon those seeking opportunity.
These barriers range from discrimination based on income, race, religion, gender, gender identity and sexual orientation, the rising prices of higher education, single income households, the disenfranchisement of convicted felons, the accumulation of debt, and a lack of historical family wealth and inheritance. Today, there is an ever rising gap in economic inequality. The middle class is declining and can soon become a nonexistent entity, and more and more Americans are slipping into poverty. As the middle class continues to shrink and the poor continue to struggle, the extremely affluent – the .01 percent – and their wealth continue to grow and prosper.
In many ways, it is expensive to be poor and being from a lower income household makes success much harder to attain. The effects of poverty can lead to stress and studies have shown that lower class Americans exhibit higher signs of anxiety and mental illness. Also, being from an impoverished neighborhood with poor living conditions such as unclean water, pollution, lead exposure, crumbling infrastructure and inadequate food safety can have a huge impact on one’s psychological and physical development. Another important factor to note is that poorer neighborhoods have underfunded and overcrowded school districts.
With poor living conditions, underfunded education and a lack of resources to work off of, this leads to a struggle to survive. The family structures in many poor neighborhoods are often unstable and with a low income, there is less time for parents to invest in the child’s academic and social development due to having to work more. There is also a positive correlation between poverty and crime, as individuals with lower levels of education and income are more likely to commit crimes and be incarcerated. This is due to lack of resources and opportunity that lower-income neighborhoods provide.
The negative factors of being born poor and living in an impoverished environment traps people into a cycle of poverty. This is one example of how class impacts behavior, there is a high priority to ensure basic needs such as food, clothing and hygiene. A culture of survival and using crime and extreme measures to achieve a level of security develops. Poverty can become a generational phenomenon that is passed down through families. Moving out of poor and crime-ridden neighborhoods is difficult as safer and affluent neighborhoods are more expensive. This allows for a segregation based on class to occur and not only continue to enforce a wealth gap but also a cultural gap.
There have also been instances of discrimination based on income such as landlords refusing to rent to lower income individuals. Many of the government assistance programs also mostly benefit the middle to upper class such as mortgage tax deductions, tax-free social security income (if household income exceeds $118,500) and retirement plans (such as 401(k) which is only offered by select employers usually high-paying ones), etc. There is also racism involved in housing discrimination in which banks can refuse to lend money to people of color despite meeting qualifications. This practice has a history in the United States called “redlining” which involves denying financial services through increasing prices to neighborhoods based on their ethnic and racial composition. Redlining contributed to historical poverty in the black population due to denying home ownership which prevents inheritance of property.
Many of America’s social issues such as racism, ethnocentrism, misogyny, homophobia and transphobia can be intersected with classism. For instance, the black, Latino and Native American population of the United States are still disproportionately impoverished. This is the direct consequence of slavery, colonization and Jim Crow laws. This is systemic racism at its core. Women and the LGBTQ community are also more likely to be impoverished due to discrimination based on gender, sexual orientation and gender identity.
Historical research dictates that the construct of race was created to maintain a permanent class hierarchy and assert white superiority in order to justify colonization and enslavement of people of color. Furthermore, centuries of patriarchy and heterosexism played a big role in disenfranchisement of women and LGBTQ. In fact in 30 US states, it is still legal to deny employment and fire individuals based on their sexual orientation and gender identity. The American prison population is over-represented by lower class citizens of all race, and marginalized groups such as Black people, Latinos and LGBTQ make up a significant segment.
Throughout the history of the US, the prison system has served as a confinement center for many people who belong to marginalized groups. Incarceration rates for non-white groups is higher than average as is the incarceration rate for sexual minorities and the poor. For crimes such as drug possession and theft, black Americans faced longer prison sentences in comparison to whites. The Reagan-led War on Drugs of the 1980s particularly targeted blacks and Latinos in the inner-cities. HIV criminalization laws also disproportionately affected gay and bisexual black and Latino male population who mistakenly and/or unknowingly spread the virus.
America has the highest amount of imprisoned citizens in the world. The prison system operates as a form of enslavement with cheap labor being exploited from the prisoner population. Many prisons are privately owned and run by corporations. In addition, several states have in place, laws that deprive the voting rights of convicted felons. Also, many workplaces can legally deny employment to an individuals with a criminal record with black convicted felons getting the bear of the brunt. As a result this leads to and reinforces the disenfranchisement of a large segment of the American population which consists of marginalized groups.
Under centuries of Eurocentrism dating back to the colonial era, Whiteness became a proxy for wealth and high status. Even today, that ideology is still prevalent and superior because the Western world, which is composed of predominantly white countries, is portrayed as wealthier, civilized and more developed in the media despite some developing and struggling Latin American and most Eastern European countries being predominantly white. The epidemic of non-white countries being depicted as poor, uncivilized, war torn, exotic and barbaric, despite the progress and rapid growth of many formerly colonized countries such as India, Ghana, Nigeria, South Korea, etc, contributes to negative stereotypes of non-white immigrants and the resulting xenophobia.
Within North and South America and the Caribbean, the legacy of slavery and colonialism still remains present as dark skinned people of color are discriminated against in society and the workplace. While white and lighter skinned people of color enjoy higher positions and opportunity for better jobs. This phenomenon of white privilege grew out of the creation of race in the 16th century and the belief that Europeans and their descendants were a superior race, thus the only ones worthy of ascending to a higher class. Even first and family names associated with non-European (excluding Hispanic) or non-Christian heritage and culture can make an individual a target for discrimination.
However, white people are also victims of classism and many live in poverty. Despite the majority of the wealth in the US being held by white Americans, the majority of the American lower class is also white. Another important fact is that majority of the American prison population is white and also suffer the same disenfranchisement upon release. White privilege does not always trump classism but does help given the Eurocentric sentiments that are embedded in Western postcolonial society. A lower class white person still has more opportunities handed to them than a fellow lower class black person simply on the basis of skin color.
The paradoxical belief of the working class white population is the feeling of superiority, social mobility and resentment towards non-white groups including black and brown immigrants and Muslims. The dominant culture of the United States is one of white exceptionalism which is reinforced through the media and society. However, a poor white person has a parallel struggle to a poor person of color and regardless of white privilege, the cycle of poverty still cannot always be escaped. The white working class continues to sink into deep poverty as the white middle class continues to disappear. As long as the ruling class can take advantage of the construct of race, the ideas of white supremacy and racial division will continue to flourish.
This divide-and-conquer tactic used by the elite minority to turn marginalized groups against each other is a strategy to ensure the class hierarchy remains in place. For example, in the Antebellum South, slaveholders only made up about 3% of the population and were either the extremely wealthy planters or the middle-class professionals while the poor whites and black slaves and freedmen made up the remaining. Regardless of their lower status and harsh living conditions, the poor white population valued their rather small but present social mobility and freedom to travel. Instead of teaming up with the black freedmen and joining the abolitionist movement, which could have toppled the oppressive elite, the poor white population participated in the hegemony in exchange for privilege and in fact longed to own slaves themselves.
Some European immigrants were also not considered “white” when they emigrated to the United States. Groups such as the Irish, Italians, Greeks, Poles, Ashkenazi Jews, etc were categorized as “ethnic” or part of a “lesser sub-race” of European – “not white but not black”. Factors such as being from poorer countries as well as job competition, anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic sentiments played a large role in their status. These groups faced discrimination and poverty upon their arrival on American soil with many were placed into indentured servitude or factory work with unsafe conditions. Xenophobic sentiments would result in violence towards immigrant groups. One particular case is 1891 case which involved the lynching of 11 Italians in New Orleans over an alleged murder which was retrospectively unproven.
Despite the hostility, many of these immigrant groups strove to become “white” in order to benefit from the privileges it would entail. Instead of forming a unification between the black populations who also faced marginalization, violent conflicts emerged over competition for jobs and housing. Many riots and strikes were led by Irish Americans throughout the 19th century in various cities over the demand for their employment to be prioritized over black workers on docks. These riots led to violence and murder of blacks and help drive the unemployment for black laborers in Northern cities up. The Irish eventually became a major demographic in police enforcement, firefighting and other civil servant positions and graduated into “whiteness”. After WW2, the definition of whiteness expanded to include all people of predominate European descent and also people from the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. Despite white privilege being given primarily to European descendants or “European-passing” individuals.
Today, the American dream is still an idea present in the culture regardless of the barriers that exist that prevent social mobility. The history of the United States is one that involved colonization, slavery, and heavy use of social and racial stratification. Wealth was established by the extremely privileged through methods of exploitation and extraction of labor. Through chattel slavery, indentured servitude, mass incarceration and low-wage service jobs, there has always existed an underclass designated to populate the bottom of society. In the current scheme of things, there is an ever increasing power gap due to major corporations enjoying little to no regulation, the rise of big banks and private prisons, the decrease of public education quality, and the increasing poverty rates.
However, in recent years, the push for understanding the theory of intersectionality and how various injustices coincide has been beneficial to combating classism. As noted earlier in this article, classism remains a strong foundation in maintaining and legitimizing many of the established biases, systems, and, more potently, the status quo in the United States. In order to end systemic prejudice in the US, classism must also be addressed and more conversations on it must prevail. Discussions on political, legal and social solutions to class inequality must persist. As long as there exists a class structure and a designation of “haves” and “have-nots” this will continue to enable inequality and the disadvantage of targeted groups.
By: Matt Gamble, The Rutgers Review