With the election of Donald Trump as president there have been calls on the left to widen the tents of the opposition parties, to connect with the disenfranchised white voters courted so effectively by Republicans. One way to do this, as the election made clear, is to appeal to people’s misogyny, racism, xenophobia, and other forms of bigotry. An alternative path is to better understand socioeconomic class and the manner in which it shapes people’s life outcomes.
If you were to study the agendas and offerings of mainstream nonprofit and foundation conferences in the US over the past twenty-five years, you would find little mention of class per se.* Why do class-talk and its cognates have so little resonance in the American Third Sector? Are we stepping around an important concept, or are there legitimate reasons for casting it aside? This post is the first in a series dedicated to (re-)raising this and other questions related to class.**
In spite of continuing reminders about the myth of class mobility in this country, and a shared concern for low-income communities, there are significant barriers to invoking the notion of “socioeconomic class” in foundation and nonprofit work. Socioeconomic class, a term used in the social sciences and political theory, is typically some function of income, assets, education, and occupation—these being interrelated in obvious ways. Given the degree to which these factors predict life outcomes, the reasons for resisting class-talk in the American Third Sector are not immediately obvious.
What’s going on? How do we make sense of this reticence? I believe there are three forces at work:
1. Race, not class, structures the primary American narrative of oppression
In their book Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s, Omi and Winant write that
Historically speaking, the call for “class” unity across racial lines has amounted in practice to an argument that non-whites give up their racially based demands in favor of “class” unity on white terms. This will not be achieved by appeals to “class unity” or by reliance on “bargaining power theory,” which merely offer an abstraction to minorities confronted by racial inequities in the workplace.
Likewise in the nonprofit world, class-talk is sometimes seen as a distraction from issues that are more clearly rooted in racial antipathy.
Of course it’s not a zero-sum game: We can keep our traditional identity politics and at the same time deepen our understanding of what it means to be part of the 99%, a term that achieved wide usage during the time of Occupy Wall Street. Instead of heeding misguided calls to “blame the identity apostles” for Trump’s victory, why not take intersectionality seriously and consider the effects of socioeconomic class on racially-defined communities?
2. Class-talk produces in some a mental cramp
Paul Kingston and his intellectual heirs have argued that American society is essentially classless. These authors don’t deny that sociologists, political scientists, and others can divide the American public into various income categories. What they deny is that the individuals in these categories share “life-defining experiences” that license our referring to them as members of a distinct, coherent class.
How can we assess this kind of argument?
Recall that during the time of Occupy Wall Street, the division of American society into just two classes—the 1% and the 99%—served several important purposes. First, the name was the message: the moniker “1%” invited questions, reflection, and debate about current and more just distributions of wealth in American society. Second, there was enormous power in the act of self-naming and, by so doing, identifying with others across racial, geographic, and other barriers. Third, this act of self-naming reflected important experiences shared by members of the named class: 99 Percenters were generally required to work for their livings; they were much more likely to depend on Social Security for their retirements; unlike the 1 Percenters, they were not largely immune to the convulsions of financial and labor markets—in general, their life circumstances were much more precarious.
To claim, as Kingston does, that American society is essentially “classless” is to claim that while, in practice, the notion of class can play a powerful social and political role, it can never really work in theory.
3. Class-talk is impolite
Few topics will more quickly cast a pall over middle class dinner parties than the history of class struggle in the United States. Recall that in 2003, Bush II effectively silenced the critics of his tax cuts by accusing them of fomenting “class warfare.”
One of the greatest barriers to class talk in the American Third Sector, or around the dinner table, is not its lack of utility, or the sense that class consciousness necessarily leads to confrontation. I suspect it’s the fact that many of us prefer not to field uncomfortable questions about the benefits we ourselves enjoy under current class arrangements. These arrangements ultimately serve the purposes of an elite, an elite we’re loathe to name in part because keeping our jobs will often depend on silent complicity. And yet, how many members of this same elite have themselves called for greater economic justice and inclusiveness?
To introduce and champion class consciousness is to acknowledge that the “structures” we seek to change—if we’re enlightened grantmakers—are often structures put in place to serve the purposes of an economically defined class. Income and other taxes in the US are generally regressive; safety net programs are shredded while corporate welfare remains intact; and, in general, the more you have, the easier it is for you to acquire even more. If you can afford a good lawyer, you can buy your way out of a run-in with the law; if you’re poor and depend on a public defender, your chances are not so good. So while we might wish to remain class-neutral, the structures that keep people in poverty unfortunately will not.
How do we bring the lived experience of the poor and working poor into institutions that, in spite of our best intentions, perpetuate class privilege? How do we incorporate class-talk into nonprofit work in a way that doesn’t elide hundreds of years of racial oppression? I don’t deny these challenges, but I’m convinced that ignoring the effects of class is acting in bad faith. It’s treading water while strong currents continue to carry us and our neighbors further downstream.
* Based on recent data from the White Courtesy Telephone Department of Armchair Sociology that conducted a mental survey on this subject approximately 45 minutes ago.
** A very pared-down version of this post first appeared in July 2007.