Race and class appear equally divisive in America

 The disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition is the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments. — Adam Smith

An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics.          Plutarch

In the treatment of poverty nationally, one fact stands out: there are twice as many white poor as Negro poor in the United States. Therefore I will not dwell on the experiences of poverty that derive from racial discrimination, but will discuss the poverty that affects white and Negro alike. — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.                                                           

Several years into the American civil rights era there was an increase in the discussion of class, not only as it related specifically to race but in a more general sense as well. While continuing to underscore the wicked nature and impact of racism, Malcolm X spoke often of class struggle during the last year of his life.

As it evolved, the Black Panther Party built its entire platform on the inextricable link between race and class while seeking solidarity with America’s and the world’s poor and dispossessed across racial lines.

Then, of course, there was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, April 4, 1967 speech “Beyond Vietnam,” where he proclaimed: “We as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values… When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

Dr. King followed this legendary address by pursuing the ambitious, nonviolent “Poor People’s Campaign,” which took place just weeks after his assassination. The leaders of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements were not the first to incorporate the concept of class into America’s legacy of racism.

In both the late 19th Century and first half of the 20th Century, African American intellectuals, authors and activists like Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, W.E.B. DuBois, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, Zora Neal Hurston, E. Franklin Frazier and Alain Locke spoke to the nefarious relationship between race and class. Furthermore, those such as Tubman, Truth and Hurston skillfully injected the topic of gender into the larger discussion.

While exploring the link between race and class in America, a litany of Black thinkers in the century following the Civil War still recognized the oppressive power that class, as well as gender bias, could inflict on many segments of the population regardless of race. Yet as the 20th Century came to a close, a new question frequently arose: “What is more important, race or class?”

A number of scholars including William Julius Wilson (The Declining Significance of Race) and Stephen Steinberg (The Ethnic Myth: Race, Ethnicity and Class in America) suggested that, in fact, class is a more significant indicator relative to social mobility and the potential for economic success.

A new study published in the National Bureau of Economic Research supports this argument and notes that as a result “the American Dream is mostly fantasy” for an increasing number of Americans of all races and ethnicities.

This fall, in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election, both the Washington Post and the Nonprofit Quarterly have sought to explore whether it is race or class that “most divides America.” The answer seems to be that it remains difficult, if not impossible to separate the two, race and class, from one another.

Personally, when it comes to each race-or-class question — What divides us more or what matters more in achieving the American Dream? — I think the right answer is agonizingly nuanced.

There are a multitude of scholars in recent years, across the disciplines of history, sociology, philosophy and political science, who continue to point to the historical and ever-present link between race and class in America. Such individuals have included Ronald Takaki, Clayborne Carson, Lewis R. Gordon, Anthony J. Lemelle, Floyd W. Hayes, Charles E. Jones, Judson L. Jeffries, Angela Brown LeBlanc, Frederick D. Greene and Tricia Rose.

When you examine the social, economic, and health-related disparities that plague Black America and other communities of color today, how can you not consider the history of race in America from slavery to the forced removal of indigenous populations to indentured servitude? Or from Reconstruction to imported labor to Jim Crow. Or from the Mexican-American War to rampant anti-Semitism to World War II internment camps. Or from systemic racism, de facto segregation, and the insidious gentrification of America’s cities.

Race and class in American have always been intertwined. And for people of color, both matter, and matter significantly. That said, as the quote from Dr. King above demonstrates, poverty and class struggle are not bound by race or ethnicity. Poverty knows no color line. The escalating gap in both income and wealth are proof of this.

So what are we to do? How do we address these issues? Perhaps we should once again listen to the words of Dr. King, who in his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech stated, “It is obvious that if a man is to redeem his spiritual and moral ‘lag,’ he must go all out to bridge the social and economic gulf between the ‘haves’ and ‘have not’s’ of the world. Poverty is one of the most urgent items on the agenda of modern life. There is nothing new about poverty. What is new, however, is that we have the resources to get rid of it.”


Clarence Hightower is the executive director of Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties. Dr. Hightower holds a Ph.D. in urban higher education from Jackson State University. He welcomes reader responses to 450 Syndicate Street North, St. Paul, MN 55104.