Race, Class, and the True Roots of American Inequality

Prominent analyses of the current moment by those on the Left showcase an increasingly bitter division among progressives focused on combatting inequality. The summer of Covid-19 and Black Lives Matter underscores different lessons depending on which you see as this country’s original sin: class or race? Everyone agrees that something must be done to help Americans out of work and in danger of losing their economic futures. And everyone agrees that racial disparities in incarceration, education, and wealth are unacceptable. But there is real disagreement about what fundamentally explains these societal ills and, consequently, what to do about them.

Those who adopt a class-based analysis contend that the country has made real progress combatting racial prejudice. Explicit racial discrimination is unconstitutional and (largely) socially beyond the pale. At the same time, economic disparities have only gotten worse for the vast majority of Americans of all races and ethnicities. Wealth is increasingly concentrated at the top, while access to healthcare, nutrition, and education remains a privilege, not a right. This situation, the contention goes, calls for a platform of broad economic change. And those focused on class warn that to fetishize White supremacy and pour resources into anti-racist programs risks undermining true progress in narrowing the gap between the haves and have-nots. The capitalist system is increasingly showing signs of coopting efforts at racial sensitivity. Diversity in the boardroom is no panacea against rapacity.

These arguments fail to persuade those who see America as founded on a racial caste system adept at evolving with the times. Even if racial prejudice is no longer welcome in the light of day, that doesn’t mean it has been exorcised from the room where it happens. And even if Americans’ hearts and minds are no longer tainted by them, the systems founded, and for centuries maintained, by racist attitudes are capable of humming along as originally intended. Race-blind management, this side argues, will not eliminate the racial wealth gap, segregation in education and housing, or deeply engrained racial disparities in the criminal justice system. Real change requires facing the fact that the American project, including American capitalism, has been racialized from the beginning.

This debate is not new. But it has renewed significance, not least because it may threaten the unity of the Democratic Party at a time when it is imperative that all those under its big tent work in lockstep to avert four more years of Trump. It may seem as if the two sides have dug trenches so deep they cannot climb out. But pessimism is unwarranted. There is a common structure to these competing analyses of American inequality, and recognizing this opens up the possibility of reframing the issues in terms more amenable to collaboration on a set of policy goals aimed at eliminating a common enemy.

Both the class-based and the race-based analyses of inequality in America focus on the fact of division between socially constructed groups to the benefit of those already in power. Neither economic classes nor human races are natural kinds. People invented them. This isn’t to deny that these divisions have their own histories. Class divisions pre-date the founding of this country, whereas our contemporary racial divisions owe their genesis to the way Americans engaged in slavery and genocide, and continue to regulate immigration. But this does not undercut the contention that both have been effective, and mutually supportive, tools for maintaining the status quo. Race and class are best understood as distinct offshoots of underlying human psychological and social tendencies.

A robust body of evidence supports the view that the true roots of the various disparities that mark American inequality are attributable to the fusion of our tendency to invent distinctions between groups of people and to develop social structures that perpetuate and rationalize them. Social Dominance Theory posits that some people have a stronger natural orientation towards making group-based divisions, such as between races and classes, and will be more likely to occupy roles that shape social institutions. And these divisions are normalized through the adoption and maintenance of justifying ideologies, which in turn shape and are shaped by institutional structures. Our present social landscape is the result of the historical development of individual psychologies, social norms, practices, and structures, all of which are tightly woven and interdependent.

Perhaps, then, the race-class debate has proven so intractable because it has missed the crux of the matter. Neither race nor class is fundamental to understanding American inequality. Rather, they are particular ways of manifesting deep-seated psychological and social tendencies. This suggests a common enemy: existing power structures, their supporting rationalizatons, and those who seek to maintain them.

The welcome news is that this way of conceptualizing things provides a blueprint for identifying policy goals all those in the fight against inequality can get behind. We need to attend to who occupies seats of power and interrogate the histories of the systems in which they are to be seated, including the narratives that rationalize them. Doing so will allow us to identify the targets of necessary change in a manner that avoids stoking the fire of intractable disputes about which analytical category is more fundamental.

Benjamin Mitchell-Yellin is Assistant Professor of Philosophy in the Department of Psychology & Philosophy at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas.