Warning; this is not a diatribe about ‘conspiracies’. I’ll do my best to not let this turn into a Ted Kaczinsky-style rant. There are very few classical conspiracies afoot in the world today of the sort pioneered by the utterly fabricated ‘Elders Of Zion’ nonsense and since latched onto by people with a particular type of mental illness or the desire to motivate specific groups of people for selfish political or economic reasons. Actual conspiracies only function- and even then very poorly- when restricted to a small group of people who can each exert some measure of control over the rest of the conspiracy’s members.
What I’m talking about are existing social and cultural trends harnessed by various actors for the purpose of maintaining a status-quo relationship across time which is and has been counter to the best interests of the whole of our society. It is social control, and social engineering; but for the fact that no one is actually ‘running’ things it might as well be a conspiracy, if tacit and hardly ever overt. The whole thing is smoky and murky and falls into a lot of ‘grey’ areas mainly because there isn’t a conspiracy, in the terms of things being tightly controlled by a small group of powerful actors. This situation just merely functions like one- if horribly inefficient- and the people who know they benefit from it are content to keep it leaderless and unfocused. For that reason it is also damned hard to counter, because there is no leadership to be attacked and overthrown.
Let me set it up with some broad brush-strokes first before I dive into an examination of the moving parts. (Full disclosure imprimis, though; I am ‘white’ and ‘male’.) The social structure of the United States is, and has been long before there were States to become United, a three-tiered system. ‘Rich white men’ occupy the top tier, under whom are a larger number of ‘poor white men’, under whom- at least in the early period- existed the largest tier by population, occupied by ‘everyone else’. A good portion of the lowest tier were, then as now, white people in comparative poverty but also had (and more significantly) almost all people of color. The ‘rich white men’ made all of the decisions, and implored the ‘poor white men’ to enforce their political, social and economic dominance over the lowest tier generally by promising them a piece of the economic pie, some small measure of political power, and promoting the assumption that they had more in common socially with the rich white men than those people on the tier below them.
This system requires a three-tiered structure to remain stable. The upper tier needs a bottom tier to focus the middle tier’s attention away from it, since the middle tier is the only group powerful enough to displace them from the top of the social order. The middle tier’s power, though, is dispersed; and it is dispersed for a reason by the efforts of the top tier to keep those in the middle scared of losing the economic and social benefits they have to the members of the lowest tier. The top tier lays awake at night, terrified that one day the middle tier might realize that they have more in common with the bottom tier than those on the top . . . so the primary focus of the top tier (beyond the creation, retention and maintenance of wealth and its commensurate power) is to maintain the assumption that the middle tier has more in common with it culturally and economically than with those among the lowest tier of people.
Beyond passing laws that favored white men in general and rich white men specifically, most of the implied social control was- and generally still is- cultural and behavioral. Social norms like segregation, racial purity, economic situations that favored the white men (and naturally the rich white men most of all), political expression, business practices, slavery (at first), arrest and incarceration rates (later, after Emancipation), and lynchings all had a basis in law. The law, however, was not the primary fashion by which these social norms were enforced but merely the legal fiction that allowed thenorms to exist and also shielded those who used the laws as an excuse to oppress the members of the lowest tier.
Oppression in America has never been primarily carried out by a police state, as it was in many of the European nations. It has always been the province first of the populace itself (the middle tier) to perform the discrimination and oppression mandated by the social norms. Laws merely served as a shield that the oppressors could hide behind if they got called out for bad behavior. The socio-economic pyramid in America stays in place, and its sides kept slippery, via the mandate given by the members of the first tier to the members of the second tier to keep everyone on the bottom at the bottom.
Over time the social reformers hard at work in this nation eventually freed the subset of the third tier held in direct servitude as chattel slaves, confirmed their men their right to vote, later offered women of all colors and classes the same franchise, and removed many of the laws allowing some of the more egregious and overt forms of oppression a legal basis to operate. Lacking political support against the liberal reformers to stop these legislative moves towards a more equal society, the members of the uppermost tier used social rhetoric, demonization, economic arguments (as opposed to race-based ones) and appeals to reactionary movements among the middle tier to keep the organs, structures and desire for oppression to continue essentially unabated.
Now freed of a political necessity to maintain onerous and indefensible laws that justified and protected oppression, those who favored that oppression as a means to uphold the social order and ‘class’ structure merely had to whip up racial tensions between the members of the two lower tiers to keep the status quo intact. The rich white men (who were neither monolithically ‘rich’, ‘white’ nor ‘men’ anymore, but whose number still mostly fit into those three loose classifications) needed the status quo to endure since both their perceived self-worth and their economic fortunes depended upon the tiered structure to remain a pyramid with a slope as steep as possible. Those in the top tier most of all feared change; change brought uncertainty and made painful adaptation necessary to maintain their place at the top.
Where necessary, the rich white men blocked social reform legislation, or were able to render it through subtle and minor changes to be less powerful or even ineffective, if in practice. They were also able to use the increased effectiveness of the media to get their ‘message’ out to the poor white men and women in the second tier to continue promoting racist attitudes, bigotry and a general resistance to change whether at the ballot box, in business and labor practices, tacit acceptance of corruption, discrimination and inequality in law enforcement and an overall feeling that changes to the social order would lead to loss of self-worth, wealth, privilege and- worst of all- feeling responsible for oppressing millions of their fellow human beings either overtly or covertly at the behest of a few very rich (generally) white men.
Let’s jump forward to the 21st century. It is no longer acceptable (finally!) in general society to overtly refer to a person’s color, religion, ethnic background, sexual preference or gender as a reason for why they should be oppressed or discriminated against in politics, business or law. Some people in the middle and upper tiers still certainly dislike various groups of people for any and all of these reasons; though save for a vocal minority of extremists who hide behind the First Amendment, getting people who harbor these feelings to admit them is difficult- and some may not even realize that their attitudes are bigoted or racist.
However, it is still acceptable to use a person’s socioeconomic status, criminal background or even the place and circumstance of their birth as a proxy for any of the old categories in order to call for their oppression, to discriminate against them, or to make them unsuitable to be included as full members of our society. People in the lowest part of the lowest tier in our society use public assistance, live in crime-ridden neighborhoods, are incarcerated at the highest rates, have the shortest lifespans and use up more health-care, law enforcement and social service resources- which, we are constantly reminded, cost taxpayer dollars (borne disproportionally, due to a progressive tax structure, by the members of the top two tiers).
Socioeconomic status as a proxy to discriminate and oppress people . . . Wow. It’s such a neatly crafted dodge against the old categories, and it even makes a certain facile amount of ‘sense’; the assumption is that poor people are poor because they’re lazy, or stupid, or make bad life choices; not because of the color of their skin or the other circumstances of their birth. It’s perfect, more so the deeper you dig into the myth that people exist in the bottom tier because of their individual qualities (or lack thereof) – that they make bad personal choices. If they just worked harder, or made better choices, or got an education, or moved out of those crappy neighborhoods, or just didn’t get arrested or pregnant or drop out of school . . .they wouldn’t be on the bottom tier. Right?
This facile reasoning also glosses over the simple, hard fact that the bottom tier contains most of the ‘people of color’ who live in this country. The rich white men who need the engines of oppression to keep them on top and assuage their fears that this nation might become more egalitarian- and thus challenge their position and ability to use it to continue to amass great wealth and influence- have found the perfect substitute for the old and now publically unacceptable tags of race, gender, religion, etc. to find a class for the middle tier to demonize and oppress. Not every person of color exists in the bottom tier, naturally; these tiers are not monolithic as in Western Medieval feudal societies or some of the social power structures in the Middle or Far East. We at least harbor the illusion (culturally imprinted by our educational curriculum) that through hard work and perseverance anyone in the United States can rise beyond their color or the circumstances of their birth to get rich and, at least technically, join the middle or even upper tier. Nevertheless, these ‘success stories’ however touted are the extreme exceptions that proves the cold reality of the three-tiered power structure.
However, enough of the lowest tier are people of color. They have remained there for over three centuries by the great efforts of the upper tier and not least by the upper tier’s harnessing and manipulation of the fears and hopes of the middle tier. There are a varied selection of methods of ‘social control’ (i. e, oppression) in the toolbox, all of which harness fear and envy, the most egregious of which I list below.
1. ‘Outright’ bigotry. This one is still pretty powerful, and is the one that is the most dangerous. It turns cohesion with one’s own social group (religious, political and ethnic) outward against anyone who doesn’t share your religion, political views and ethnic group, thus harnessing one of the deepest human survival drives. If the other side ‘turtles up’ and espouses the same type of rhetoric it merely serves to intensify the social unrest- and the poorer side generally gets the worst of it.
2. Sexual orientation. Most religions have incorporated a dogma that anyone who is not heterosexual or does not fit into one of two genders is automatically NOT part of their society. Thus there’s an automatically demonized group who makes up between 2-10% of ANY population.
3. Control of reproduction. This automatically sets women up as a group that can be readily oppressed, because they can get pregnant while men cannot. Forcing them to give up control of their reproduction, whether by restricting their access to reproductive health, birth control, or abortion makes improving their own lives much harder when they are in single mother situations because their children’s father is incarcerated or cannot contribute financially to the welfare of said children. This acts to place and/or keep them (and their children) in the lower tier, besides endangering their health and life.
4. Drugs. Demonizing/criminalizing drug use has been used to focus law enforcement as a tool of oppression against particular sub-populations of ‘people of color’; marijuana to allow selective targeting of Hispanics and later the ‘counter-culture’ hippies, ‘crack’ cocaine for blacks, heroin for the urban (generally ‘colored’) poor, etc. This has two purposes; being able to arrest people of color not specifically for the color of their skin but by instead targeting a particular drug perceived as endemic among a particular population, thus intensifying the effects of using law enforcement and incarceration to force people to remain in the lowest tier; and also by enforcing ‘acceptable’ behavior- through a ‘double standard’- among the middle tier. Naturally those of the middle and upper tiers suffer lower penalties for drug use and possession than people in the lowest tier via unfair application of prosecution and penalties; itself a powerful form of social control. Defendants generally get positive outcomes in criminal trials directly correlated to the amount of money they can spend on legal defense. ‘Justice’ is on a ‘cash and carry’ basis in the United States.
5. Location. Designating certain neighborhoods as ‘high crime’ areas- even when they are not- focuses law enforcement attention upon the people who live there, increasing their chances of being arrested or harassed when 99% of them are not involved in crime per se. There is a reason why certain neighborhoods of New York City are designated ‘high crime’ whereas Wall Street is not; same for Washington, D.C’s ‘Capitol Hill’.
6. Political expression. Selective harassment of political activists who espouse egalitarian movements or other philosophies oriented towards greater political power for members of the lowest tier removes community leaders who could otherwise effectively mobilize them.
7. Financial dis-incentives. Making the procurement of education expensive ensures that fewer members of the third tier will receive the opportunity to learn decent, marketable skills- and more importantly deny them the networking and other social contacts that could lead to an improvement of socioeconomic status. On a smaller scale, expensive ID required for work or to exercise the franchise keeps poorer people (still mostly of ‘color’) from getting better jobs or being able to vote.
I know I’m just scratching the surface here with a mere few thousand words. Many people who have come before me have made these same observations, more definitively and cogently than I am able. I’m not a sociologist or legal professional- just an ex-soldier, Quality Control professional, and part-time writer of science fiction. This is just what I have come up with through my own powers of observation, admittedly limited due to my particular experiences and exposures. What I’ve seen is probably a lot different than what you might have, dear Reader; but no one person can comment directly on the entire experience of being a citizen of the United States, in all of the manifold ways we live our lives in this curious political, economic and cultural experiment that is our nation.
I just hope that somehow we can become more than the sum total of our history, cultural institutions, ethnic and religious and language groups, and individuals. We’re going to have to become more than the sum of any of those things in order for this experiment to remain viable, and more importantly, serve it, ourselves, and those generations to come.
Keep striving, friends.No Comments on Race, Class, and Bigotry in the United States