A Waking Nightmare: Tackling “Class” in America to Re-awaken the American Dream

On February 25th, I had the opportunity to attend the University of North Carolina School of Law’s 2012 Conference on Race, Class, Gender and Ethnicity.  The topic of this year’s conference was “Waking-up from the American Dream: The Sober Reality of Class in the United States.”  The topic of class was something that interested me while I was working on my undergraduate degree in political science and religious studies.  Looking at these issues through the framework of the law seemed like a very intriguing way to break through the classical critical theory bubble that surrounds issues like class and race.

While I disagreed with many of the panelists and some of the participants over the descriptions of class in America, as well as how to tackle the growing income gap between the wealthy and the poor, I agreed with them that we have to address this issue and figure out a practical way to tackle it.  The difference occurred mainly when the topic turned to the myth of meritocracy and the concept of “wealth-hoarding” (my term) by the top 1%.  According to Professor Angela P. Harris, the class structure in America can be looked at as a 5-tiered structure:

  1.  The 1% → a managerial/corporate class
    1. Very hard to break into
  2. Professional managerial class → the human capital
    1. The new “middle class”
  3. Traditional middle class → think manufacturing
    1. Class is vanishing with the departure of traditional manufacturing and service jobs overseas
  4. Working poor → at-will employees
    1. Minimum protections from the state
    2. This includes the retail and service sector, where many of us who have held jobs in our teens start out
  5. Underclass → the traditional “poor” class
    1. Permanently consigned to poverty
    2. Unemployment sky-high
    3. Most heavily under state surveillance
    4. Most dependent on social services
    5. Nontraditional family structures

These “tiers” fail to take into account the role of government and political parties in the development of America’s caste system.  The first panel discussed understanding class from the perspective of “other” – how do we tackle class from the perspective of those who are, for lack of a better phrase, outside the “accepted” mainstream.  Panelist Frank Pasquale, a professor at Seton Hall University, looked at the growing wealth of the 1% and the stagnating income of the traditional middle class and the working poor and posited that taxing the 1% will solve the problem of the income gap.

The second panel’s theme was “Failing Institutions: Inequality in a Nation Where All Men are Created Equal.”  The panelists looked to how America’s institutions – education, government, banking, etc. – reinforce the class structure and render upward mobility nonexistent for present generations.  Part of the panel’s focus was on how the education system affects rural whites in a similar fashion as urban peoples of color.  For rural whites, if one comes off as less than capable and/or poor, they are not given a chance to succeed, much like the documented instances of this happening with poor peoples of color in urban schools.  Although all the panelists agreed that a change needs to be made, there was no consensus on how to make the change.

The final panel discussed activism’s role in affecting change to the class structure.  The panel looked at labor movements, the Occupy protests, and other activist movements as a way to bring about change by forcing institutions to react to activists’ movements.  A lot of focus was given to the Occupy movement because of its focus on the “1% vs. 99%,” and there was a consensus that the only way to effectively change the class structure in America was to embrace the role of activism.  Panelist Brian Dingledine, a self-titled “professional activist,” remarked that “laws define groups of people in order for those groups to be regulated.”  While I take some offense to this, I understand where he’s coming from.

The panels were very informative, but I left the conference thinking that there was a lot of one-sided focus on the ills of the political realm and little discussion on real-world fixes that we can make to affect class in America.  If we want to get rid of class in America, we need to take a long hard look at how the political, legal, and cultural systems are operating in order to understand how they maintain a class system where there should be none.  Once we understand the co-production of these spheres, we’ll be able to fix the system for new generations to participate in the American Dream.

Tell Us What You Think: Should the government be more involved in the economy and education in order to fix the class problem in America? Is the traditional American Dream still viable in today’s society?

By: Jordan Dupuis

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