class consciousness and the american psyche

class consciousness

“Quando dou comida aos pobres chamam-me santo.  Quando pergunto por que eles são pobres chamam-me de comunista.”

-Hélder Câmara, Archbishop of Recife

America has a problem with class.  This is not to say that Americans are uncouth or have a penchant for truancy, but rather that the American public, as a whole, has a difficult time conceptualizing, recognizing, and coming to terms with the notion of different socioeconomic classes.  So long has the ideal of America as a middle-class nation been bantered about that it has been burned indelibly into our collective psyche and become a core tenet of how we envision ourselves.  In a 2008 poll conducted by the Pew Research Center, thousands of Americans were asked to describe themselves according to the class they most strongly identified with.  The result?  Well, only 2% described themselves as upper class, while 6% described themselves as lower class.  A whopping 91% identified themselves as some type of middle class (including “upper-middle” and “lower-middle”)[1].  What this means is that within our society, both individuals living below the federal poverty level and individuals making in excess of $250,000 a year consider themselves to be members of the loosely defined middle class[2].

It’s not difficult to understand this attitude given the historical context of the past hundred years.  For many alive today, the idea of social class is inextricably tied to communism and the various leftist revolutions of the 20th century.  The oppression wrought by the Bolsheviks or the Communist Party of China is still a recent memory, and it stands in sharp contrast to the ideals that America was founded on.  While they preached the revolt of the proletariat against the oppressive bourgeoisie, we celebrated a land where all men are created equal.  To stamp a person with the label of class was to set them apart, define them as “other,” and devalue their worth accordingly.  It is all too understandable, then, that even amongst well-intentioned individuals today, discussions of social class in this country are met with the skeptical framing of “class warfare” or “punishing success.”

But is this actually a problem?  If the rejection of class as a core element of our social structure is such a fundamentally American belief, why should this attitude concern us?  The quote with which this post began roughly translates as, “When I give food to the poor, men call me a saint.  When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”  First uttered by a Roman Catholic Archbishop serving in Brazil, it encapsulates his frustration with the resistance he encountered when trying to meaningfully assess the plight of the poor.  You see, our refusal to acknowledge socioeconomic classes does not suddenly negate their existence.  On the contrary, in doing so we turn a blind eye to the complexities of the reality we face.  We live in a society in which great wealth and great poverty are juxtaposed, and our estimation of equality rings hollow unless it is matched by the sincerity of our actions to that end.

This is not a reorientation that will be accomplished overnight by executive order or a piece of legislation.  It is a slow, subtle understanding that needs to take hold if we are to continue to move our society forward in an intelligent and compassionate manner.  To be clear, a healthy understanding of socioeconomic class is not a fostering of antagonism towards those of dissimilar status.  It is not encouraging an adversarial society,  and above all, it is not the dehumanizing of the “other” simply because they are different.  Rather, it means acknowledging that we are not a homogeneous people.  We are a society comprised of individuals with very different needs, abilities, advantages, and shortcomings.  It means that some of us face much more dire circumstances than others, and it means that some of us have been blessed with the resources to help.  I hope in the future to write more about inequality in the United States today, but before any of this can inform our policy, it must first take root in our consciousness.  We must be willing to come to terms with the complexity and the disparity of the problems facing individuals today if we are serious in our pursuit of that timeless ideal that all men are created equal.


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