No Class, Please — We’re American

by Joe Auciello

Diogenes, the ancient Greek who searched in vain for an honest man, is somewhere enjoying a good laugh. After years of fruitless searching centuries ago, his hopes have finally been realized. Recently, a local Massachusetts politician violated the unspoken practice of his profession and, while discussing the distribution of state aid for education in his district, blurted out the truth about class differences.

State Rep. Doug Petersen, Democrat from Marblehead, committed what the local papers call a “gaffe” and an “offensive misstatement” by pointing out that students in the well-to-do town of Swampscott will fare better in life than students in the far poorer neighboring city of Lynn.

Speaking to the Swampscott School Committee, Rep. Petersen said that their sons and daughters would someday “be captains of industry,” and since they would need good workers, “we have to educate Lynn kids.”

Naturally, this violation of a fundamental social taboo led to what the Boston Herald called “an uncivil war of words” (March 30, 2007). Local officials made tsk-tsk noises about stereotypes, and the label “inappropriate” was affixed to the statement made by the overly candid and befuddled state representative.

“That’s an outrage,” said one Lynn parent. “What do they think they are—better than us?”

That question leaps to the heart of the matter, and the answer is a not-so-simple: “No, of course not, but… yes.” No, the upper-class kids are not inherently better than their working class peers. The indignation of the Lynn parent is based on the democratic ideal that all Americans are created equal. Confronted by demeaning words, this parent demands respect for all the children of Lynn. It is an expression of stubborn pride and rebellion, not at all encouraged in America, at least not in the working class, and it deserves to be applauded.

Yet the reality is that while the Swampscott kids are no better, they will, in fact, lead better lives. They will, on the average, attend better schools with better-qualified teachers, will obtain better jobs, will have better access to quality health care and medical insurance, and will live longer—all of which adds up to a better life. The economic, legal, and political system of America, on every level, will better accommodate their interests and will guarantee that this better treatment will be passed on to their children.

By every objective measure, the lives of the well-to-do are clearly “better.” That is the undeniable reality, and it is that reality, rather than the naming of it, which is more truly labeled “inappropriate.”

Lynn, once known as “the city of sin,” has never been on anybody’s “better” list. It is an old mill town, formerly a shoe manufacturing city, home to immigrants and the working poor. The mills have long gone, but the immigrants, the poor, and the working class remain.

According to the 2000 census, more than 16% of the city’s population lives below the federal poverty line, and the per capita income is only $17, 500. At Lynn English High School, 67% of the students are ranked as “low-income” and 44% speak a first language other than English. Coincidentally (?) only 44% of the seniors will enter a four-year college. Dropout rates are not given, but these are in all probability much higher than in the nearby, wealthier towns.

In towns like Swampscott, typically 6.7% of the students are “low-income”; only 4% speak a first language other than English, and approximately 94% will attend a four-year college. Usually, the children of the Swampscotts, unlike their peers in the Lynns, are admitted to the first-tier colleges, including the Ivy League schools.

What Newt Gingrich recently called “the language of the ghetto,” that is, Spanish, is heard more frequently on the streets of Lynn. And it must also be noted that people with darker complexion, Lynn residents, are more likely to grow up to become workers, while those with a paler complexion, Swampscott residents, become “captains of industry.” It is as if lighter skin bestows the ability to manage and give orders, while darker skin merely allows no more than the ability to work and follow orders. That, at least, is what appearances would lead one to conclude—it’s what Rep. Petersen did conclude. This is the reality that “everyone” knows, and, since it is so well known, it’s better not to speak of it, at least not in public.

Of course, this correlation of class and color is not absolute. There is, for instance, a Black middle class that is growing in size and wealth. Yet, the Black middle class is smaller proportionally than its white counterpart. Most Black workers and unemployed will never rise up the social ladder to achieve middle class status; their future is more likely to be a defensive battle to hold on to the jobs and benefits that have not yet been taken away.          

What’s more, the existence of a minority middle class has a debilitating effect on those “left behind.” Though in reality opportunity is limited to a few, the presence of this middle class implies that opportunity is available to all—if they would only try. By this reasoning, those in the lower classes have only themselves to blame for their lowly position in life. They just haven’t made the effort to succeed. When in this way the cause of oppression is shifted from society to self, an individual’s will to resist, to organize and fight back, is weakened. Consequently, social injustice appears to be just, and the class structure is strengthened even further. 

These patterns of difference extend well into the future. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, adults with advanced degrees in 2002 earned $72, 824; bachelor’s degree-holders, $51,194; high-school graduates, $27, 280; and non-graduates, $18, 826.

According to a recently published study of the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey Institute, “the gap between rich and poor grew at a faster rate in New England than in any other region of the nation over the last 15 years” (Concord Monitor, March 22, 2007).

So Rep. Petersen was right, after all. The well-off kids are likely to grow up to become well-off, and the poor and working class kids will likely grow up to be poor and working class. Despite the hopes of generations of well-meaning reformers, the educational system won’t change the political system; only a change in the political system will create a change in the educational system. A society based on competition and greed that treats people like products will have to be replaced by a society that truly values human needs and allows people, beginning with children, to develop to their fullest potential.

In 1976, Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis wrote, “[W]e believe the key to [education] reform is the democratization of economic relationships: social ownership, democratic and participatory control of the production process by workers, equal sharing of socially necessary labor by all, and progressive equalization of incomes and destruction of hierarchical economic relationships. This is, of course, socialism…” (Schooling in Capitalist America, p. 14).

For that change to occur, there will have to be quite a lot of discussion about class and the consequences of life founded on inequality, injustice, and oppression.

The polite silence about class in the United States, the myth that class does not exist or is of little consequence, simply perpetuates the class system.

Meanwhile, Rep. Petersen has reconsidered his reckless remarks and has since apologized. Diogenes must be disappointed. He still hasn’t found an honest man, after all.

“All Of The Gains In Income In 2005 Went To Households In The Wealthiest 10 Percent”

[from AFL-CIO Working Families e-mail message, April 6, 2007]

“According to the Economic Policy Institute’s weekly economic snapshot, all of the gains in income in 2005 went to households in the wealthiest 10 percent, with the richest 1 percent seeing even more growth.

“In the top 10 percent, households gained at least 2.2 percent and as much as 16 percent.

“Meanwhile, income of the remaining 90 percent of American households fell by 0.6 percent on average.”