“This is class warfare.” The term class warfare is frequently raised
when class inequality is questioned. Traditionally it refers to the tension and antagonism between the various classes. Today, it behooves us to notice who is in the position to disseminate widely their use of the term and to what effect. Certainly activists marching in the street have carried signs referring to class warfare. But the most common usage that circulates throughout society comes from commentators on news shows and politicians. These commentators and politicians most typically represent the upper classes and invoke the term when tax breaks, deregulation, subsidies, and other “wealth-fare” programs and loopholes are questioned. Given the negative association with the term and the lack of an understanding of how class works in society, invoking the charge of class warfare effectively silences or at least invalidates further exploration. Yet when we understand how classism works, we understand that the actual direction of class warfare has always been directed toward the poor and working classes. In fact, as discussed earlier, rather than ameliorating class inequality over time, class inequality has grown to a level never before seen in human history. Questioning a system that has allowed the concentration of wealth into fewer and fewer hands is not class warfare, but rather class education and awareness in the pursuit of greater justice.
“We need to stop putting labels on everything.” When thinking about
the pressure to not name a social reality, consider the various issues that
were once taboo but have now become more acceptable to discuss. A key aspect of gaining acceptance has been the ability to openly explore the issue. For example, younger readers may not be aware that it was once as taboo to talk about cancer as it once was to talk about AIDS. Today it should be clear that not only must we talk about cancer and AIDS if we are going to be able to support those who have it, but that opening the conversation has also released resources that are critical to eliminating these diseases. When the stigma was reduced, funding for research was advanced, and as a result therapies and support flourished. Today, people living with cancer or AIDS have a radically different experience than in the past; there are myriad support programs, cutting-edge medications and therapies, and less stigma. In other words, there is a relationship between talking about issues and the ability to address them; silence has never moved interventions forward. This also applies to issues such as domestic violence, eating disorders, child abuse, and sexual exploitation and assault. We live in a society in which our class positions profoundly shape our access to resources in far-reaching and inequitable ways. We cannot achieve more equity if we do not understand how it is reproduced and our role in that reproduction. Again we must ask ourselves, “Who does it serve to not name classism?”
The opening of this chapter is based on Lillian Smith’s 1949 parable titled “Mr. Rich White and Mr. Poor White Strike a Bargain.” Smith used satire to name and critique how White men of the owning class used White men of the poor and working class to secure their positions. In essence, the bargain was that the owning class would continue to exploit the poor and working class of all races, but reward the White people of these classes with the additional resource of Whiteness (Roediger, 2007). The African American scholar W. E. B. Du Bois posed the question as early as 1935: Why have working class Blacks and Whites not found common cause in their shared suffering at the bottom of the social ladder? Roediger argues that Whiteness is a symbolic wage that has pacified the White working class by allowing both psychological and tangible (albeit limited) rewards. This wage also draws the White working classes’ resentment to those below rather than above them. Smith’s parable captures this dynamic and offers us the following lessons about class and its intersections with race and gender:
Given that class is a key axis of social inequity, we must continually ask whose interests are served by particular class narratives. Had Mr. Poor White considered how his race was used against his economic interests, he might have found more rather than less economic
leverage and empowerment. Discourses that we cherish and believe to be true (rags to riches, the myth of upward class mobility, and critiques of classism as class warfare or socialist propaganda) prevent critical thinking and action, thereby holding class inequity in place. We each play a role in the class system. While Ms. Poor White, the Black woman, and others were not a part of the parable, we must not assume that they have no part to play. The exploitation of the poor by the rich requires that the middle class look away (for example, in our consumption of cheap goods produced via exploited labor) and that Ms. Poor White exploit the Black woman rather than build coalitions with her around their shared interests. While Ms. Poor White has been placed below Mr. Poor White, she too is still above the Black woman in the classist order.
To challenge and ultimately dismantle classism and its intersections with other forms of oppression, we must be willing to look at these issues rather than avoid them; no one is outside of these systems.