Robert D. Putnam, author of Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, issued a strong warning to anti-poverty advocates at a forum on social connectedness at the Aspen Ideas Festival Saturday, urging the audience to get beyond talking about poverty and race and start thinking about social mobility and class instead.For most of American history race has overdetermined life chances. Social capital, life spans, health, wealth, and rates of inter-generational class mobility were all impacted by the color line: here, white Americans received a de facto leg up by virtue of their skin color; black and brown folks were penalized by their status as racially marked individuals whose citizenship was contingent and not full.
"Those two conceptual moves, framing it as poverty and thinking about it as a matter of race, have a very deep history... and I think both politically and analytically that's an almost fatally flawed framework," said Putnam, the Peter and Isabel Malkin Professor of Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, in response to remarks from co-panelists Anne Mosle, vice president of policy at the Aspen Institute, and Mario Small, chair of the Department of Sociology at the University of Chicago.
Robert Putnam, elder god, and author of the foundational book Bowling Alone, is now complicating this narrative. Along with one of his heirs apparent, the University of Chicago's Mario Small, they are suggesting that class now appears to be trumping race in determining one's life trajectory. If black folks have long been maligned as the poster children of the ghetto underclass, Putnam suggests that macrolevel changes in American society are now beginning to impact white people in similar ways.
"You say poverty to most ordinary Americans, most ordinary voters, they think black ghettos," he continued, whereas over the last couple of generations "class, not race is the dominant -- and becoming more dominant -- dimension of difficulty here."This is a complex story--and one that will be the subject of much discussion in the near future--as it unsettles many of the long standing assumptions held by social scientists, and experts in public policy, about the nature of poverty in America.
"Relatively speaking, racial differences controlling for class are decreasing while class differences controlling for race are increasing in America," he said. "Non-white folks with a college education are looking more and more like white folks with a college education and white folks who haven't gotten beyond high school are looking more and more like nonwhite folks who haven't finished high school."
It is clear that America's economy has contracted, and thus put its most vulnerable workers at risk. Consequently, the de facto subsidies used by the submerged state to keep white semi and unskilled labor solidly among the ranks of the middle class have long been disappearing.
Black and brown folks were made victims of neoliberalism, and its gangster capitalism ethos, many decades ago. Urged on by the Republican Party through its skillful deployment of the politics of racial resentment and the Culture War narrative, the white working and middle classes sneered and mocked "the welfare queens" and "ghetto underclass" for their "shiftlessness," poor decision making, and "decision" to not abide by "traditional family values." Thus, the ghettto underclass were "surplus" citizens who "earned" their status as second class citizens.
As Charles Murray demonstrates in Coming Apart, the language and political logic of "surplus," "pathological," and "non-productive" citizens is now being applied to the white poor and working classes. One can never forget that globalization, the Great Recession, and Ayn Rand capitalism takes no prisoners. It is simply a matter of who these elites come for first in the interest of profit maximization. In the United States black and brown folks have historically been the most vulnerable groups. Therefore, their position made them the most precarious and expendable.
Here, the miner's canary got ethered; instead of feeling empathy for the bird, the white guy (perhaps an ethnic who just earned his racial bonafides) holding the cage smiled, happy that it wasn't (yet) him...fate is indeed a trickster as he/she is now laying dead in the bowels of the cave.
America is increasingly a bifurcated society of the haves and have nots, where the rich have seen record corporate profits and growth in income during the worst economy since the Great Depression. Simultaneously, the poor, middle, and working classes have been financially eviscerated as the Great Recession cut away all of the metaphorical fat and left only the toughest muscle and bone. Inevitably, this would impact the body politic across the color line where economic Darwinism would leave some black and brown folks, and many whites, in a strong position, while casting off the others onto a human waste pile.
While respecting Putnam's and Small's prescient insights, I am concerned about how a downshifting of race as an overarching variable for framing the relationships between social capital and upward mobility could imperil our ability to explain broader changes in American political economy. Race and class have historically operated (and continue to do so) as interlocking variables in American social life. To abandon such a foundational understanding is too bold a move and one that comes with great risks.
America is organized as a racial state. While it has evolved, this fact has not changed. In a capitalist society, one where whiteness has been protected as property by law and social convention, those norms run deep. They are not easily discarded. Moreover, as an empirical matter, there is a substantial body of data which details how being born black in America negatively impacts your standard of living, chances at getting a job, return on investment in higher education, makes you more likely to be harassed by the police, die at an earlier age, subject to disparate treatment by the criminal justice system, and face unfair burdens in both housing and lending practices.
As a complement this reality, the following two examples are damning and devastating arguments in favor of a nexus of class inequality through the machinations of race and white supremacy in practice.
First, as the book Black Wealth/White Wealth compelling demonstrates, a poor white person has a better chance of moving to the highest income bracket in a lifetime than a black person born at the top of the income scale has of remaining there. In fact, a rich black person born to the upper class is more likely to fall to the bottom rungs of America's income pyramid than they are of remaining there--as compared to a white person born into the same cohort.
Second, while the Great Recession has hurt the middle class in America, white folks have maintained (if not increased) the amount of wealth they have relative to black and brown Americans.
It is a given that most Americans have been hurt by this economic catastrophe. And of course, capitalism is "creative destruction." But, if class is increasingly less important for determining life chances, it seems odd that on an aggregate level that white folks now have at least two dollars for every ten cents which African-Americans hold in wealth--a differential that has increased during the time of the Great Recession.
Robert Putnam's and Mario Small's argument(s) that race is now trumped by class is sweet music for those of us who have long yearned for interracial, cross class alliances, that break the color line in the pursuit of shared social justice and political struggle. The real world often interferes however. The wages of whiteness are real, sweet, and tempting. They are made even more so when imperiled.
For example, white working class men still support Mitt Romney even though they admit that Obama will do more for people in their class position. Although they are doing much better than black and brown folks in the Great Recession, the white working class is more upset, angry, threatened, and negative about the future.
If they possess any construct validity at all, Whiteness and White Racism are ultimately about maintaining a sense of group superiority over people of color. American history has repeatedly demonstrated that Whiteness is the "complexion for the protection." As such, Whiteness is remarkably aspirational and long sighted. To point, White people--good noble race traitors aside--have consistently chosen racial affinity over class alliances across the color line.
Why? Because White elites have compensated the White masses, not always well, for doing so.
This pattern continues into the Age of Obama. The Tea Party GOP is a White Nationalism political party that mines anti-black and brown affect, as well as white racial resentment, to encourage many white Americans to sell out their substantive economic interests in exchange for a superior position in the country's racial order.
Consequently, the members of the White Right are paid the psychic wages of Whiteness as they suck at the tit of "real America," "Christian," "god and country," sloganeering.
Professors Small and Putnam have demonstrated that the milk of this source of material nourishment is drying up. The sad irony then becomes that many White conservatives (and others who are overly White identified) that are wedded to their position in the racial order will keep sucking away, ever more desperate for its life force, and made more paranoid (as opposed to less) that a black or brown person will want a taste of that shriveled political breast from which the psychic and material wages of Whiteness flow.
Mario Small and Robert Putnam are likely correct that class is soon to eclipse race as both a determinant of life chances and predictor of social mobility in American society. The unfortunate reality remains that broad swaths of the American public have not yet gotten the memo.