Monday, November 29, 2021

“Systemic Racism” Can’t Explain the USA—but Class Mobility Can

Tim Pierce from Berlin, MA, USA, CC BY 2.0

The first law of prejudice: The rich look down on the poor.

1. Basic data

Identitarians and universalists agree the US racial hierarchy looks like this:


For identitarians, the racial hierarchy is all you need to understand who has power in the United States. They wave away the fact that Asian Americans make more money than European Americans by declaring Asians are “white adjacent”. This chart omits Indigenous Americans, who are about 3% of the population—in 2018, they had “the highest poverty rate among all minority groups. The national poverty rate for Native Americans was at 25.4%, while Black or African American poverty rate was 20.8%. Among Hispanics, the national poverty rate was 17.6%.” Some identitarians simply ignore American Indians. Others speak of BIPOC (black and indigenous people of color) to keep the focus on race.

Universalists see a hierarchy that includes two other important factors, religion:

And ethnicity, which looks like this at the top:

This at the median:

And this at the bottom:

2. Class

Identitarians say the fact that black and Hispanic Americans make less than white Americans is the primary proof of institutional racism. When pressed to explain why Asian Americans make more than white Americans, they say it’s because Asian American culture puts more value on education. But that misses two simple facts:

  1. All rich people put great value on education because they can afford to: education provides a better chance to land a great job, and it’s a status symbol (see PhDs who use “doctor” as a title). Since Asian Americans are disproportionately wealthy, they’re disproportionately able to buy the best education, just like Jewish Americans a century ago.
  2. Education is only a way to rise from their economic class for the talented and lucky few.

Universalists have a class-based explanation for Asian American success. Nearly 60% of Asians in the U.S are immigrants, and to meet immigration requirements, they must have more wealth or education than native-born Americans. The exceptions are refugees, which is why Southeast Asian Americans still struggle with poverty.

The saying “it takes money to make money” provides the basic explanation for the US’s economic pyramid. African-American Descendants of Slavery (ADOS) were given freedom and little else. Hispanic and Indigenous Americans had their land stolen. European immigrants were divided between the poor (primarily indentured servants and refugees) and the rich (primarily nobles and merchants). Class mobility in the US is embarrassingly low for a rich nation, so its old hierarchies persist. Social Mobility By Country 2021 notes that of the 82 countries analyzed in the Global Social Mobility Report:

The United States ranks at 27... The U.S. lags behind its comparable peers in Europe. Absolute upward mobility in the US has been declining since the 1940s. More than 90% of those born in the 1940s earned more than their parents, but that number has dropped to 50% today. The probability that children with parents from the bottom half of education ranks will “out-learn” their parents and reach the top of the education ranks has declined as well.

Today in the US, the most important factor in class mobility is where you live. From New Report Finds Class Is a More Potent Predictor of Incarceration Than Race. But Racism Drives It:

Regions with larger black populations had lower upward-mobility rates. But the researchers’ analysis suggested that this was not primarily because of their race. Both white and black residents of Atlanta have low upward mobility, for instance.

That report does not address generational poverty in very white places like Appalachia, but it points out that the second most important element in class mobility has to do with the intersection of sex and race—but it’s not about black women:

…conditional on their parents’ income, black women actually outperform white women in terms of individual earnings. …. Black and white women born into equivalently wealthy families enjoy basically the same economic outcomes.

Class mobility is worst for black men who live in places of poverty and prejudice. From Sons of Rich Black Families Fare No Better Than Sons of Working-Class Whites:

The authors, including the Stanford economist Raj Chetty and two census researchers, Maggie R. Jones and Sonya R. Porter, tried to identify neighborhoods where poor black boys do well, and as well as whites. … The few neighborhoods that met this standard were in areas that showed less discrimination in surveys and tests of racial bias. They mostly had low poverty rates. And, intriguingly, these pockets — including parts of the Maryland suburbs of Washington, and corners of Queens and the Bronx — were the places where many lower-income black children had fathers at home. Poor black boys did well in such places, whether their own fathers were present or not.

3. Religion

The US’s richest religious group does not fit in a racialist model of privilege— most Jewish Americans are European Americans, but because Jews are hated by Christian and Muslim bigots, identitarians argue about whether Jewish Americans are white or “white adjacent” and credit Jewish American wealth, like Asian American wealth, to a culture that values education.

Universalists note that the first wave of Jewish immigration was wealthy, which explains why a disproportionate number of Jews in the south before the civil war owned slaves. The second wave included Jews who barely had the resources to immigrate as well as rich Jews who knew they would find more freedom in the land whose first President wrote:

“For happily the Government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.” — George Washington, Letter to the Hebrew Congregations of Newport, Rhode Island, 1790

The US’s second richest religious group does not fit in a racialist model either—most Hindu Americans come from India. 91% of Hindu Americans are Asian.

The third and fourth richest groups, Episcopalians and Presbyterians, are very white, but their whiteness comes from a small group of white people. Until the latter half of the 20th century, the US ruling class consisted mostly of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Episcopal Church (United States) notes:

Old money in the United States was typically associated with White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (“WASP”) status,[107] in particularly with the Episcopal and Presbyterian Church.[108] In the 1970s, a Fortune magazine study found one-in-five of the country’s largest businesses and one-in-three of its largest banks was run by an Episcopalian.[7] Numbers of the most wealthy and affluent American families such as the Vanderbilts, Astors, Whitneys, Morgans, and Harrimans are Episcopalians.[7] The Episcopal Church also has the highest number of graduate and post-graduate degrees per capita (56%)[109] of any other Christian denomination in the United States,[110] as well as the most high-income earners.[111]

People who see power in racial terms believe the Irish, the Italians, and the Jews were not white when they came to the US. But those groups were always white, as a glance at the census records of the time will show. They have always had the legal privileges of white people. What they didn’t have was the social privilege of Protestantism. Anti-Catholicism was so strong that many people doubted John F. Kennedy could be elected President. The Ku Klux Klan hated white Jews and Catholics as well as all people of color, but white Jews and Catholics freely used “whites only” facilities during Jim Crow.

4. Ethnicity

Identitarians happily discuss privilege between races and rarely discuss privilege within races because they hate talking about the US’s last taboo, class. Systemic racism does not explain why the two richest ethnicities in the US are Indian and Taiwanese Americans.

That the richest group of white Americans are Australian Americans shouldn’t surprise anyone. Median wealth in Australia is $238,070 in US dollars; median wealth in the US is $79,274. Indian, Taiwanese, and Australian Americans are, like many of the richer groups on the list, rich because the ability to start a business or work in an industry that pays well was required under the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.

White people are scattered throughout the List of ethnic groups in the United States by household income. The richest groups are relatively recent immigrants like South African Americans and Israeli Americans. The biggest surprise for me was finding “American Americans” are poorer than the American median. They consist of

people in the United States who self-identify their ancestral origin or descent as “American”, rather than the more common officially recognized racial and ethnic groups that make up the bulk of the American people.[2][3][4] The majority of these respondents are visibly White Americans, who either simply use this response as a political statement or are far removed from and no longer self-identify with their original ethnic ancestral origins.[5][6]

I’m in the latter category. The Shetterlys are mutts. We came to the US in 1775 and were mostly small farmers until the 20th century, when small farms began to be gobbled up by the agricultural industry. I’ve been told that I have German, English, Norwegian, Dutch, and a handful of other nationalities in the family tree, and my father said we probably had American Indian heritage too, thanks to his mother who could have passed as Native on any reservation, but I have never bothered to get a DNA test because my race is human and subdividing that would not change my cultural identity.

The bottom of the ethnic list includes one that does not fit at all in the identitarian model: Appalachian Americans are 81% non-Hispanic white, yet they are poorer than African Americans and effectively as poor as Mexican Americans. The poverty rate in the poorest parts of Appalachia is 41%—twice the poverty rate of 20.5% for black New Yorkers. Politifact noted in 2014 that six of the US’s 10 Lowest Median Household Income counties were in Appalachia, and all of them were 90% white. The writer added, “Ninety of the 420 counties in Appalachia are economically distressed. In other words, 21 percent of the counties in the region fall into the category — more than twice the national average.” Systemic racism cannot explain why generational poverty persists in a disproportionately white community of 26 million people.

If you think Appalachian Americans are less likely to be killed by the police because they’re white, you may be wrong—someone with more time than me should run the data for police killings in the 420 counties of Appalachia. But we have a visual guide that shows police killings are dense in Appalachia. Here are its regions:

And here is a screenshot from the Washington Post’s Police Killings Database:

The high number of police killings in very white Appalachia is easily explained by universalists. Most people killed by the police are poor, which is why US police killings are racially proportionate to US poverty.

5. If intersectionalists included class in their intersection

If whiteness equals privilege today, anyone who makes more than the median white household income of $76,000 is privileged and should be considered white, and anyone who makes less is not privileged and should be considered a person of color. I say that partly as a joke, but class is such a forbidden subject in the US that many people use race to talk about class. “Acting white” means “acting middle or upper class”—no middle-class black person tries to talk like white working-class Brooklynites or Appalachians. Pew’s 2007 article, “Blacks See Growing Values Gap Between Poor and Middle Class” revealed that 37% of black Americans believed black people were no longer a single race because they interpreted the class divide within the black community as a racial divide.

In Who Actually Gets to Create Black Pop Culture?, Bertrand Cooper uses a very privileged black writer, Vann Newkirk II, to show how the black bourgeoisie creates the illusion of solidarity with the black working class:

“Newkirk says “us” and “we,” but it’s doubtful that he was actually raised in a redlined project with lead-lined walls and too many police. But he talks in a way that implies some biographical connection between himself and forms of oppression that, for the public, are bywords for poverty: dog whistles of a kind. This way of speaking, heavy in its use of first-person pronouns with regards to stereotypical oppressions, is how most middle- and upper- class Black people working in popular culture speak — not because it is the most accurate, but because it fosters the appearance of being real Black.”

Cooper provides this context for the divide:

“In 1978, sociologist William Julius Wilson published his seminal work on the interactions between class structure and race entitled The Declining Significance of Race. Examining Black income mobility before and after the 1960s, Wilson found that the majority of Black families that had been living in poverty at the onset of civil rights remained in poverty years after its conclusion. The children of these families, the first poor Black children to live the majority of their lives post-civil rights, also remained in poverty. Wilson argued that civil rights had yielded measurable economic benefits for Black Americans in the aggregate, but those gains were concentrated upon the Black middle- and upper- classes. Government jobs and universities had to abide by civil rights legislation and affirmative action policies, but they were not legally obligated to admit the Black poor, so they chose not to, and instead overrepresented the Black middle- and upper- classes to meet their quotas.”

The theory of systemic racism was developed by black Ivy Leaguers who claimed to identify with the black working class that they exploited. For the class blind—and for people who want the rest of us to be class blind—systemic racism explains racial inequality. But claiming privilege is an attribute of whiteness and Christianity does not explain why Asian Americans are the US’s richest racial group, Jewish Americans are the US’s richest religious group, and Indian Americans are the US’s richest ethnic group.

And now, a disclaimer: The legacy of slavery and conquest endures in many American communities, and while black women now do as well as white women of the same class, black men do not, so it is impossible to explain the US’s economic hierarchy by discussing class alone. But class reductionism is a myth. No one is denying that racism exists.

However, the theory of systemic racism proves race reductionism is very real. Systemic racism blames racism on itself, turning racism into a mystical perpetual motion machine and hiding the fact that the system in this capitalist country that keeps some groups richer and some groups poorer is a class system.


The wealthiest 10% of Americans own a record 89% of all U.S. stocks

The Tipping Point: Most Americans No Longer Are Middle Class

Note: If you object to my use of Wikipedia, see Wikipedia’s Reliability and People who Blame the Messenger

P.S. Paul Krugman explains this in How Fares the Dream?:

“Think of the income distribution as a ladder, with different people on different rungs. Starting around 1980, the rungs began moving ever farther apart, adversely affecting black economic progress in two ways. First, because many blacks were still on the lower rungs, they were left behind as income at the top of the ladder soared while income near the bottom stagnated. Second, as the rungs moved farther apart, the ladder became harder to climb.”