January 19, 2008

Class and Race

author_janis By Janis Prince Inniss

America has a long, painful history with race relations, but has prided itself on being free of class conflicts. Most Americans—regardless of their actual income—consider themselves middle class. In what is considered the land of opportunity, most people believe that if you work hard, regardless of your beginnings, you can become wealthy. 

While there is some discussion in the public arena about race (and to some extent ethnicity), there is less about class. During campaign speeches we hear charges that an opponent is for the rich, at the expense of the common folks. Recently, I learned that U.S. Presidential candidate Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton addressed the income gap. On November 19, 2007 in a speech entitled “Economy: Policy Address on America’s Economic Challenges, she made the following comments:

(T)he gap between the rich and everybody else has only gotten broader. 

In 2005, the last year I could find the numbers for, all income gains went to the top 10 percent of households, while the bottom 90 percent saw their incomes decline. That is not the America that I grew up in; that is not the country that I believe is holding out the promise of prosperity for people willing to work hard and take responsibility. 

The wealthiest 1 percent of Americans held 22 percent of America's income. That's an astonishing figure, and it is the highest level of income inequality since the beginning of the Great Depression in 1929.clip_image002

Indeed, the income gap exists and has widened. But what else can we learn about class by digging a little deeper? It is well documented that gender and race intersect with class and that these factors determine our relationships to power and privilege. 

This post examines some of the relationships between class and race— by looking at some of the differences in income, wealth, education and occupation by race. I am looking at these two socio-demographic factors for the sake of simplicity, but bearing in mind that the relationships between gender, class and race are highly interconnected. 

Income refers to wages and salaries for work we do. It also refers to money we make on our investments. Income in the U.S. has increased significantly over the past decades for all sectors of workers (not only those in white collar and professional, managerial occupations but also for blue collar workers). At the same time however, the divide between the top 5% of wage earners and pretty much everyone else has increase enormously.

A recently released report by the Pew Charitable Trusts entitled “Economic Mobility of Black and White Families” indicates that median family incomes have increased since the 1960s but that is less true for black families than it is for white families. (These are the only two groups the report addresses due to limitations of the data used.)

Researchers performed an intergenerational analysis and looked at how children fare in comparison to their parents in terms of income. They found that the economic benefits that black middle class parents enjoy are mostly not being matched by their children. In fact, the majority of black children of middle class parents fall below their parents in income and economic status, while white children exceed their parents’ attainments on those dimensions. Only 31 percent of black children grow up to earn more than their parents, compared to 68 percent of white children in that income range. This decline in income for blacks is found not only among middle class, but upper-middle-class children.

Even worse, almost half (45 percent) of black children of middle class parents fall to the very bottom of the income distribution, compared to 16% minority of white children. Looking at other income groups, black children fared better in the two lowest income groups, although they are always well below the gains of clip_image002[5]white children.

Wealth refers to assets such as real estate property, stocks and bonds. Wealth in the U.S. is concentrated in the hands of very few people; the top 1% of families held about one third (32.7%) of the nation’s total net worth and in fact the top 10% of families hold about 70% of the total net worth. 

This means that the majority of people – 90% of the population – have less than one third of the nation’s total net worth! 

Data from the U.S. Census Bureau illustrates the relationship between race and economic resources. Black households and Hispanic households held a significantly higher proportion of their net worth in housing than Whites. Black and Hispanic households have a significantly lower proportion in financial assets such as stocks and mutual fund shares compared with White households. 

Despite a historically large gap in the high school completion rates between whites and blacks, in 2000, high school completion rates for whites and Asians are pretty close, with Blacks a not very distant third place. Barely half of Hispanics finished high school; this group has the highest dropout rate of any in the U.S.clip_image002[8]

Although a large number of blacks do attend college today, graduation rates are disappointing for this group and for Hispanics. Asians are the only group approaching 50% of their population having attained a Bachelor’s Degree or higher.

Clearly, education and its relationship to race has an impact on occupation: the types of jobs that people are qualified for and by extension the incomes they can command. 

Where do you fall on each of the four dimensions of class—income, wealth, education and occupation? What role do you think your race plays in your social class standing? 



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I often think it is interesting to explore the current-day origins of the concept of race. To do so, I believe really shows the importance of class. I do believe that given various circumstances, the concept of race can be severely reduced in our society, if not eliminated.

Income, wealth, and occupation are directly affected by education. Children in lower-classes are likely to stay in lower classes as children in upper-classes are likely to stay in upper-classes when they reach adulthood. This is because upper-classes are equipped with better, wealthier schools while lower-class schools receive lower test scores and graduation rates.

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