Class in America

By Charles Sullivan

09/10/05 "ICH"
--- -- Contrary to popular belief, America was not established as a true democracy. The original framers of the constitution desired that only White men who owned property were to have a voice in how the government was run, including the right to vote. This necessarily precluded a great part of the population of the United States from participating in the workings of government, including electing those who would run it. The original inhabitants and owners of Turtle Island (North America)—the American Indians—had no voice and essentially no citizenship in America. To our eternal shame slavery was an important economic institution not only in the south but throughout the country. Slaves had no rights whatsoever; and women of all races didn’t fare too well either. Even in the present, people of color do not have the same advantages as white people. 

We are living in the era of a slave wage and debt slavery system constructed by the industrial system and predatory lending institutions. The purpose of these institutions is to subjugate and marginalize the world’s working people, keeping them subservient to the rich. 

Eventually chattel slavery was ended and both slaves and women won the right to vote. Unfortunately, the idea of a class society has yet to find an equally well deserved ruin as chattel slavery. Much of what is obviously wrong with America can be attributed to classism. If classism is not a word that can be found in the dictionary, I hereby lay claim to it. It should be clear from the very outset that some people in America were to have privileges and rights which were not accorded to others. The playing field has never been level, despite the myths and distortions passed down to us through the shameful and mythical ramblings that pass for American history. Reality in America bears little resemblance to the nonsense we were taught in our high school history classes.

In America, wealthy people have always enjoyed advantages that working class people have not. Early on in the history of our nation people of means were given huge land grants that poor people have never gotten. It is a popular myth of our culture that America’s must successful business men earned their fortunes through hard work and determined effort. But that was not then and is seldom the case now. In most cases financial success in America has little to do with one’s willingness to work hard. The average American worker works very hard indeed; yet working class families, despite working longer hours and multiple jobs, are sinking farther into debt. New bankruptcy laws that will be enacted into law next month will make declaring bankruptcy for private citizens a very difficult proposition. However, it remains easy for corporations to declare bankruptcy, wipe clean the financial slate and get a fresh start. Adjusted for inflation, wages in America have been in serious decline for many years, while productivity has seen extraordinary jumps. Workers are producing more but earning less, while corporate profits and CEO salaries continue to soar. 

Let me give one example. The CEO of Target Corporation, Robert Ulrich, received 23.1 million dollars in total compensation last year, including stock options. Workers at the Target Distribution Center in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, receive a starting salary of a little more than twelve dollars per hour (a decent wage for that area). The situation in the Target stores is far worse. The starting salary at the Hagerstown, Maryland, store is around seven dollars per hour. Workers in the Target stores, like their brethren at Wal-Mart, receive few, if any, benefits. Both Target and Wal-mart are well known union busting companies. Both companies are making obscene profits. Their employees are often brutally overworked and under paid and can be terminated any time for any reason, or for no reason at all. IF you doubt this go to work for them and try organize the workers. I speak from personal experience. 

We live in a land of immense opportunity if you are fortunate enough to be one of the privileged—one of the ruling class. There are huge tax cuts for the wealthy. There are tax shelters for the rich. Some of the wealthiest corporations on the planet have fictitious home offices in Bermuda and elsewhere in order to avoid paying taxes. All of this is perfectly legal; but is it ethical? These are privileges that the working poor do not have. Where is the justice in this?

New legislation will lift the inheritance tax from those with money and property—yet another perk for the rich; one they neither need nor deserve. 

Even a precursory look at our nation’s poor neighborhoods reveals a disturbing reality. The schools and hospitals in those neighborhoods are in a dilapidated condition and are seriously under funded, while schools and hospitals in wealthy districts are in a comparatively pristine condition. Many of the students in low income school districts do not have enough to eat. There are many who do not have decent clothes to wear. In the District of Columbia, there isn’t enough funding available to help those who most need and deserve help. But there are endless funds available to purchase new sports stadiums for the wealthy owner of teams. Why do we always rob the poor to feed the rich? Where is the justice in this? Where is the political will to help the working poor? In a corrupt system that is cash operated, the working poor have little or no representation. 

The horrible tragedy that emerges from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is another example of classism in America. Those with the means to evacuate were able to do so. But those without means were left behind to bear the brunt of the storm. They were the ones left behind to suffer tragedy and to die. It was known for decades that a major Hurricane like Katrina would inevitably devastate the city of New Orleans. It was a statistical certainty. That day has arrived. And there were no provisions in place to help those millions of working poor who had no money to evacuate the city. Only the people of means mattered. In America it is always the poor, the disenfranchised, who suffer the consequences of classism. 

One last example of American classism is the invasion and continued occupation of Iraq. Again, the cost of war falls disproportionately on the working poor. I would argue that there are no benefits to invading and occupying sovereign nations. But there is a long list of multinational corporations, along with their CEOs and shareholders who are reaping enormous windfalls from the pillaging of Iraq and two hundred other nations—all without incurring any risk themselves. Dick Cheney, George Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Richard Pearle, Condi Rice, and Paul Wolfowitz, the chicken hawks who are the chief architects of this atrocity, are not the ones whose sons and daughters are sent to die. It isn’t the corpses of their daughters and sons who come home in flag draped coffins, which the people are not permitted to see. America’s citizens, to their eternal shame, do not hold these moral degenerates accountable for the awful things they do—they wave their silly flags in garish displays of nationalism and cheer them on. How utterly foolish we must look to the rest of the world. They call those who commit these crimes ‘Christians’; even though Christ would be ashamed of such company. All of this is bitterly depressing, if not downright maddening. 

So, where do we go from here? What can we do? Mediocrity in government is a manifestation of mediocrity in citizenship. First, as citizens we must believe that we can affect changes and bring about social justice. This is the first step toward good citizenship and self empowerment. Thoreau said, ‘It is the faith with which we take medicine that cures us.’ It is the faith, not the medicine that affects a cure. So we must believe and comprehend that we have power. We have only to exercise it for the common good. Here is how:

• Inform yourself by reading and supporting publications like the one you are now holding in your hands
• Hold those in power accountable for the harm they do
• Get involved in the local issues that affect your family and community; join the PTA, help out in a soup kitchen, attend the regular meetings of citizens groups and your county commissioners—and make your voice heard. Run for the school board and other public offices
• Support independent foundations such as the Pacifica Network who do amazing things for social justice with meager funds
• Support non-corporate community radio and television
• Gather with friends and kindred spirits regularly to discuss the issues that are important to you. It is energizing and refreshing to work with the amazing people who choose to make a difference.
• Acquire the documentaries of important independent film makers; share them with friends and family
• Write letters to the editor of your local newspapers to voice your opinion
• Attend local hearings and make your voice heard; silence is complicity
• Participate in national social justice movements such as the March on Washington on September 24; organize car pools, make a sign and take to the streets
• Organize independent political parties that truly represent the interest of working class people. In West Virginia we are building the Mountain Party from the ground up
• Question authority; think critically for yourself
• Participate in acts of civil disobedience
• Set a good example for others to follow; be the change you wish to see
• Wage peace
• Do not be afraid

There are so many things we can do to make the world a better place. The enormity of our task often seems overwhelming. Do not try to do everything yourself; it will wear you down and burn you out. But do something every day. Even the smallest act, like a single drop of rain in a gathering storm, makes a difference. We have to enact change one person, one event at a time. It is the confluence of those tiny individual acts that will bring about the change we wish to see. Involvement is the antidote to despair. 

A word of caution is in order: participation will not guarantee success. But as Howard Zinn says, it will make your life more interesting and vital. Only participation by good and caring citizens makes change possible. Be sure to have some fun doing it. 

Charles Sullivan is a furniture maker, photographer, and activist living in the Eastern pan handle of geopolitical West Virginia. He can be reached at: Only the civil need respond. 

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