America proclaims itself to be the land of ultimate freedom and opportunity. The ability to rise above one’s condition of birth, not inhibited by social class - this is the essence of the American myth of a classless society. The Covid-19 pandemic, however, has created ruptures in historical and classic American mythology. Not only has the myth of America as a “classless” society been exposed, it has been torn asunder.
America was not established by the mythical commoners that we may hold in mind, but rather by wealthy and powerful British aristocrats. They came from a class-based society in which the lowest class, peasant agricultural workers were bound by the rules of the landlord. At the time in which the Virginia colony was established, the impact of the English class system was boundless. The colony became the dumping ground for the English “surplus” - desperately poor men, women and children from the United Kingdom. The colonies became home for the indentured servant class, and most of them did not come voluntarily; they were never considered to be the equals or in the same class as their masters.
Virginia, the first colony, was a pure class-based society. It was established by aristocratic elites imbued with class consciousness. Their beliefs, values and attitudes about the lower classes were transferred to the New World. Many of those same attitudes about the poor – of any color or nationality persist today.
An alliance and rebellion by European, African and native Indian bondservants as well as freed servants and small landowners caused increased anxiety among the ruling elite. Racism was created and established as a divide and conquer strategy to prevent potential revolts of the lower classes. Segregation and privilege, based on white skin, allowed indentured and common whites to align with the interests of the ruling class. This strategy created in the 1600s has endured into the present day.
Anytime the status and rule of the elite class has been threatened, racism has been called into play. It is particularly during hard economic times that racism is called upon to raise its ugly head; racial tensions rise, and whites focus their attention on blacks rather than their own class oppression.
The myth of America’s classless society has endured for generations. How has this myth been perpetuated for all this time? What has kept “common” whites, in particular, so attached to this idea and unable to rebel against the oppression that keeps them poor, uneducated, and with no healthcare? How is it that racism can be such an effective tool?
The answer lies in what W.E.B. Dubois, in Black Reconstruction in America called the “public and psychological wages” of whiteness. The psychological wage provides common whites a sense of superiority when measured with the mythical white superiority-black inferiority yardstick. It provides a sense of esteem when one’s economic condition fails to do so.
Racism can provide a delusional sense of oneness with the higher social class. Racism provides whites, who are not members of the elite class, a sense of belonging, self-worth, hope and control. Racism solidifies the lie of a bond between those of very separate class positions. Racism meets the emotional needs of whites oppressed by lower class status. Through the cultural conditioning process involving racist propaganda, whites have been indoctrinated into the mythology of white superiority and black inferiority. They hold on to these beliefs even when they suffer in material and economic ways.
Most critically, as it relates to class position, racism helps whites focus and obsess on blacks, black place and space in society. With a steady focus on blacks, browns, yellows, reds or Muslims, whites can take their eyes away from their own class issues. With a focus on the other, they accept racism because it provides a crutch to avoid critical thinking about their own class position. They are thus incapable of raising their own class consciousness, unable to help themselves.
Covid-19 has exposed the myth of American classism and more crucially the depth of denigration and disrespect for America’s lowest working classes. As this article is being written, the ugliness of classism has risen its head. Millions of Americans have lost the benefits that helped to keep them afloat during this tumultuous period. Covid-19 has exposed a troubling lack of human compassion and moral integrity among the country’s leaders, as Republican and Democratic leaders failed to reach agreement on the $600 weekly federal job loss benefits by August 1. Most troubling is the notion that workers receiving more in benefits than their salary will refuse to return to work. This sentiment has tinges of racist thinking; in other words, these are lazy people who will rip off the government if given the opportunity. This thinking says less about the moral integrity of the worker than it does about the American economic system and those who manipulate it.
By the time this article is published, the unemployed workers, we hope, will have their benefits restored to a level that will give them some bit of economic respite during the course of the pandemic. As American classism is made painfully clear, especially to those oppressed by it, how long will poor white Americans be lulled into a psychological sense of identity and esteem that does nothing to lift the economic burden from their lives? How long will white Americans allow an over 400- year old strategy to govern their beliefs, attitudes and feelings? How long will white Americans allow themselves to be controlled and manipulated by the construct of whiteness and racism? When will white Americans join with others from their same social class in alliance to improve all lives, including theirs?