Discrimination usually signifies a process selecting people for bleak lives. For African Americans, racial prejudice has accounted for political repression, ill health, early death, educational failure, and bad or no jobs. 

The role of class-based discrimination is generally discounted. To focus on race prejudice is convenient and easy. One gets credit for acknowledging a grim history and civil rights victories. Not much heavy lifting is required because policies materialized aimed at ridding corporate, academic and governmental entities of exclusion.

But uncomfortable realities crop up. White people share social disabilities with Blacks. Low-income Black and Latino peoples do poorly. Recent observations on varying outcomes in education, health care, and employment are instructive.

As the New York Times (February 9, 2012) notes: “Income divide has received far less attention from policy makers and government officials than gaps in student accomplishment by race.” The report cites one study documenting the divide between rich and poor students’ test score results growing by 40 percent after 1960. It’s “now double the testing gap between blacks and whites.”  Black and white variation in scores has diminished, regardless of income.  Another study shows children of well-to-do families finishing college at rates 50 percent higher now than 20 years ago – in comparison with low-income counterparts.

Public health researcher Vicente Navarro weighed race versus class in health outcome studies. Race, he suggests, often serves as “proxy” for class in accounting for differences among population groups. Although statistical measures like infant mortality rates and life expectancy do put Black people at a disadvantage, Navarro asserts, “A growing disparity of wealth and income by class mainly, but not exclusively, explains the race differentials in morbidity and mortality.” (“Lancet,” 17 November 1990)  Heart disease mortality rates for Blacks, male and female, he reported, were 1.2 and 1.5 times those for white counterparts, respectively. But heart disease mortality “was 2.3 times higher for blue-collar workers than for managers and professionals.” (“Dangerous to your Health,” Monthly Review Press, 1993)

Northeastern University researchers looking at the effect of low income on employment prospects found that, overall, “Low-income workers’ vulnerability to losing jobs is obscured.” It seems that although 16.5 percent of blacks and 8.7 percent of whites were jobless in January 2010, low income Americans ended up much more vulnerable to job loss during the current recession than high earners. Households enjoying income levels of $60,000 per year or more demonstrated unemployment rates of 5 percent and down, as income levels rose. Households earning $40,000 or less experienced unemployment varying from 12 to 30.8 percent as income levels fell.  

These findings show how class-based analysis can shed light on the dynamics of worker disadvantage under current conditions, especially if taken in conjunction with recent findings from Spanish researchers.  They showed that “lack of decent work, if experienced at an early age, threatens to compromise a person’s future employment prospect… A wage scar left by unemployment at young age…can persist into middle age.”  For example: men experiencing one year of unemployment at age 23 earn 23 percent less ten years later than those, comparably schooled, who were employed – and 15 percent less at age 42. “The reason is that, after a period of unemployment, the temptation to take any work at all can be strong.”

Realization that joblessness may, in fact, be self perpetuating is dizzying when applied to data on youth unemployment. Currently, more than one third of 1.2 billion people in the world under 24 years of age are either unemployed or work for less than $2 per day. Evidently, lives are precarious on a vast scale.

Information like this has the potential for helping workers learn about their vulnerability as a class. They learn that lob loss for masses of people is hardly accidental. Next, it’s a short step to realize the advantage to employers of a reliably large store of unemployed workers standing by desperate to take jobs already filled. No wonder people holding onto those jobs lose enthusiasm for making demands.   

Education like this contributes to worker resolve to get organized. Mainstream opinion-shapers, therefore, have every incentive to go easy with discussion of class differentiation. Other explanations for discrimination are preferred, especially if, like race, they are on target – when considered in isolation.

In any event, those in charge must steer away from class explanations. Otherwise, all is revealed: class-based discrimination not only prepares the way for exploitation, but also can’t be fixed under capitalism. How can workers conclude from that scenario anything else but that a socialist future makes good sense?

March 12, 2012