America is a Class Act


By Gary Younge

January 27, 2003

When Republican Senator Frank Murkowski was elected governor of Alaska in November it was his task to select his replacement in the US Senate. He scoured the state, and produced a list of 26 names, including the son of Alaska's other senator, Ted Stevens. In December, after careful consideration, he decided the best person for the job was - his daughter. "I felt the person I appoint should be someone who shares my basic philosophy, my values," said Murkowski as he named Lisa Murkowski as his successor. "Your mother and I are very proud."

Frank Murkowski is a principled opponent of affirmative action, with a voting record to prove it. Like most Republicans, he believes there is no need to address inequities based on race and ethnicity. Like most right-minded people, he believes the best person should get the job. In the case of the Alaska's seat in the US Senate, that person just happened to be his own daughter.

With the supreme court hearing on the University of Michigan's admissions policies about to begin, the US right once again hopes to eliminate affirmative action from the political landscape. The contentious nature of their efforts can be gauged by the fact that an administration which has maintained public unity on everything from lifting taxes on the rich to dropping bombs on the poor, has been openly split on this issue.

Last week the White House filed papers with the supreme court urging the judges to find against the university, which awards extra points to black, Hispanic and Native American applicants in its scoring system for entry.

Bush spoke out against college admissions policies that "unfairly reward or penalise prospective students based solely on their race". His national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, backed him, but went on to insist that race should be taken into consideration. And then secretary of state Colin Powell completely disagreed.

Despite the confusion coming from Washington, the case for affirmative action on racial grounds in the US is not difficult to grasp. Just start at the point where settlers stole the entire country from Native Americans, then work your way up through slavery to the end of segregation, less than 40 years ago. Then ask yourself whether that was wrong, what must be done to make it right and whether, having suffered the last few centuries, people should have to wait a few more for the wrongs to be righted.

The narratives for affirmative action based on gender and ethnicity are all different, but the plot endings are the same - redressing historical imbalances. Bitter experience shows us that time and tide will not do it alone. The number of women in the UK parliament shot up by 172% in 1997 thanks to women-only shortlists in the the Labour party. It virtually stalled in 2001 after those shortlists were outlawed. Similarly, California banned affirmative action in 1996. By 2001, black undergraduate enrolment had dropped by 33%. Concerns that the best people should get the job are valid. But they make the case for affirmative action, not against it - unless, that is, you believe that the best people these last few centuries have consistently been wealthy, white men. It is not, as the plaintiffs in the Michigan case claim, about "reverse discrimination", but reversing discrimination.

But while the debate has focused around race, at its heart lies the very concept on which the American dream was built - meritocracy. And underlying that stands the very issue in which American political culture remains in denial - class.

"Class", claims African-American intellectual Bell Hooks, "is the elephant in the room - as a nation we are afraid to have a dialogue about class."

There is a good reason for this. America prides itself on being a country where anyone who works hard enough can make it - a nation of taut bootstraps and rugged individualism.

Reality in the last half century has been quite different. America has a better attitude towards class than Britain. But that's not saying much. Britain is the home of genetic privilege, where the head of state - the Queen - simply inherits the job. Nor is class as socially and culturally constructed here as it is in Britain, where everything from accents to dress codes mark out status and a peevish resentment attaches itself to anyone regarded as too openly ambitious.

But that doesn't mean that class does not exist. No one here would deny that there is inequality. How could they in a country where one child in six is officially poor, and 1% of the country owns one-third of the national net worth?

But that inequality of wealth is justified on the grounds that there is equality of opportunity. Were that true, it would be debatable. The fact that it is patently not true makes it deplorable.

A recent study here showed that social mobility in America is actually decreasing. Comparing the incomes and occupations of 2,749 fathers and sons from the 1970s to the 1990s, it was found that mobility had decreased. "In the last 25 years, a large segment of American society has become more vulnerable," says Professor Robert Perrucci of Purdue University.

"The cumulative evidence since the second world war is that measured mobility in the US is little different from Europe's, despite all the propaganda," writes Will Hutton in The World We're In.

The problem with affirmative action as currently applied, is not that it applies to race, but that it does not also apply more comprehensively to class as well. For it is in addressing the plight of the poor, white or black, that America can honestly examine its own self-image. So long as those who wish to have an honest debate about equal opportunities confine themselves to race, they will only understand inequality as an aberration in the normal order of things. Only once they wed it to class does it become a systemic flaw which underpins the order of things.

If the poor have serious problems progressing, the rich seem to have none in storming ahead. According to Fortune magazine, the average real annual compensation for the the top 100 CEOs in America went from $1.3m in 1970 - 40 times the average worker's salary - to $37.5m, or more than 1,000 times, by 1998. "By the beginning of the century," writes Kevin Phillips in Wealth and Democracy, the US, "had become the west's citadel of inherited wealth. Aristocracy was a cultural and economic fact."

Class here may not have as strong a social dimension as in Britain, but there is no mistaking its political expression. Lisa Murkowski is but the most flagrant example of political power being bequeathed down the generations. Teamsters union leader Jimmy Hoffa, Chicago mayor Richard Daley, Southern Christian Leadership Conference head Martin Luther King all carry the names and the job titles their fathers did.

Which brings us to that other elephant in the room - the Republican C-grade student who made it into Yale because his father had been there and thus received preferential treatment. The man who made it to the highest office in the land purely on intelligence, who now leads the charge for meritocracy. The best man for the job - George W Bush.

More Information on Inequality of Wealth and Income Distribution

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