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Race and class redux


Consider the following statement: The average white American is a millionaire.

This statement is in one statistical sense actually true, or nearly so.

Per the Federal Reserve, the mean net worth of white families in 2016 was $933,700, so with some help from the equity and housing markets plus some mild inflation, that number could well have hit seven figures, at least before the current unpleasantness.

On the other hand, this statement is extremely misleading, because the median net worth of white families four years ago was $171,000.

A mean value that is five and a half times greater than the median tells us that that there’s a small number of very rich, extremely rich, incredibly rich, and so rich you can’t even begin to really comprehend it people skewing things rather badly.

Here’s a little thought experiment I’ve been playing around with: If an ATM machine was spitting out a dollar bill every second, how long would you have to have been standing in front of it as of today, August 16, 2020, to have have collected one million dollars? Answer: since a week ago last Thursday. How long would you have to have been standing in front of it to have collected one billion dollars? Answer: Since January, 1989. How long would you have to have been standing in front of it to be as rich as Jeff Bezos is at the present moment? Answer: Since 3955 BC.

So yeah. (BTW, the English language term “millionaire” obviously now bears very little relation to its original meaning, that is, an extraordinarily wealthy person, what with the combination of inflation and economic growth. For instance, according to this calculator, one million dollars when FDR became president is, in terms of relative income, equivalent to approximately $143,000,000 today).

Anyway, I wanted to say a couple of things about the race v. class debate, in the context of the Adolph Reed speaking to the DSA controversy (As a side note, but an important one, whatever you may think of Reed’s views it’s not a good sign that apparently members of the DSA don’t want to hear what he has to say about this debate, because his views are a “provocation”).

What I want to say is that it’s way too easy to caricature the two sides of the debate, with one group being dismissed by the other as either, on the one hand, a bunch of neoliberal sellouts who are A-OK with massive amounts of social and economic inequality as long as we achieve the right admixture of non-white faces in corporate C-suites, elite university administrative offices, etc., or, on the other hand, a gaggle of marxisant posers, who are continually LARPing a Eugene Debs rally while falling prey over and over again to the Zizek maneuver.

Now these caricatures have a certain degree of bite because they’re not completely false. Since criticisms of the latter group are very well represented on LGM, I’d like to say some good words for it in this context. Here’s Reed and Walter Benn Michaels:

It is well known by now that whites have more net wealth than blacks at every income level, and the overall racial difference in wealth is massive. Why can’t anti-racism solve this problem? Because, as Robert Manduca has shown, the fact that Blacks were over-represented among the poor at the beginning of a period in which “low income workers of all races” have been hurt by the changes in American economic life has meant that they have “borne the brunt” of those changes. The lack of progress in overcoming the white/black wealth gap has been a function of the increase in the rich/poor wealth gap.

In fact, if you look at how white and Black wealth are distributed in the U.S., you see right away that the very idea of racial wealth is an empty one. The top 10% of white people have 75% of white wealth; the top 20% have virtually all of it. And the same is true for black wealth. The top 10% of black households hold 75% of black wealth.

In fact, as friend of the blog Matt Bruenig points out, you could eliminate all black and white wealth disparities in the bottom half the population, and even those in the entire bottom 90% of the population, while having, respectively, essentially no and very little effect on economic inequality in America in general.

That is, or should be, a sobering point. And progressives in general and leftists in particular should be very suspicious of the fact that elite institutions in this country (big corporations, top universities, etc.) have been and remain so enthusiastic about embracing the rhetoric of “diversity.”

As Michaels points out in his extremely interesting and dare I say provocative book, The Trouble With Diversity, talking about diversity has, especially at elite institutions, become a kind of all purpose cop out — and never more so than when the HYPS-type schools start babbling about, of all things, “economic diversity:”

The debate around Fisher, however, has been a little different from previous iterations of the affirmative action struggle, mainly because the recent economic crisis and the so-called recovery have made the fact of economic inequality more visible. Which in turn has made both the advantage of going to truly elite schools and the exclusion of the poor (i.e. the majority of the American population) from them more obviously consequential. So the question of whether our elites are insufficiently composed of people whose parents are black and Hispanic has been supplemented by the question of whether they’re also insufficiently composed of people whose parents are working class. Hence the call for racial diversity to be replaced by economic diversity, to move, as Bill Keller says in the New York Times, “from race to class.”

But economic diversity is just as irrelevant to actual equality as racial diversity has been. Why? For one thing, insofar as diversity (which amounts here to enhancing the rich kids’ education by exposing them to what one of the defendant’s amicus briefs described as “difference”-i.e. poor kids who are good at math) really is the thing we care about, the gains in social justice will remain minimal. It’s not just that economic diversity can hardly be understood along the same lines as racial diversity-black kids don’t go to elite colleges hoping to become less black but poor kids are definitely looking to be less poor-it’s that economic diversity is more or less in principle a kind of tokenism. It’s imaginable that elite schools could have racially proportionate student bodies-at 10 percent African American students, the Harvard Class of 2016 is almost there. But it’s completely unimaginable that that they could have economically proportionate ones. Right now almost half of Harvard students come from families making over $200,000 a year; if they took economic diversity seriously, they’d have to send nine tenths of those kids home.

The problem, in other words, isn’t that Harvard is too white, it’s that Harvard is Harvard: a carefully guarded class preserve, which could only become something else if it became a completely different institution.

The race v. class debate on the left strikes me as ultimately fruitless and self-defeating, given that, in the American context, the two concepts are inextricably entangled in ways that defy the reductionism of either class or identity-based analyses.

But Reed and Michaels are definitely onto something important when they warn against the dangers inherent in the ways diversity rhetoric and practice can be hijacked to undermine even the mild amelioration — let alone anything even vaguely approaching the actual elimination — of either serious economic or racial inequality in contemporary America.

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