Before our formal conception in 1776, America established itself as a system of economic caste while upholding the hypocritical, theoretic language of a socially mobile class system.
White patriarchs began building America’s economic system long before a formalized constitution. Driven by avarice and plunder, these white farmers constructed a socially mobile class system for themselves amidst a racialized system of ascribed enslavement. For example, in the 18th century, slave status was written into law as dependent on the status of the mother. If a white woman had a child, the child would not be enslaved. However, if a black woman had a child, the child would be enslaved given the slave status of the mother. Indeed, this institutional effort to caste black bodies into a perpetual system of naturalized enslavement commenced a dichotomy of social and economic mobility. While white men enjoyed maneuvering through a variance of social classes on the backs of slave labor, black and brown bodies were casted into an inescapable cycle of systemically racialized enslavement.
By a similar token, contemporary class stratification echoes the economic sentiments of slavery. The wealth gap manifests that our system is one based on caste, not class. Studies show that Americans generally attribute 59% of total wealth to the top 20% and 3% to the bottom 20%. While these numbers are certainly staggering, the accurate measure of class stratification in the United States is no more than inhumane. Studies show that the top 20% of Americans own 84% of the total wealth in the United States. This means that the subsequent 16% of wealth is attributed to 80% of the population. If this is not shocking enough, the bottom 20% of Americans own only .1% of the total wealth in America. And, the next highest social class only accounts for .2% of total wealth in America.
Yet this is still not the utmost abhorrent aspect of our caste system. National data illustrates that “black poverty is fundamentally distinct from white poverty”. While concentrated poverty impacts both white and black families, poor white families are less likely to live in poor neighborhoods than high-income black families. Furthermore, it is important to add context to these impoverished neighborhoods. If we simply take poor neighborhoods in Cincinnati as an example, we see that black Americans are significantly more likely to live amidst: high infant mortality rates, inadequate access to healthcare, low-income jobs, potential food deserts, segregationist housing, gentrification, underfunded educational resources, inadequate transportation, and high incarceration rates. National poverty rates illuminate that 66 percent of Blacks live in impoverished neighborhoods compared to 6 percent of Whites. On a daily basis across this great nation, the pervasive impacts of racism shamelessly manifest.
At this point it is important to address the anomalies of our racialized wealth and social mobility gap. One may ask, if the social ladder is constructed against black people, how do we get a black president? This question is no more than a distraction used to justify the American tradition. America was built on the ideology that if you work hard, you succeed. Of course Barack Obama worked hard and his position implies success. However, the issue with this philosophy is that it assumes if one is not succeeding, one is not working hard. If someone is poor, they need to work harder. If a black family cannot escape the cycle of poverty, it is their fault. This rhetoric reinforces the otherness of low-income families; subsequently underscoring the superiority of a higher class mentality. I do not mean to take away from human agency, but our personal troubles cannot be divorced from public issues. It is ignorant to divorce life chances and the potential of personal achievement from the color-divided benefits and oppressions of systemic white supremacy.
Structural function theorist claim that poverty is both inevitable and necessary in our society. In a perpetual fight for power and resources, poverty endures as a constant reminder of class superiority. Indeed, the casted stratification of the wealth gap coupled with fundamental disparities between white poverty and black poverty are imputed to the consequences of our previous system racialized enslavement. And as American history proves, white males always triumph.