The Pundit:
Breaking the Taboo: Talking Honestly about Social Class and Status

The status of a person in our society is determined by the individual's race/culture, social class, amount of education and credentials, wealth, power and appearance. A person's status determines their career opportunities, income and wealth, their health, their level of influence in the community and the nature of their love/sex life.

Picture from PhraseMix

At the top of the heap are the aristocrats born into wealth and power, educated in the best schools and blessed with good looks and/or a good plastic surgeon.

Picture from the State

Scraping by at the bottom are the people born into poverty who have not been able to accumulate substantial wealth. Their ranks include the working poor, incarcerated people, the homeless, many mentally ill and disabled people, the long-time unemployment and undocumented immigrants.

The gap between the elites and the rest of us is increasing

In the USA, concentration of wealth and economic inequality are increasing. Picture from Mother Jones

Most of us fall somewhere in the middle and must protect our fragile status, which can be quickly taken away by a wide variety of situations including losing one's job, getting evicted, becoming seriously injured, ill or addicted, or experiencing legal difficulties. The lower one's status, the more likely someone can lose the little that they have due to unfortunate circumstances and/or bad decisions.

Social Class vs. Race: One type of discrimination is legal

In the USA we tend to pretend that social class is not significant, so we focus on race as the prime determiner of status. This is understandable, since historically, the USA has used race as the legal factor that can be used to enforce hierarchies of status. Despite the elimination of most government sanctioned racism, de facto racism remains a barrier to success for many people, so it is important that racism is acknowledged and addressed.

We also have programs that help low income people with aid and scholarships, but overall, the poor as a whole are not a "protected group" in the same way that racial minorities, women, disabled people and older adults are treated under the law. That is why it is perfectly legal to discriminate against a potential employee with crooked teeth, bad skin or clothes that reveal their low status. It is generally socially acceptable to mock low status white people as "white trash" or "trailer trash" but it is now taboo to disparage racial or cultural minorities.

Social Class vs. Wealth: They are not the same

Social class is distinct from wealth, income or educational level, although it is associated with both. Social class is assigned to everyone at birth based on their parent's status. A low status person who manages to acquire wealth with a good paying blue collar job (i.e. a plumber) may be able to move to a higher status neighborhood, but they are unlikely to be accepted as an equal by their higher status neighbors. This is especially likely if they don't adopt enough of the cultural signifiers of their neighborhood's higher status people.

A low status person who manages to get a degree from a prestigious college and develop a successful career will achieve more status than the plumber, even if he has a lower income income. An educated person has much of the knowledge required to adopt the cultural norms of higher status people. However, that educated person may never achieve the same high status and get invited to the same parties as the old-money elites, since they do not share the same cultural experiences (nannies, trips to Europe, boarding school etc) that distinguish higher status people.

Only one of these two trucks may be legally parked in an upscale neighborhood outside Dallas, TX. Can you guess which one? Pictures from MoiBiki and Edmunds

A prime illustration of the difference between wealth and social class is the bans on parking pickup trucks on streets or driveways in some upscale neighborhoods. These bans are intended to maintain the neighborhood's upscale image, even though the high property prices for these neighborhoods already result in the exclusion of lower income people. Automobile Magazine reported on one example: "...A neighborhood outside Dallas has banned most pickup trucks from being parked on driveways. Only owners of Lincoln Mark LTs, Honda Ridgelines, Chevrolet Avalanches, and Cadillac Escalade trucks can park in plain sight in the Frisco, Texas subdivision.

One homeowner has been threatened with fines for parking his new Ford F-150 in his driveway. The man appealed the fines since his Ford F-150 is virtually the same vehicle as a Lincoln Mark LT, but the association maintains the Lincoln is sold to a different class of people than the Ford..."

Picture from Johnson Cleaners

Some of the things we do to appear high class

Despite the widespread refusal to acknowledge the role of social class, most of us are obsessed with creating the impression that we have status. We select and iron our clothes so we have the appearance traditionally associated with those who had servants to do their laundry. We spend a fortune on cosmetics, hair care, prestige cars and other symbols of high status. When we can, we get braces for our children so they will not be discriminated against for their low status appearance and we design our homes and maintain our front yards to look as high status as possible.

Status without Class

Note that status has a role in both the greater society as well as within subgroups. Many lower status people do not try to impress or mingle with the rich folks up on the hill. Instead, they focus on achieving status within their own community and culture. They might try to up their status by dressing well in their culture's particular style, by improving their appearance with body building, or by having a customized car.

Picture from

The upper classes often mock the lower classes for wasting their money on (for example) automobile customization and flashy clothes which do not improve their status within society as a whole. It may be true that investing in college rather than a fancy car will do more to upgrade a young person's situation in the long run. For a young person who doesn't believe that they can improve their status in society as a whole, or doesn't accept that the effort is worthwhile, then buying that fancy car is not irrational. At least in the short term, that fancy car might provide status within their own community. Achieving higher status in their community will provide the individual with rewards such as a greater choice of potential mates and getting treated with more respect.

Picture from Pinterest

Social Class Does Not Equal Virtue

We tend to associate being "classy" or "high class" with virtue. The cultural standards of the upper classes are the standard applied to all. The upper classes are perceived as being more polite, more controlled and less emotional. It is not because the upper classes never behave badly, they are simply better at hiding their problems. For example they send their unruly teenagers to boarding schools and their addicted or mentally ill family members to distant treatment centers rather than allowing them to act out in public. Due to their status, they are also less likely to encounter the police and often get preferential treatment when they do. In the few instances when they are prosecuted for a crime, their status and ability to access the best lawyers insures that they will receive the lightest penalties.

Their apparent politeness and large vocabularies often mask the selfishness and bigotry revealed by the political causes supported by many conservative elites. They can eloquently defend their heartless political beliefs with historical discourse, philosophical constructs and feigned concern for the moral character of the lower classes while they continually screw them over so they can continue to make a profit and maintain their wealth by refusing to do their part to mitigate society's problems.

Barriers to Upgrading Your Class

One reason we avoid acknowledging the challenges faced by low status people is because we blame them for most of their problems. We believe that if they had better character and made a better effort they would be able to obtain an education, avoid illness and substance abuse, get married and find a job that pays well enough to improve their status. In fact, only a small portion of those born into a low status manage to pull this off.

Others are so hindered by their poveryy and circumstances that they are trapped in their low status situation. We tend to ignore or forget about all the barriers that they face. Public schools were intended to be a leveling force in our society, but the quality of education that people can access is directly tied to their income and wealth. That is largely a result of the widespread practice of funding public schools with local property taxes, which virtually guarantees that wealthier communities have better schools.

The education of low status children is impeded when they live near a freeway or other pollution source, have lead poisoning, are malnourished, have an unstable home life, lack access to quality day care and preschool, have parents frequently away from home because they need to working multiple jobs or have substance abuse issues, speak English as a second language, and suffer from stress due to exposure to abuse, violence and housing instability. These challenges suggest that the schools with the largest portion of low status children need more funds than schools with kids facing fewer obstacles, the opposite of the current funding schemes.

The People working hard to keep the lower classes down

Few will admit this, but there are many people and organizations that want to maintain the system that prevents most low status people from improving their situation. This ideology is revealed by their support for charter schools and voucher systems, reducing health, social welfare and education funding, eliminating environmental laws (especially those that address environmental justice), opposition to police accountability measures and consumer protection measures. The one thing all these issues have in common is that they are all examples of government programs that help the poor that are routinely targeted for severe cuts or elimination.

Many middle to low status people also support eliminating the programs, until it impacts them personally. The reasons for this are complex. Some those who have achieved success despite the obstacles from poverty feel that since they managed to succeed, anyone could if they just tried harder. Many lower income people have a form of Stockholder Syndrome in which they have more concern for the plight of wealthy people than they have for themselves their own low income community. Presumably they assume that the day will come in the future when they will have wealth that they will need to protect from high taxes. Racism and other forms of bigotry are the other reason.

This bigotry has been cultivated by many politicians, elitists and the conservative media as a part of their divide and conquer strategy. Here's one smoking gun:

"By 1968 you can't say "nigger" — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites." (Reagan aide and Reagan campaign political director Lee Atwater)

Ronald Reagan and his aide Lee Atwater. Picture from Wikimedia Commons

Republican strategist Lee Atwater discussed the Southern strategy in a 1981 interview later published in Southern Politics in the 1990s by Alexander P. Lamis.

"Atwater: As to the whole Southern strategy that Harry Dent and others put together in 1968, opposition to the Voting Rights Act would have been a central part of keeping the South. Now [Reagan] doesn't have to do that. All you have to do to keep the South is for Reagan to run in place on the issues he's campaigned on since 1964 ... and that's fiscal conservatism, balancing the budget, cut taxes, you know, the whole cluster.

Questioner: But the fact is, isn't it, that Reagan does get to the Wallace voter and to the racist side of the Wallace voter by doing away with legal services, by cutting down on food stamps?

Atwater: You start out in 1954 by saying, "Nigger, nigger, nigger." By 1968 you can't say "nigger" — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I'm not saying that. But I'm saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me — because obviously sitting around saying, "We want to cut this," is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than "Nigger, nigger." From Wikipedia citing Lamis, Alexander P. (1999). Southern Politics in the 1990s. Louisiana State University Press.

There may be some people who sincerely want to cut programs for the poor for due to their political philosophy, such as support for states rights and/or a return to private charity, preferably from religious groups. Many of those who hold these views are naive dupes who have been conned by conservative politicians and the media. But in most cases, these claims are a smoke screen for their bigotry. They just don't like sharing their tax dollars with people that they consider different, inferior and undeserving.

Those of us with more status depend on the availability of low status people to provide us with a source of cheap labor. Maintaining the wealth of the higher status people requires maintaining the poverty of the poor so that they are willing to work in difficult and degrading jobs with low status. Imagine how much wealth and power the elites would lose if workers ever managed to organize and successfully demand a living wage for all workers. Many among the elites have, and will, commit mass murder to maintain their privileges. The continued existence of the homeless and full prisons serve as a warning to the lower castes that refusing to work menial jobs will be punished.

You don't have to be extremely rich to be complicit

The advantages of the middle and upper middle classes also limit the opportunities available to lower income people.

The article "It's not just the 1%. The upper middle class is oppressing everyone else, too" by Jamie Peck in the Guardian. identifies many of the privileges that help the middle and upper middle classes insure that their children do well financially.

"...economics professor and Brookings Institution fellow Richard Reeves, notes that while the US has always had a class system, the upper middle class – which he defines as those earning $120,000 a year or more – is not only widening the gap between itself and everyone else, but also hoarding opportunities in a way that makes it difficult for any outsiders to climb up to it.

...the top 20% have set things up to guarantee virtually all of those spoils go to their children, as well as their children’s children, leaving the bottom 80% little to work with. Society is growing increasingly segmented along class lines, which intersects a great deal with race in a horrid Venn diagram of oppression.

As Reeves notes, this is not usually due to direct classism, although he’s appalled that American universities admit to giving preferential treatment to “legacy” students. Rather, those who got a head start in life are set up to succeed from the very beginning, when they attend well-funded public elementary schools, to the middle, when they get internships because of who they know...."

These days, allowing people to starve to death on the street and bringing back slavery are beyond the realm of the possible for the elites since such practices do not contribute to a good public image. Instead, in the USA, the cold-hearted faction of the elite is limited to keeping the poor down by busting unions, privatizing schools, eliminating affordable health care, criminalizing the behavior of the poor, giving themselves tax breaks and cutting programs that aid low income families.

The most callous members of the elite want us to fear, hate or disrespect certain groups of people so that working and poor people will not unite and resist the constant efforts of the elites to horde more wealth and grab more power. The elites increase their wealth and power by making the rest of us poorer, weaker and more divided. To create a better society, it our responsibility to develop the insight, understanding and compassion needed to overcome our irrational fears and prejudices against lower status people.

Highly recommended reading: "Class: A Guide Through the American Status System" by Paul Fussell
"...Based on careful research and told with grace and wit, Paul Fessell shows how everything people within American society do, say, and own reflects their social status. Detailing the lifestyles of each class, from the way they dress and where they live to their education and hobbies, Class is sure to entertain, enlighten, and occasionally enrage readers as they identify their own place in society and see how the other half lives." Amazon review

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