Class is a slippery subject in the US, where most people call themselves middle class. Commonly and easily, we frequently merge race and class, assuming all white people are middle class and all people of color are working class or poverty class. Neither generalization is accurate. Why are we so confused about class? Whom does that serve? Answer: the ruling class. Euro-Americans have been enabled and required to assimilate into mostly non-ethnic whiteness. The class range and vast diversity among people of color, specific to their histories, vanishes without particularities.
Class is about power and lack of power, institutionally and individually. Who has that power? Wealth is created by the poverty, working, and middle classes, and the ruling class reaps the biggest benefits. No wonder class is obscured. The ruling class makes the decisions that define our lives, and we work to find niches of survival.
As the US empire is ailing and failing, the middle class is declining. Most members of OLOC grew up when the US was at its economic peak, when victory in WWII, industrial might, and extensive unionization meant that many blue and white collar workers alike could enjoy material prosperity. But class has changed, as the US has left an industrial economy and moved into a service, tech, financial, mostly ununionized, economy. An industrial proletariat (mostly male) has been replaced by service workers (many female). Class is not fixed, structurally or individually.
As most industry has departed, earning gaps have increased. Most agricultural, service, industrial, clerical, and gig workers do not earn enough for survival. Well-employed, highly educated, tech and professional workers may be quite comfortable, but those without steady jobs may have poverty-level incomes. Upper management in corporate, financial, and every other sector earns disproportionately high salaries. Younger generations have moved downward, classwise. Education no longer assures adequate earning capability, to say nothing of the escalating debt for higher education, a result of privatization. Class is changing in front of our eyes.
Wealth differs from income. The primary source of wealth for the majority is home ownership, the proceeds of which can be passed on to the next generation. In 2021, 73% of white households, 63% of Asian Americans (a category including well-paid tech immigrants and underemployed refugees), 51% of Latinx, and 44% of Black households owned homes. This racial disparity is the result of government programs, including red-lining.
Money determines our ability to acquire necessities (food, housing, clothing, health care), as well as comforts and luxuries. On average, women earn considerably less than men; people of color earn less than white people. Lesbians of color, as a group, are likely to earn the least. Yet focusing on money ignores the unwaged labor of housework and child rearing, which is overwhelmingly women’s work. For women outside the labor force, unwaged work creates financial dependence on employed partners or the state.
The numbers of working poor are constantly growing; wages never keep up with inflation in capitalism. Congress last raised the federal minimum wage to $7.25 an hour in 2009 ($14,500 annual income for people employed full time, full year). The federal sub-minimum wage (for tipped workers) is $2.13 an hour. In our lifetimes, the proportion of women in the labor force has grown dramatically as a single, male income cannot support a household, and women living without male partners need to be self-supporting. Povertynot only causes insufficient food, shelter, clothing, and health care, but insures lifelong inadequacy.
Rather than assigning people to categories based on income, wealth, or education (social and economic status), it is more useful to think about which side of the class fence we are on and who is there with us. Where is our class consciousness? Who stands with us? Who does not stand with us? Who are our allies in the struggle against the behemoth, the capitalist military/industrial/financial complex?
Beyond needing to fulfill our tangible, material needs, class speaks to how we evaluate and treat one another. The ideology of meritocracy teaches us that we are responsible for taking care of ourselves, as though no social forces underlie our daily lives. It also teaches that us that those with less simply haven’t worked hard enough. OLOC members are not exempt from such attitudes.
Entitlement characterizes many problematic class-advantaged behaviors. In the 1970s lesbian political groups I joined, when someone brought up class, more privileged women turned the subject to the abuse they incurred growing up, as though working-class and poor lesbians suffered only material scarcity, not emotional harm. One daughter of the upper middle class bemoaned her father’s ultimatum that she quit her quasi-movement job or he would not pay for her to attend law school. A woman who lived on her trust fund said, “I have access.” She could not bring herself to say, “I have money.” We need to understand the class roots of why some lesbians are considered “difficult.”
As older women, we need to consider our legacies. If we have savings and/or property, who will benefit? I urge older lesbians to consider leaving bequests to women’s/gender/sexuality studies and to ethnic studies at schools of your choice.
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