[Marxism] The problem of the US working class

Julio Huato juliohuato at hotmail.com
Thu Jun 10 15:22:55 MDT 2004


Douglas L. Vaughan, Jr. wrote:

>Racism, both color-coded and anti-immigrant, is at the root of these 
>regional differences. Interestingly, a study back in the late 70s by Mike 
>Rock showed that where the wage differential between "black" and "white" 
>workers was greatest, the average wages of both groups were lower; he 
>suggested that racism divided workers and left both the poorer for it 
>because their dvision limited both class -consciousness and organizing 
>ability to fight back for better wages and conditions. While I agree with 
>the general thrust of your analysis of the changes in the composition of 
>the working class and the decomposition of the organized industrial 
>proletariat, this dvision remains the great wedge of the ruling class in 
>both class-consciousness and organization.

We have to be very careful here.

I looked once at the BLS national longitudinal survey data for the late 
1990s, the only data set (as far as I know) that allows you to crosstab by 
race/origin, employment condition, earnings, occupation, educational 
attainment, job experience, etc.  Let me admit upfront that I haven't done 
the analysis as systematically as I should have.  I worked on this dataset 
with my students for an econometrics course I taught in the spring of 2002.  
Of course, the first-sight evidence of race/origin discrimination in 
employment and earnings is clear and huge.  But if you control for 
differences in class (as proxied by household income) as well as other 
variables, racial discrimination proper becomes *much less* significant.  
And CLASS discrimination becomes the big issue.

As I told my students, if -- after controlling for class and other variables 
-- race remains a strong predictor of employment, then the problem is one of 
enforcing civil rights in the U.S.  However, if class (income) pops up as 
the strongest predictor of employment, then we have a more fundamental 
economic and political problem, and the way to deal with this is what we 
would properly call "class struggle."  In the simplistic exercises we did in 
class, we drew the latter conclusion and rejected the former.  Properly 
done, this analysis is a bit more complicated than the way we did it in 
class, but I tend to trust our main results.  (One problem is that there's 
feedback: If you're discriminated against on the basis of race, then you'll 
be more unemployed and earn less, which will make you poorer other things 
equal.)

The media and politicians often get to appear "racially sensitive" by 
emphasizing racial discrimination and ignoring or hiding the issue of wealth 
and income inequities.  That's a cheap trick.  We, on the other hand, should 
be clear about this.  If a black or Hispanic worker has a bigger chance of 
being unemployed than a white worker, that's a little due to the racial 
difference, and a lot due to the fact that black and Hispanic workers are 
more likely to be poor, be less formally educated, have criminal records, be 
less able to hold a steady job, etc.  The fact that they are likely to come 
from a poor household makes the world of a difference.  If this is the case 
(and, again, I admit I don't have conclusive evidence), then the capitalists 
are just using race as a marker to screen for other attributes of the 
worker.  Racism proper only tops the main injury.

In my understanding of how a capitalist society functions (say, as per 
Marx's Capital), this seems to be a more consistent explanation.  Overall 
and tendentially, capitalist competition tends to erode privileges that are 
not strictly based on wealth differences.  If this is correct, then white 
workers under the impression that they are privileged because they are white 
are suckers.  Racial privilege is only a minor thing.  For the most part, 
the economic advantages that stem from being a white worker are explained 
not by whiteness, but by the historical fact that black workers are poorer 
on average than whites.

Note the strategic importance of this: While a racist white worker might be 
disinclined to fight for an end to racial discrimination in employment and 
pay (they'll think that's none of their business), they'd be on board to 
fight for a higher pay to everyone of same qualification regardless of 
race/origin because it's to their benefit.

If my impression is correct, the lesson is clear.  Let the media, the 
capitalists, and the politicians dwell hypocritically on the importance of 
"race relations" and let's focus on the class struggle.  We'll get a bigger 
bang for the political buck.

Julio

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