::Literate Blather::
Monday, April 07, 2008
Essay: The Caste System in the U.S.

The U.S. Should Stop Turning a
Blind Eye to Social Class

“It is impossible to understand people's behavior... without the concept of social stratification, because class position has a pervasive influence on almost everything... the clothes we wear... the television shows we watch... the colors we paint our homes in and the names we give our pets... Our position in the social hierarchy affects our health, happiness, and even how long we will live. ”

—William Thompson, Joseph Hickey, Society in Focus, 2005

Calling what’s happening – and has been happening – in the United States a “caste system” may be stretching it.

Officially, a caste system like the one in India is based on the Hindu religion. It is a system for dividing people into social class units. In India today there are four main classes: Brahmanas (scholars and priests), Kshastriyas (soldier warriors), Vaishyas (merchants and artisans), and Shudras (workers).

But there is little doubt the United States has split itself into at least four distinctive social classes since the end of World War II. Each decade sees these classes strengthened – and migration out of them made even more arduous.

The U.S. doesn’t stress family and history as much as India and other cultures, as we’re more focused on wealth and influence. Here’s how DaRK PaRTY identifies the four unofficial castes in the U.S.

Royal Line (Elite): This is the class of leisure wealth and all-star status. It’s where our CEOs, professional athletes, Hollywood actors, mainstream musicians, congressmen and senators reside. These are the people the rest of us write about, read about, watch on TV, and emulate in fashion and culture.

MacWealthy (Privileged): This is the class of well-educated professionals. These are where the lawyers, doctors, scientists, technologists, and consultants come from. These are the high-level business people who live in the MacMansions in our teaming suburbs.

White Fence (Middle): The unique thing about the United States is our ability to delude ourselves. This is the class where the workers reside and all of them think they are in the middle class – no matter what they’re income level. This is where janitors, clerical workers, fire fighters, construction workers, craftsmen, retail salespeople, waitresses, line cooks, and garbage men fall.

Forgotten (Poor): The unemployed, drop-outs, illegal immigrants, and those who live below and around the poverty line reside here.

Other economists and sociologists divide U.S. social classes into at least two divisions and as many of 12. But no matter how you make the split, the dividing line between the privileged and the middle has gotten wide and deep.

Not convinced that the U.S. does, in fact, support a vibrant class system? The evidence is hard to ignore.

Here are the average household incomes for our classes: Royalty ($250,000 plus); MacWealthy ($77,500 to $250,000); White Fences ($30,000 to $77,500); and the Forgotten ($0 to $22,500).

Education obviously plays into the structure of the U.S. caste (with the exception of the Royal Line due to the influx of pro athletes, rock musicians, and actors). But the MacWealthy generally have at least a four-year degree from college while the White Fences are mostly high school graduates and above. The Forgotten generally don’t even have high school degrees.

The caste system in the U.S. is enabled by a public education system that is broken. On time graduation rates in U.S. cities is abysmal. In Indianapolis only 31 percent of the high school students graduate after four years, in Detroit it is 25 percent. The numbers are so bad in most urban school systems that the U.S. Secretary of Education recently announced a mandatory federal standard – for calculating drop-out rates.

More evidence: poverty is increasing in the U.S. even as our taste for luxury grows. According to TIME Magazine, in 2008, the U.S. government projects that 28 million people will require food stamps (the most since the mid-1960s). In Michigan this year, one out of every eight people will be using food stamps.

Yet the taste for gourmet food in the U.S. has skyrocketed. Gourmet food sales increased 17 percent in the last two years. So if you need a liter of olive oil for $182 or a small bottle of balsamic vinegar for $145 – you can buy it at places like Gourmet Garage.

“In a world where people pay $4 a day for a Starbucks coffee, an expensive butter doesn’t seem that extravagant,” Andy Aron, CEO of Gourmet Garage, told TIME Magazine.

We’re living in an era when it’s common to see beggars lining up at stop lights with signs asking for change and where luxury hotels have added positions with names like Pet Concierge, Soap Steward, Running Companion and Fireplace Butler (patrons can choose different scented woods from a menu).

But perhaps our greatest problem with class in the U.S. is our inability to admit it exists and our refusal to talk about it. So how are we going to be able to fix it if we refuse to acknowledge that there’s a major difference beyond just salary among CEOs making upwards of $100 million in compensation each year and line cooks at MacDonald’s toiling away for $7 an hour?

The Royalty and MacWealthy get better healthcare, better education, access to power brokers, treated better by police and government agencies, more financial incentives from banks and lenders, and, of course, better tickets to sporting events. They even get better tax breaks and get to sit on the sidelines during warfare.

The U.S. is a land of opportunity – for some. It’s a struggle for many others. It’s time to admit it.

Read our essay on the threat of bottled water

Read our recommendations on fixing public education in the U.S.

Read about why we mow our own lawn

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Blogger SQT said...
Where you live has a big impact on how much you notice it. We live in a "McWealthy" area, $80k+ income is the average here and you just don't see the homeless here. We don't have any shelters locally (they're in the downtown metro area-- we're in the suburbs) so it's easy to live the illusion that everyone is privileged and happy.

Blogger GFS3 said...
I've been in San Francisco on a business trip and I can't believe the number of homeless people in this city.

I don't think I've ever handed out so many dollar bills in my life.

Blogger SQT said...
Yeah, San Fran's like that. We live about an hour and half from there so we go into the city now and then. But when you only travel in occasionally, it's easy to think there's pockets of homelessness rather than a big problem.

I'm not condoning pretending it doesn't exist, I'm just saying it's easy to do depending on what you see everyday.

Blogger Offie Wortham, PhD said...
This comment has been removed by the author.

Blogger Offie Wortham, PhD said...
Do we really have a caste system in America?
Offie C. Wortham, PhD
January 2010

We aren’t supposed to have a caste system in America! In fact, we aren’t even supposed to even talk, or think, about a caste or class system in this country! Everyone is supposed to be equal, and opportunities are unlimited for all. Doesn’t the election of a Black president prove this? Well, sort of. But there are still a few things wrong with this picture of Utopia. Merely outlawing caste, as the United States Constitution does, has not put an end to caste prejudice in the country. What else is white privilege except the tacit acknowledgement of a caste system in this country? For a white person to be “color-blind” is merely an attempt to maintain this white privilege without appearing racist.
There is only one fundamental difference between a caste and a class system. If there is a caste system in a society, and there is one in almost every society on earth, one is a member of a particular caste at birth. One has no choice or opportunity to move from one caste to another. Class is a social grouping that a person can move into, or out of. People move up and down in class all the time over a lifetime.
The caste system in the United States is based entirely upon ethnicity, or as some people say, race. Race is really a meaningless invented concept that was created in Europe several hundred years ago. According to a position paper by the American Anthropological Association, entitled Statement on "Race" in May 17, 1998:
“As they were constructing US society, leaders among European-Americans fabricated the cultural/behavioral characteristics associated with each "race," linking superior traits with Europeans and negative and inferior ones to blacks and Indians. Numerous arbitrary and fictitious beliefs about the different peoples were institutionalized and deeply embedded in American thought.
Today scholars in many fields argue that "race" as it is understood in the United States of America was a social mechanism invented during the 18th century to refer to those populations brought together in colonial America: the English and other European settlers, the conquered Indian peoples, and those peoples of Africa brought in to provide slave labor.
How people have been accepted and treated within the context of a given society or culture has a direct impact on how they perform in that society. The "racial" worldview was invented to assign some groups to perpetual low status, while others were permitted access to privilege, power, and wealth. The tragedy in the United States has been that the policies and practices stemming from this worldview succeeded all too well in constructing unequal populations among Europeans, Native Americans, and peoples of African descent.
A caste can also be defined as a combined social system of occupation, endogamy, culture, social class, and political power. We are born into a caste, and one does not move in or out of it. Caste should not be confused with class, in that members of a caste are deemed to be alike in function or culture, whereas not all members of a defined class may be so alike. The caste system in the United States is based upon ethnicity and racism. All white people are automatically members of the top rung of the caste system in America. This is the only explanation for the fact that any poor and uneducated white person, even if they are sitting up in some prison, still knows in their gut that they are better than President Obama, Oprah, or Michael Jordan in this society. (Please read below how white ethnics were taught to believe this.) And in one sense, they are correct.

Blogger Pooja said...

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