Does Allegheny care about class and economic inequality?

I recently gave a talk as part of the Karl Weiss Faculty Lecture series.  I have since received a number of follow-up comments and questions from various students, staff and faculty—mostly positive, some critical, but all zeroing in on one particular point I was trying to make.  And I thought I would elaborate that point here in the hope of extending a campus-wide conversation about some important issues regarding social justice.

No doubt, Allegheny is committed to social justice.  But the question remains: what model of social justice are we committed to?  After all, there are different models of social justice. The model I focused on in my talk is a “neoliberal” model; it is one that works to divorce identity politics (or politics of race, gender and sexuality) from class politics (or a critique of economic inequality).  In other words, neoliberalism offers a model of social justice where the problems of racism, sexism and homophobia are addressed without upsetting the status quo of global capitalism. Accordingly neoliberalism responds to economic inequality through the lens of identity politics.

But (and here’s where the questions arise), assuming a strictly anti-racist, anti-sexist and anti-homophobic politics will not do anything to address economic inequality.  And that is because economic inequality—or class—is not the product of racism, sexism and homophobia; it is the product of an economic system—capitalism—that burdens most people with work and distributes the rewards of that work increasingly upwards to an elite few.

This is not to say the burdens of economic inequality are equally shared regardless of one’s identity.  For example, women have historically been relegated to unpaid, domestic work and lower-paid service jobs. This creates a gender-specific mode of economic exploitation—the remedy for which is not only revaluing women’s identities, but eliminating the gendered division of labor, i.e. the social system that simultaneously differentiates and exploits women, or better yet, that exploits women in the process of differentiating them.

Likewise, higher-paid professional and managerial jobs tend to go to whites, while people of color have historically assumed lower-paid, lower-status menial jobs (e.g., janitors, fast-food workers, maids, trash collectors, landscaping).  This is the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow and other systems that hinge on white supremacist racism and racially specific forms of exploitation.  The remedy, then, is not only an anti-racist politics of cultural change, i.e. changing ideologies that privilege “whiteness” at the expense of “blackness,” “brownness” and people of color generally.  It also requires changing an economic system—global capitalism—that continues to feed off marginalized racial groups as a source of highly exploitable, cheap menial labor power.

Still, because the dominant model of social justice—the neoliberal one—tends to avoid calling capitalism into question, it also tends to overlook the unequal outcomes of capitalism as “racial” or “gender” issues.

Further, it tends to treat class per se as an identity category, much like race, gender and sexuality—one that, in fact, “intersects” with those things.  This idea makes clear that you cannot engage issues of race, gender and sexuality outside the context of class, and furthermore, that economic inequality is experienced differently according to one’s cultural identity.

But it does not follow that “intersectionality” or the complexities of personal experience are the best ways to understand class and economic inequality.  No doubt, they help us to understand how the effects of inequality are distributed.  But they do not help us to think critically about inequality as something “built in” to capitalist systems, and indeed as something that is not necessarily bound up with crimes of identity (racism, sexism, homophobia).  To be sure, those crimes can determine who is going to benefit in our society and who is not: who is going to get rich and who is going to be poor, who is going to get the good jobs and who is going to be stuck at the bottom.  But crimes of identity do not make for rich and poor people, capitalism does.

However, because neoliberalism generally lacks a vocabulary for thinking critically about capitalism (or at least, thinking critically as we do about racism, sexism and homophobia), it is hard to think about economic inequality outside an identity framework—as something that is not tied to an identity category or an act of discrimination.

This raises the question: does economic inequality have to be racialized, gendered or given a sexual orientation to even matter?

Let me offer an example: I watch the The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore on Comedy Central. It is a funny show; the format is a panel discussion of four commenters debating a topical issue.  A recent episode dealt with the New York Times exposé of the horrendous working conditions at Amazon—the online retailer which subjects its employees to 80-hour work weeks, meager pay, sparse benefits and fires people for getting sick, getting cancer or simply failing to keep pace with the cutthroat environment on which Amazon prides itself.  To my chagrin, The Nightly Show covered this topic with total indifference; the response was essentially “tough”: workers presumably know what they are getting into when they sign up for the job, and so they should not be griping when they feel exhausted or stressed or unable to pay their medical bills.  One panelist even went so far to say at least employees at Amazon were not working for Chick-fil-A, a company that discriminates against gay people.

And then it hit me: if workers at Amazon were predominantly gay (or predominantly women or predominantly black) one presumes the panel would be outraged—it would be a clear case of homophobia/sexism/racism. But since it is good old-fashioned capitalist exploitation that’s at issue—so long as it is just another company trying to squeeze its employees for as much work (to the point of illness) for as little pay possible—that is fine…so long as they are not subject to discrimination.

The point, of course, is that we have become a culture entirely committed to a model of justice that gets outraged (and rightly so) in the face of racism, sexism and homophobia, but entirely complacent (egregiously so) in the face of economic exploitation. Instead we generally view it as inevitable, even okay so long as the privileges of wealth are equally shared: so long as people at the top—the top 1 percent who now own as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent—includes its “fair share” of women, gay people and people of color.  But make no mistake: diversifying the elite only justifies it; it does not eliminate the differences between the elite and everybody else.

And so it matters which theory of social justice we have in place to guide our thinking and practice.  If it is a model that focuses entirely on identity, we will be concerned with disparities between racial and cultural groups—e.g., with the fact that some groups are disproportionately poor and some groups are disproportionately rich.  But this can lead us to overlook the social system—neoliberal capitalism—that produces rich and poor in the first place.  A world where those proportions were “correct”—where, say, white people made up 62 percent of the population and 62 percent of the poor (not 43 percent as they do now), and black people made up 13 percent of the population and 13 percent of the poor (not 22 percent as they do now)—would hardly be a more equal.  It would just be differently unequal—a world where unemployment and poverty were evenly allocated, a very different thing than a world without unemployment and poverty.

The problems of racism, sexism and homophobia are very real and very present at Allegheny.  They are problems where the differences between our identities (differences of race, gender and sexuality) matter.  These are differences that present a problem insofar as identities are not respected or treated equally.

But class difference is not like identity difference: it is not a difference to be respected, it is a difference to be eliminated—at least if you are committed to equality.  Unlike racial, gender or sexual differences, which are inherently equal (but socially constructed as unequal), classes are inherently unequal.  Still, we tend to treat class (or “classism”) as a problem of respect or lack thereof, focusing on the ignorance of class privilege or the biases we hold toward poor people.  But poor people do not need (or presumably want) our respect; they need our money.  So “justice” in this sense hinges on something altogether different: redistributing wealth and eliminating economic difference, not respecting it.

And that is the model of social justice I would propose to Allegheny: one that takes neoliberalism as seriously as it does racism, sexism and heterosexism.  It is a model that strives for equality, not only at the level of identity—race, gender and sexuality—but also in terms of wealth.  Of course, that kind of justice requires more than respecting identities or cultivating diversity.  It also requires grappling with the fact that we are an elite institution surrounded by glaring poverty, yet entirely willing (even comfortable) to think about equality in terms of identity, but not in terms of money.

And so I wonder, does Allegheny care about class and economic inequality?


Joe Tompkins is an assistant professor of communication arts at Allegheny College.