Discussions about class in this country begin with disparities in the division of resources—the question of ‘who has’ and ‘who has not’ (the latter group usually more vocal than the former)—and inevitably lead to an examination of the way class is played out through the meters of race and gender. Women will do worse than men. Minorities, particularly African-Americans, will do worse than whites. And, in fact, the large masses will do worse than the select few. It’s the way it is.
Time was once that there was fluidity in class distinctions. Leaving aside the historical disenfranchisement of women and African-Americans, time was once that one could realistically pull himself up by the bootstrap—could start off poor and rise to the heights of society. Abraham Lincoln did, for instance. So did Walt Disney. Increasingly, though, measurements suggest that class is becoming a much more regimented affair and, along with the splendid wealth enjoyed by the few, is an expanding number of Americans suffering under deep and sometimes entrenched poverty.
That there is poverty in America is without question. We all watched our televisions and saw the specter of thousands people who, whatever wherewithal they may not have had to escape Hurricane Katrina, had even less afterwards. Holly Sklar, in “Growing Gulf Between Rich and Rest of Us,” puts the number of poor somewhere around 37 million, an amount to match the combined populations of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Texas and Arkansas. [p. 117] Add to this a shrinking number of middle-income households (5 million families sunk into poverty in the years from 2000 to 2005 [Sklar, p. 116]) and a media that besieges us with ever more conspicuous consumption, and we find the class divide taking on a certain immediacy in our public discourse.
Look for instance at urban centers where large African-American populations live in concentrated, often generational poverty. Here, inside the world’s wealthiest nation, are among the poorest of its poor. Materialism (the bling bling phenomena) is not unique to urban ghettos, but it intersects strangely and to devastating effect when poverty is added to the equation. Poverty becomes a badge of shame and that shame morphs sometimes too easily into worthlessness and then sometimes too easily into shamelessness. It becomes easy to rationalize destructive behavior. “There’s nothing to lose,” goes the thinking, “so why not?” Under such conditions, crime increases, violence increases and the sad irony is that where all of this doesn’t lead to loss of life, it often leads to incarceration which has the net effect of continuing the cycle of poverty.
The twist, as Donna Langston makes the point nicely in “Tired of Playing Monopoly,” is that we attempt to deny the existence of classes out of some sort of allegiance to our founding principle of equality for all men (however theoretical that principle was). “One of the main ways,” she says, “[that the myth of a classless society] keeps the working class and poor locked into a class-based system in a position of servitude is by cruelly creating false hope.” She says further, “the rags-to-riches myth is perpetuated . . . by creating enough visible tokens so that oppressed persons believe they, too, can get ahead.” [p. 119]
It is just such a myth that was examined by director Steve James in his 1994 documentary “Hoop Dreams.” Here, we meet Willie Gates and Arthur Agee, two young men from poverty stricken areas in Chicago, both hoping to one day play in the NBA. Willie is from the notorious Caprini Green Housing projects where he lived with his mother, Emma, and his older brother Curtis. Interestingly, Curtis’ own story, which is a minor plot to the narrative, helps to make Langston’s point. Curtis also had a dream of playing professional basketball, but after realizing the difficulty and the sheer dumb luck involved in “making it,” he finds himself, in the time that we see him, without a degree and unable to hold onto a job. Along comes the younger Willie showing the same promise that Curtis had and the carrot is dangled anew. Curtis’ experience leads to attempts to mold and advise his younger brother, but they fall flat: So certain is Willie that he’ll be an NBA player, even Curtis is albeit grudgingly buying into the dream. Between Willie Gates and Arthur Agee, Willie has the most promise. He’s bright both on the court and off.
Arthur Agee grew up with his mother, Sheila, his father, Bo, and two smaller siblings on Chicago’s southside. The family lives on about $270 a month in welfare entitlements, a fact that occasions Sheila Agee driving home an earlier point about the sense of rage one can feel in trying to survive with limited resources. “Do you all wonder sometime how I am living?” she asks. “How my children survive, and how they’re living? It’s enough to really make people want to go out there and just lash out and hurt somebody.” Clearly, an NBA contract could drastically change the living conditions of this family, and not just from simple wherewithal to prosperity, but from a state of almost complete financial breakdown to prosperity, quite a leap.
Willie and Arthur are both very talented (Agee was scouted as early as the seventh grade) and everyone believes great things can happen for them, no one more than the two young men themselves. The recruitment by St. Joseph’s High School, putting them on the same path as Isaiah Thomas, was just further evidence.
And then comes reality. Gates suffers injury and is unable to continue playing. Not to mention, he has a child before he finishes high school. Agee, meanwhile, doesn’t do as well as expected, and neither is he competitive in his classwork. Ultimately, he is sent back to the city high school where, in an odd twist, he almost doesn’t graduate because St. Joseph’s, to whom he still owes his share of tuition costs, is withholding his transcript. In short, in spite of the lofty dreams each young man has for himself of achieving fame and fortune, neither of them make it that far.
Langston’s theory about the false notion of class mobility stands up, here. An illusion was held out to the two young men, a long shot that they could, at best, hardly achieve. But Langston’s theory is a qualified truth. No, neither young man went on to receive a million dollar contract. Each, however, did graduate college and at last reports are doing well, living solid middle class lives.
Classism in Hinkley, California, has another face. Hinkley is an unincorporated town in the Mojave Desert populated by Native Americans and mostly whites who trickled in with the Great Depression, the Homesteaders movement, and with people looking for relief from the plagues of city life in nearby San Bernadino. Hinkley is the subject of another film, Erin Brockovich, that, as a part of its narrative, subtly examines issues of class in this country–in this case environmental classism. In Erin Brockovich, Hinkley shows as a town without a lot of resources, in some ways dependent on the two nearby military bases. Unincorporated, it is ripe for the abuse it suffers by PS&G.
The story in short is thus. Brockovich, having gone to work in a lawyers’ office, comes across the story of residents who live near water contaminated with hexavalent chromium, who are falling ill and dying. The pipeline that delivers the contaminants into the water source is owned by PS&G, and by the end of the story, PS&G settles and agrees to pay $333 million in damages, claimed to be one of the largest settlements in history.
Here again, classism operates badly towards people with the fewest resources often in the far off hinterlands, away from centers of commerce. Such was the case with the Love Canal tragedy of the 70s. Such is the case with the recent mining tragedies in the Appalachians. Frankly, all around the world, wherever there’s an environmental event to be manipulated, and a surrounding population without much in the way of resources, there’s a potential for sometimes devastating tragedy. Such was the case with the awful events around the diamond mines in Sierra Leone.
Classism, though, becomes a much more interesting topic as we look at Brockovich, herself. Here we have a woman, a mother, twice-divorced, who according to the account, had but a few dollars to her name when she went to work as a legal assistant. It’s easy to believe that she is from a poor or at least working poor family. She goes door to door among the people of Hinkley. She banters with them. She fights for them. To their benefit, they are homeowners, but they are nonetheless poor and have been put upon by a large soulless corporation, and she has their back. For all intents and purposes, she is them. The trashy talk, the provocative dress, seem to further suggest as much.
In reality, though, Brockovich hails from middle-class parents both of whom were working professionals. Erin even attended college herself, although she didn’t finish.
“Class,” says Donna Langston in her work, “Tired of Playing Monopoly” is more than just the amount of money you have…it’s composed of ideas, behavior, attitudes, values, and language…” [p. 119] So the “sixteen dollars” Erin has in her banking account is not truly an indication of her station, but rather is a temporal economic condition. Langston says further: “If class is more than simple economic status but one’s culture background as well, what happens if you’re born and raised middle class, but spend some of your adult life with earnings below a middle-class income bracket—are you then working-class? Probably not.” [p. 120] Thus we have a Brockovich who now in fact commands large fees for public speaking and puts her title as Author/Writer, Celebrity. Turns out, her style of dress, her way of talking, is just a quirky extension of her middle class background. Despite having been down on her luck, she handily scales her way back up into economic comfort and stability.
Classism in this country operates in predictable ways. We define it with economics indicators. We count the money. And then we start examining behaviors. There is indeed still something that remains of mobility between the classes. We see that in both the films referenced here. But the sad truth is that the fewer the resources, the harder it often is to climb out of one’s condition.
Cite this Disparities in the Division of Resources
Disparities in the Division of Resources. (2016, Sep 27). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/disparities-in-the-division-of-resources/