Uncomfortable Conversations:Part 3- The Illusion of Meritocracy & The Middle Class
Since the beginning of the nation, white Americans have suffered from a deep uncertainty as to who they really are. One of the ways that has been used to simplify the answer has been to seize upon the presence of Black Americans and use them as a marker, a symbol of limits, a metaphor for the “outsider.” Many whites could look at the social position of blacks and feel that color formed an easy and reliable gauge for determining to what extent one was or was not American. Perhaps that is why one of the first epithets that many European immigrants learned when they got off the boat was the term “nigger”—it made them feel instantly American.
~RALPH ELLISON, “What America Would Be Like without Blacks” (1970)
Middle-Level Management—At least I’m not Black ( Excerpt Taken from by Book ~ Poisoned Soil: A Legacy of Negative Beliefs)
The middle class is less tangible than most people realize. While most would agree that being middle class relates to your household income level, many have no clue of why we are so proud to classify ourselves as middle class. The reality is that the richest 1% of Americans own 35% of the nation’s wealth. The bottom 80% own just 11% of the nation’s wealth. "Middle class" is a divisive term to keep working Whites separate from poor Blacks.
In the early years when this nation was first forming, Whites and Blacks worked side by side as indentured servants. Many Europeans who couldn’t pay for passage to the new world agreed to indentured servant contracts. That usually lasted seven years unless some form of the contract was breached. The indentured servants were treated terribly and often had their contracts extended for supposed breaches. The wealthy landowners took full advantage of this system. In 1676, a White property owner named Nathaniel Bacon united indentured servants, slaves, and small property owners for a huge rebellion against Governor William Berkeley and the wealthy landowners.
That rebellion made wealthy landowners realize they had to create a wedge between poor Whites and slaves. This realization gave way to two things—slave codes and middle-level management. Only 25% of Whites in the south owned slaves, which meant the other 75% of Whites in the south had no benefit from the institution. Slave codes would create the clear racial distinction between White and Black, regardless of the poverty level. Poor Whites could mistreat Blacks in the south, free or slave, to their heart's desire without any repercussions, because being White was better. It was better to be poor and White than to be Black.
Slave plantations eventually got rid of indentured servants all together and implemented middle-level management, i.e., overseers, patty boys, slave drivers, and many other positions. These were positions for White men on plantations who didn’t own slaves themselves. They could work and be paid a small wage. Many Whites in the south lived no better than the slaves themselves, but the codes and middle-level management jobs were enough for them for support slavery, never uniting with the slaves, and never rebelling against the wealthy plantation owners like Bacon did. We see this same ideology today. The wealthy rule our society as we separate ourselves by imaginary class lines.
The liberal notion that more government programs can solve racial problems is simplistic—precisely because it focuses solely on the economic dimension. And the conservative idea that what is needed is a change in the moral behavior of poor black urban dwellers (especially poor black men, who, they say, should stay married, support their children, and stop committing so much crime) highlights immoral actions while ignoring public responsibility for the immoral circumstances that haunt our fellow citizens.
~ Cornel West, “Race Matters” ( 2017)
The idea of “Meritocracy” has been planted into our minds since the very beginning of time, especially in American history. Meritocracy is that anyone who works hard enough can be successful and anyone who is successful has worked for it. History tells us that the early settlers came to the “New World” with nothing more than a dream and fist full of sweat, but after a few years they were able to create generational wealth for their families. We carry this same zeal 200 years later with the Europeans immigrants that landed on Ellis island. The poor man and women who lived in ghettos and worked in factories and mills 7 days a week just to make ends meet, but after a few years they were able to create generational wealth for their families.
I often hear White people say, “ my grandfather came with nothing, but he worked his butt off and gave us a new life.” In these type of statements White people are insinuating that Blacks are using poverty as an excuse, all we have to do is work hard like every other White person that has come to America and has been poor and within a few years or a generation we will be out of poverty. This is the misconception of Meritocracy.
What history doesn’t teach us is that the success of White people is largely at the expense of Blacks. Early America was prosperous because of the institution of slavery. Even if you live in the North, the factories that you worked in manufactured the raw materials grown by slave labor. History doesn’t teach you about Sharecropping, which kept some Black families in perpetual slavery almost 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation. History doesn’t teach you that Black communities built after slavery ended became economically self-sufficient, but were destroyed by neighboring White communities or how Black own businesses would be burned down, if the business started doing too well, with no consequence.
History doesn’t teach you how European immigrant communities were allowed to have businesses in Black communities and exploit Black communities by placing their stores and services in our communities the same way Asians and Arabs do today. History doesn’t teach you about redlining, where banks refused to sell or give loans to Blacks families to buy property and land even when they had the money. History doesn’t teach you how unions were created to stop companies from hiring Black employees over White Employees. History doesn’t teach you how drugs, like crack, were purposely given to Black communities or how diseases, like syphilis, was purposely spread throughout our communities.
The truth is I could go on and on. If all it takes to be successful in America is to pull your bootstraps up, Black people weren’t given boots or straps. When we went to walk without the boots, our feet where tied together. When we went to crawl our arms and hands were hog tied, and when we went to roll, we were sedated with drugs. It’s easy to look at Black people and the our community and think our lack of success is our fault But a closer--more historically accurate--look shows us otherwise.
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