My remarks today are a corollary to, not an argument for or against, the essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates to which I posted a link. There has been a vigorous debate about whether the progressive wing of the Democratic Party should focus its attention on what is called identity politics or should advance policies targeting the needs and interests of the working class. I find this debate unhelpful, and Coates’ essay helped me to become clearer about the reasons.
My theme is a simple one: The great preponderance of Black and Hispanic Americans are working class. Their race or ethnicity is not a substitute for their class position. It does not somehow make their class position politically irrelevant. There are long standing reasons, reaching back to the period shortly after the Civil War, why here in America white and black workers have so rarely formed a united front against capital, reasons about which I have several times written on this blog. But the simple objective facts remain. Let me take a moment to offer a few numbers, by way of setting the stage. These data come from 2015 and 2016, but very little has changed in the intervening time.
Median household income in the United States is somewhat more than $56,000 a year. For those who are utterly innumerate, this means that half of all households earn less than $56,000 each year, half earn more. [Average or mean household income is about $17,000 higher, basically because when Bill Gates walks into a neighborhood bar, the average net worth of people in the bar goes up to several billion each – beware of numbers.] The median income of White households is almost $63,000. But that of Hispanic households is about $45,000, and that of Black households is about $37,000. [That of Asian households is better than $77,000, by the way.]
It doesn’t take much brains to figure out that most Black and Hispanic households are working class. The median weekly wages or full-time Black and Hispanic workers are $678 and $624 respectively, which means that fully half of all fulltime Black and Hispanic workers are earning roughly fifteen dollars an hour or less, and most of course are earning a good deal less. A national minimum wage of fifteen dollars an hour would dramatically improve the economic fortunes of large portions of the Black and Hispanic population. The median wages for fulltime White workers are significantly higher -- $862 – which means that the fifteen dollar an hour minimum wage would benefit a much smaller share of the white working class [although perhaps numerically more people.]
My point is that Black workers are workers. Hispanic workers are workers. A progressive political program targeting working class voters will necessarily target large segments of the Black and Hispanic communities.
I have many times observed that educational credentials are, in this country, the royal road to the middle and upper middle class. It is worth reminding ourselves therefore of the wide racial and ethnic disparity in the proportions of the population holding a four year college degree. When I was a teenager going off to college, only 5% of American adults 25 years old or older had a four year degree. So few young people went to college that high schools in New York graduated students twice a year, in January and June. The G. I. Bill, the explosion of public higher education, and the Cold War [which led the Federal Government to pour money into universities “for the struggle against godless communism”] produced a sharp upsurge in college attendance, so that today, roughly a third of adults 25 and older hold college degrees. But two-thirds of adult Americans do not have four year degrees, which means that a large majority of Americans have no hope at all of becoming doctors, lawyers, professors, corporate management trainees, college professors, high school teachers, elementary school teachers [!] or, for that matter, F. B. I. agents.
These are the figures for all Americans. As we might expect, the figures vary considerably by race and ethnicity. Here are the data: 32.5% of all adults have four year degrees. For Whites, the figure is 36.2%, for Backs 22.5%, for Hispanics 15.5%. This means that fewer than one in four Black men and women and one in six Hispanic men and women can even aspire to be elementary school teachers or corporate management trainees. Thus, a political platform calling for free college education will benefit young Black and Hispanic men and women even more than young White men and women.
A political platform targeting the needs of working class men and women, and demanding an end to racial and ethnic impediments to decent work, is a winner. That is what we on the left should be agitating for.