Over the past year a flurry of studies and op-eds highlighting diminished opportunities for economic advancement among people of color in the United States have shed light on the interrelation of race and class. From the Equality of Opportunity Project’s well-publicized research detailing persistent income disparities between Black and white men who grew up in the same neighborhood to op-eds critiquing President Trump’s “Tax Cut and Jobs Act” as an impediment to Black economic mobility, many people appear deeply concerned about the decades-long erosion of the middle class. While renewed interest in exploring the connections between race and class is welcome, few have asked deeper questions about the presumed white racialization of middle class as an analytic and policy category.
Perhaps no term in our modern political lexicon is assumed to be more thoroughly colorblind by mainstream white America than middle class. In public discourse, middle class constitutes the rhetorical center around which domestic politics unreflectively seems to orbit. Often understood by mainstream white America as a socio-economic aspiration unlocked by hard work and underpinned by the normative values of colorblind meritocracy and rugged individualism, we instead posit that the middle class is a white racial construct. Middle class inclusion/exclusion is based on presumed racialized (in)capacities for democratic self-governance and racialized evaluations of social deservedness.
The term middle class first entered national public consciousness in July 1908 during an acceptance speech by presidential nominee and future President William Howard Taft. Speaking on the theme of possible future Philippine independence, Taft noted that “there is no farming or middle class tending to build up a conservative, self-respecting community, capable of self-government…It is quite unlikely that the [Filipino] people, because of the dense ignorance of 90 per cent [sic], will be ready for complete self-government and independence before two generations have passed…” As a justification for advancing U.S. imperialism in the Philippines, Taft weds the very idea of the middle class to notions of racial inferiority, class instability, respectability, and assumed incapacities for self-governance among people of color.
Months later in a December 1908 speech entitled “The South and the National Government,” President Taft assured a New York audience that “the Federal Government has nothing to do with social equality…social equality is something that grows out of voluntary concessions by the individuals forming society” and “the fear that in some way or other a social equality between the races shall be enforced by law or brought about by political measures really has no foundation…”
Contrary to Taft’s claims, the historical record demonstrates that the federal government has exerted an outsized role in constructing and sustaining social (in)equality and has constituted the single largest guarantor of the middle class—an idea racialized as white—at the systematic expense of people of color. Against this backdrop, we argue that it is impossible to understand today’s widening racial wealth disparities—disparities that undoubtedly compromise the economic well-being of people of color—without knowledge of this history.
In September 2017, the Institute for Policy Studies released its report entitled “The Road to Zero Wealth: How the Racial Wealth Divide is Hollowing out America’s Middle Class.” The findings are staggering. Not only is the chasm between median Black and white family wealth jarring—$1,700.00 to $116,800.00, respectively—but the research finds that whereas middle class Black families have seen their wealth diminish over the last thirty years, wealth among middle class white households has grown by ten percent. Given the colorblind language of middle class uplift marshaled by mainstream white America, what can explain such a disparity? Understanding that the middle class constitutes a white racial construct provides some explanatory power.
Not only did the enslavement of Africans in the Americas preclude such individuals from accumulating and passing on wealth, but federal asset policies emerging in the mid-nineteenth century also exacerbated earlier disparities. Since the nineteenth century, federal asset policies—initiatives that intentionally helped to grow the middle class—have contributed mightily to today’s racial wealth divide.
Lasting for over seventy years, the 1862 Homestead Act provided 1.5 million families with some 246 million acres of land. With little exception, only those racialized as white qualified for these lands. Today, a staggering 46 million U.S. adults can trace the core of their families’ wealth to assets originally secured on an expressly racially discriminatory basis from the Homestead Act, a figure that constitutes close to twenty percent of the entire adult population living in the United States.
In the twentieth century, federally subsidized asset policies for white citizens hit a fever pitch. Just before World War II, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) put the full faith and credit of the federal government behind the private home mortgage industry, creating the largest redistribution of wealth in U.S. history. The conspicuously racist categories required by the act’s underwriting manuals ensured that between 1934 and 1968, ninety-eight percent of FHA loans went to white individuals.
In 1935, Congress passed the Social Security Act. Though the bill explicitly intended to provide a safety net for millions of workers by guaranteeing them an income after retirement, the legislation excluded from coverage about half the workers in the U.S. economy. Among the excluded categories were agricultural and domestic laborers–jobs traditionally filled by Black Americans.
Nearly a decade later, Congress passed the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act—the G.I. Bill—which sought to provide returning service members with a variety of social benefits. Black Americans were effectively barred from the G.I. Bill’s low-cost mortgage provision because most financial institutions would not provide loans for mortgages in Black neighborhoods.
Today, policies aimed at building a robust middle class, including the home mortgage interest deduction, favored tax treatment given to income derived from capital gains, and the high asset threshold for estate taxes—a threshold the Trump administration recently increased—all work to augment the value of unfair gains among white people secured through de jure racial discrimination.
The widening Black-white wealth gap presents real challenges to making our political economy fairer and more sustainable. To close this chasm, we must first recognize that, contrary to the principles of professed colorblind meritocracy, the middle class represents a white racial construct historically and presently supported by federal policy. Unearthing the historical relationship of race and the construction of the middle class will inform the creation of policies that help members of racially marginalized communities build assets instead of enhancing unearned enrichments for historically privileged communities.