Is Classism a Hate Crime?

Classism is the new acceptable discrimination. It’s a phenomenon I met while growing up poor and continually saw in the physical facts of life—food, clothing, housing, transportation, acne treatments and braces—all were allocated by class. Generally, so were the emotional/social facts of life: respect, admiration, popularity, participation in plays and expensive sports—those were, by and large, the enclaves of the wealthy.

At the community college where I teach now, I hear stories of classism on a regular basis:

• One student recalls being a cleaner at a place where, as a mere worker, she wasn’t allowed to use the better, “office people’s” bathroom. As long as she and the other employees were of the same race, however, there was no basis for complaint, right? Of course, low-level workers should have crappy bathrooms. Of course, executives should have bigger, better facilities and vastly more compensation, vacation, and health insurance. It’s a given, a circular argument, a situation justified by its definition.

• Another student remembers cruising and partying late one night with a friend, driving around in a high-end, luxury car. They were pursued on the highway by a tattooed guy in a beater who opened his window and said, “You think you’re cool just because you have a nice car?” He kept pursuing, yelling, “Pull over. Park the car.” The student’s friend said, “Guys like that are pathetic. Their lives are going nowhere.” He reached into his glove compartment, got out a gun, and shot the tattooed guy through the open window. Then he peeled away. The wealthier guy was Latino; the poor guy was Vietnamese. We don’t know if the wealthy folks would have met violence, but we do know the justification for the shooting: Death penalty for losers.

• In April, Newsweek featured a story, “The Devil in Deryl Dedmon,” about some young guys in Brandon, Mississippi who went to a nearby poor neighborhood and beat a 47-year-old man and then ran over him, killing him. Yes, the young guys were white, the 47-year-old black, but complicating the picture was the multi-racial lives of the youth. Their black friends from school, also from the “nicer” town, defended them strongly as not racist. Their targets were from Jackson, the poor town, which they called “Jafrica” and “a zoo.” Yes, they used the “N-word” but only against black people they judged as “lowlifes.” “White, black, red, or yellow, what I’m prejudiced against is stupidity,” said a friend of Dedmon’s. The writer noted that when the school sports teams played, parents sat in the bleachers segregated not only by race, but also by class. The younger generation, however, was multi-racial, though apparently not multi-class. On the surface, what a wonderful success for “diversity.”

Because in the white American mind, blackness and to some extent Latin-Americanness are often conflated with crime and poverty, classism can be a thin cover for racism, but isn’t it curious how justifiable class prejudice is? Hardly anyone will openly claim racial prejudice, but to express scorn and contempt for “losers”? It’s an everyday occurrence.

Lita Kurth grew up in rural poverty in Northern Wisconsin, but excellent public schools, low tuition, and a modicum of financial aid allowed her to attend college (University of Wisconsin). Starting out as an historian at UC Berkeley, she switched gears, working as a fund raising researcher and grant proposal writer until returning to get a degree in English Composition (San Francisco State) followed by an MFA in creative writing (Pacific Lutheran Rainier Writers Workshop). She has taught at numerous colleges and universities and currently teaches part-time at De Anza College, retaining a passionate interest in the suffering and injustice that still exists in the lives of poor and working class people, as well as other justice issues. She has published essays, reviews, stories, and poems, and is at work on a novel, The Rosa Luxemburg Exotic Dance Collective.

6 Responses

  1. Christopher Page

    With current US legal definitions classism is not (yet) a crime especially in Federal court. In most states it falls under “hate speech” if the bias-motivated speech carries the implied threat of violence. Dictionary definitions and to a somewhat lesser extent the EU, do recognize hate crime and hate speech as containing the bias-motivation against an undefined “group” and a few list “class” in their examples.

    One of the arguments against class being used to define a protected group is that in the US “class” is considered “mobile”; contemporary US ideology holds that one can do something about one’s class position while they cannot about their ethnicity, sexuality, i.e., “who they are.”—that begs the question why “religion” becomes a protected group because religion is often truly mobile while being a means of legally differentiating from others on the basis of a chosen “identity.” Perhaps that is the angle an argument for including class in the protected groups within the definition might be helpful, given that class is perceived as mobile while in fact actually being even less mobile than religion.

    Of course, a considerable amount of contemporary evidence about class, privilege and even class “mobility” has shown that class is in fact more often than not, “immobile.” Struggling to overcome deeply enculturated ideology and belief in a culture where belief typically trumps evidence, even rigorous science, is no easy endeavor, legislatively or culturally.

    Having experienced classism and been on the butt-end of it every time I step outside lower class circles (work, my child’s public school, etc), I’m very much inclined that classism is at least “bias” and because it’s bias coupled with predjudice and abuse, classism is prevalent as hate speech and often escalates to hate crimes. Just review the blowback from the Occupy movement by Tea Partiers and other owning class/owning class apologist groups and it is quickly evident classist hate speech is prevalent, even dominant. Is the subprime mortgage being targeted to lower class people and having one’s shelter removed not also a form of bias-motivated crime? It’s at least immoral but when we examine some definitions, the classism involved in recent and current American experience gets much uglier than just something unfair or immoral.

    1. Lita Kurth

      thanks, Christopher. I really appreciate that thoughtful and well-researched information. Maybe Europeans with their history of class defined by “blood,” are more inclined to see classism as a reality since so many privileges and rights belonged only to certain rigidly-defined classes historically. It’s interesting that although we have had a graduated income tax, there is silence on the differential impact of fines or monetary punishments. From parking tickets to bail, poor people are far more heavily and drastically impacted than rich. But if we recognized that as classist, we’d probably have to recognize that the market system is fundamentally classist too with vast numbers of goods and services reserved only for the “carriage trade.” Oh dear, I’m halfway into another blog…

  2. I would also add that classism is also a cover for institutionalized misogyny and sexism. And I will go one step further: for women as the sex caste who are oppressed by men as the patriarchy caste, class takes on a whole different dimension. Consider:

    Pregnancy and childbirth is no small matter. Women DO die and become permanently disabled from pregnancy and childbirth, even middle class women with access to the wonders of modern medicine. Pregnancy and childbirth is also the number one impoverishing factor in women’s lives — especially in post-Welfare Reform America. Try getting a job when you’re 7 months pregnant, bed-ridden from potentially fatal pregnancy complications (and decidedly not “fuckable” and thus not appealing to male eyes in the workplace and the public square) with no access to decent medical care outside of the very punitive and grossly inadequate care extended by Medicaid, and the “father” decided to abort HIS parenthood and HIS commitment to you in your most economically and physically vulnerable state.

    In theory, American women have the right to get an abortion. But POOR women who have no money, whether they are Medicaid-eligible or not, do not have access to this fundamental human right to bodily autonomy and bodily integrity — the sine qua non of all human rights that we understand to be inalienable — courtesy of the Hyde Amendment.

    Given that Planned Parenthood was defunded and had to close its doors or reduce services in several states between 2010 and 2012, poor women (especially those of us with no car living in rural areas) have little to no access to reliable birth control at all. And given that almost 90% of all US counties lack an abortion provider, poor women without extra funds and transportation to travel (in many cases, several hundred miles) to the nearest provider cannot get an abortion if they need one.

    Yet the whole pro-forced birth movement, which is really about using a fetus to injure and shame its “slutty” mother since NO pro-life laws exist that force MEN to donate their kidneys/bone marrow/blood to save the life of another even if it’s their own post-born child in need of it who will otherwise die (forced pregnancy really is tantamount to forced organ donation), was not recognized as a problem until the misogyny that class-privileged women thought was confined to the ghetto (it’s somehow OK for “those women” to be forced to give birth against their will no matter the harm to them because poor women are “stupid” and only “stupid” women are “easy”) ended up on their own nice middle class suburban doorsteps. In two words: Sandra Fluke.

    While men in poverty may not consider themselves privileged, the fact remains that even in poverty, poor men fare much better than poor women. Poor men are not punished with forced organ donation (which is what forced pregnancy/childbirth amounts to) for having “recreational” sex, but poor women who are forced to attach themselves one way or another to males (either marriage/cohabitation or the sex trade), out of dire economic necessity in order to barely survive (which many don’t) are singled out and targeted for extra punishment for being on the receiving end of MEN’S orgasms that MEN feel entitled to at women’ expense.

    Poor MEN will often get more sympathy and a leg up and a toehold in the job market over poor women, and unlike poor women, poor men are not expected to “put out” as a condition of getting/keeping a badly needed job and are NOT additionally harmed with forced childbirth policies to boot.

    Poor women who get pregnant as a result of rape (approximately 30,000 rapes result in pregnancy each year, according to RAINN and the Guttmacher Institute) are not only forced to suffer pain, trauma, disfigurement, and risk of long-term disability and death by being forced to carry those pregnancies to term against their will, poor women are then also foced by law in 31 states to have ongoing contact with the rapist who “fathered” their babies due to “fathers’ rights” laws where rapists can get court orders preventing their victims from moving, and force ongoing contact and visitation or joint custody rights for the next 18 years of their victims’ lives.

    So a poor man who commits rape will not only likely get away with it, but will also be able to further victimize the poor woman he raped and impregnated.

    Class does indeed have a whole different meaning for women than men. Any class privilege and power that SOME women might enjoy is transitory, temporary, and wholly determined by MEN (fathers, uncles, brothers, husbands and employers) on male-centric terms. But, as even most upper-middle class women found out with the War on Women (that the malestream media trivializes and denies), even women with class privilege can easily find that their plastic penises as honorary and contingent members of the ol’ boys’ club can be revoked by the patriarchy at any time, and usually the second that they no longer serve the interests of the phallocracy in which even poor men have privilege and power over women because privilege confers power through dominance and sexual entitlement.

  3. Celeste Harmer

    Yes, classism is a hate crime. I was turned down for admission to an elite college because I was working class. Never mind that my grades were good. The college was enthusiastic about admitting me until they learned of my father’s blue-collar profession and my less-than-desirable zip code. I was blatantly discriminated against for my social class, and the school got away with it.

  4. Mary

    When I was a child, only seven to be exact, my father went to school because the teacher was withholding my snacks as discipline which my father didn’t agree with. After my father left my teacher and the principle of my school discussed this in our class room. The principle of my school stood in front of my entire class looked me in the eye and told my teacher not to worry about it. That I wasn’t anything but trash, that my entire family was nothing but trash.
    I never told my father, I am now in my forty’s, this has stuck with me my entire life. And looking back I can see it had a profound effect throughout my life. It effected my perception and attitude hence my behavior on so many levels in a really negative way.

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