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Class, Race and Gender in American History

“The United States government’s support of slavery was based on an overpowering practicality.” (Zinn 171) Before America even had a history it was busy creating a lower ethnic class for it to look down on. To work the fields and other low-wage high-risk jobs. To be there when a scapegoat was needed but to be as separate as could be maintained at all times. The history of black people in the United States begins with slavery. African Americans were seen not just as a lower class of people, but simply as property, creating a struggle for equality that may never end. Slaves were subjected to the poorest of living conditions, whippings not uncommon, and often having tight-knit families, mothers and daughters, fathers and sons split when sold apart from each other. Early slave resistance was often to the effect of stealing property, sabotage, running away, or just working slowly but sometimes went as far as killing masters or overseers and burning down buildings. In some instances, masters were fast to try and remove themselves from this by making lower-class whites overseers hoping they would bear the brunt of the slave’s anger (Zinn 177).

The United States would eventually give in to the great pressure placed on it to abolish slavery, but not without a war. With slavery ended black and white people were able to live together as equals. Some would say that this is still not fact. After slavery oppression of black people did not end. While slavery remained in the memories of African Americans discrimination was constant and as accepted in the society as much as slavery had been in years previous. Black people still lived in fear of race-related violence and lynching like a slave owner relationship. In the 1930s some African Americans began to align themselves with the Communist party. The communist party had long pointed out the inequalities of the race even if they were accused of doing it for their own purposes. Those black people aligning themselves with the Communist party did not do so simply because they obviously needed the help and admired the party’s ability in organizing rallies and protests (Zinn 447). Of course, the union of the black men at the time to communism put a new even more frightening idea of the young militant black in everyone’s mind more than ever before.

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As tension in the black community began to mount in the thirties WWII began putting the issue on the back burner. In a war in which the United States would need to champion the idea of racial equality also at a time when communism was gaining power, it was necessary for President Truman to take some kind of action on the race question. In 1946 he appointed a Committee on Civil Rights. Unfortunately, this committee was not founded simply on the idea of equality but also for “economic reasons” and was too highly political and ineffective to create any real change at the time (Zinn 449). Then, in 1954, Brown v. Board of Education said separate but equal schooling “had no place” and set desegregation on its way, at a snail’s pace. In the early 1960s rebellion began among the black community at a fevered pitch. One man at the forefront of the rebellion was Dr. Martin Luther King. Dr. King supported the ideas of love and nonviolence and demonstrated peace with sit-ins. These sit-ins became more and more common with all other rebellions, especially in the South.

As this movement against segregation began to gain momentum within twelve months in 1960 there were more than 50,000 people that participated in demonstrations against segregation. By the end of 1960, the impact of these demonstrations was seen when lunch counters in Greensboro and other towns began to serve blacks (Zinn 453). Not long after this, a CORE began “Freedom Rides”, a group of black and white people planning on traveling from D.C. to New Orleans to help promote desegregation. The Freedom Riders stopped short of their final destination after being faced with a great deal of violence that was unopposed by both local authorities and the FBI (Zinn 453). In 1963 unemployment rates for non-whites were over eight percent higher than that of whites people and half of the African American population was below the poverty line (Zinn 458). Tension and demonstration continued gaining momentum all over the country when President Johnson passed the new stronger Voter Rights Law in 1965. By 1968 black voter registration in the south increased 60 % from 1952 (Zinn 456). In 1967 a group formed in Detroit calling itself the League of Revolutionary Black Workers.

This group scared a great deal of those opposed to the forwarding of the black movement because the black population was aligning itself to fight with the lower class focusing more on the work situation. It was believed that through this many people who would not formerly bend to help black people, specifically politicians and businessmen, began to cooperate out of fear of backlash from the entire lower class, black and white (Zinn 464). The oppression of women in America begins at the same time as that of African American’s. Before America was even independent women were oppressed. Women, much like African American’s, were imported and kept as sex slaves, child bearers, and companions in early America (Zinn 104). Given no right of property, all the property of women was considered to belong to their husbands. It was impossible for any woman that was not the wife of an important politician to speak their mind in any way; working-class women being ignored completely. While the world was changing and modernizing the woman’s place was told to stay in the home, perhaps to maintain some semblance in the home of a utopian past of the bread-winning male and homemaking wife (Zinn 114).

This is the idea of the “woman’s sphere”. The idea that a woman’s place is in the home was firmly engrained in the American mind, making it difficult for women to achieve anywhere (Zinn 117). However, it was shortly after this that a woman’s work was decidedly seen as separate but equal. Of course, as we already know, this does not mean true equality. Women still, “could not own property, when she did work, her wages were one-fourth to one-half what men earned in the same job. Women were excluded from the professions of law and medicine, from colleges, and from the ministry” (Zinn 115). An excellent example of the popular view of the working woman can be explicitly seen in a 1911 government report which identified her as good use to break strikes and take the place of men seeking high wages until she herself begins to organize which “diminishes or destroys what is to the employer her chief value” (Parenti 146).

In early workers strikes that women participated in they were kept separate from the men. Women became involved in a number of movements over the years. It was not until after they helped in with movements against slavery, prison conditions, and dres’ styles that they were able to turn to their own situation with tact and experience (Zinn 117). It was through this experience and a relentless push for rights that the woman’s movement was advanced over the years. However, even in more recent times, women are still discriminated against. In 1992 women earned seventy-five cents for every dollar earned by men (Parenti 146). Another example of this modern-day inequality towards women directly related to money is no-fault divorce. No-fault divorce assumes that partners in a marriage are equals and independent. What this often means to women stuck as homemakers is that when they are divorced they find themselves raising the children from the marriage but without a job or any income to do so (Parenti 148).

So why is it that class, race, and gender have been so closely aligned for so long? On view posed by Parenti is that it is capitalism that breeds these things to be held together. Capitalism will always need a lower class of workers, be it women or African Americans, to be there when the economy is good and extra workers are needed, and to be the first fired when the economy takes a turn for bad times (Parenti 132). It is easy to look to race as a scapegoat in the workplace, and capitalism makes this easier. In an economic society or competition, lower-class whites looking for more of their own are easily pointed to resent African Americans for the supposed special treatment they receive as minorities (Parenti 132). This same white worker is easily played on by right-wing conservative candidates who will use and perpetuate the racial fears of the worker as a means to their own gain (Parenti 133).

This issue will not be easily overcome as the idea of class issues is often ignored and only the ideas of race and gender get to play in our courts (Parenti 134). Thanks to this it is easy to point to race and gender as the problem while ignoring class as always (Parenti 135). It is difficult to say if prejudice and discrimination because of gender and race will ever end, let alone in the United States, where both African Americans and women began as an imported good. This kind of discrimination is only further accentuated today in our society more concerned with financial gains and losses than with the well-being of its people. Over many years gains have been made by both of these groups in hopes of achieving level ground with everyone else, but even as social gains were being made “whites almost always retain economic power” (NY Times, Cited in Parenti 149).

Bibliography

  • Parenti, Michael. Land of Idols. St. Martins, New York, 1994.
  • Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States. New York, 1999.

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Class, Race and Gender in American History. (2021, Mar 24). Retrieved July 18, 2021, from https://essayscollector.com/essays/class-race-and-gender-in-american-history/