Content Warning: The following section contains content discussing the historical content and current presence of classist rhetoric and prejudice. This content may be sensitive to those of varying socioeconomic backgrounds.
Classism (or class discrimination): is the institutional, cultural and individual set of practices and beliefs that assign differential value to people according to their socioeconomic class; and an economic system that creates excessive inequality and causes basic human needs to go unmet.
It is near impossible to escape these barriers of classism. Income inequality is largely associated with health problems, social immobility, and turning to alternative economies, which are heavily policed and criminalized, especially in communities of color. Income inequality continues to also further polarize the opportunities and education that children receive, making social and economic mobility difficult, in turn widening the gap between rich and poor. Because of societal messages around poverty and class, people are discriminated against, excluded, and ridiculed around perceived social class. Many workplaces, organizations, and education spaces are built on classist structures, making it difficult for lower socioeconomic (SES) people to navigate and succeed. Continuing to uphold these structures create dire and mortal consequences for all of us.
Through the COVID-19 pandemic, disparities in the United States from long standing health, policy, and social inequities have been blatantly exposed. Such inequities have put individuals from lower SES backgrounds, particularly members of racial and ethnic minority groups, at a higher risk of getting COVID; COVID fatality is 10 times more likely for people from lower SES backgrounds for many interlocking reasons. Low-income folx are already more likely to have a higher chance of chronic health conditions, which make them particularly exposed to COVID. Individuals from lower SES backgrounds may not have the luxury of working from home, particularly if limited financial resources force them to work in essential services that increase their risk of exposure. Individuals who were sick may not have had access to testing until their symptoms became severe enough to warrant a costly visit to the hospital, sometimes steeper without insurance and not knowing they could be covered. Individuals who are sick and do not require hospitalization may live in crowded homes and are unable to quarantine or continue to work out of necessity when sick, exposing others to the virus.
Socioeconomic inequities impact students too. Some students rely on their schools to provide not only an education, but also for meals, housing, and health services. Some students may have limited access to computers or the internet or share small living environments with family, further impacting their ability to have adequate study spaces or go to college at all. There are an estimated 553,742 people in the United States experiencing homelessness on a given night. Through COVID, more people are forced into homelessness, making online classes or work impossible. Lastly, some students may have to assist with caretaking of younger siblings or financially contribute to supporting their families in the current economic downturn; COVID continues to impact low-income Americans the most. Pandemic unemployment assistance did not help everyone, especially those in need.
These experiences and effects of classism do not stop outside of the Stanford bubble. 17% of Stanford undergrads identify as first generation or low income college students, while 47% receive some amount of need-based financial aid. This Stanford Daily article illustrates how food insecurity, limited internet and technology access, family and financial obligations, limited faculty accommodations, and more all contribute to feelings of disillusionment, worsening academic performance, and isolation during COVID-19.
Classism has always existed in the United States; there is a myth that America does not have an unjust system; every American can pull themselves up by their bootstraps in order to overcome obstacles and succeed, gaining reward for their own individual merit (called meritocracy). This is simply not true as historic and current disparities on the basis of race, ethnicity, health, disability, and criminal status can be traced to the structural injustices of class.
Despite the long-standing American exceptionalist idea that our nation is different from others, the beginning of the U.S. colonies were not a utopian community of cooperation and equality, but seen as a place to dispose of British society’s unwanted, idle, and poor. In fact, this idealized, democratic narrative that colonists later copied was taken from some of the Native communities that the colonists massacred and displaced. Sent to find gold or grow tobacco, indentured servants, indigenous peoples, and child laborers were exploited at the hands of European (and then American) businessmen. As land and resources like cotton turned profitable, Black and brown people were exponentially enslaved to further increase the wealth of Europeans and new Americans. What made the young United States government wealthy was not cotton itself- which could have proliferated in other global climates- but “our nation’s unflinching willingness to use violence on nonwhite people and to exert its will on seemingly endless supplies of land and labor.” Lands seized through displacement, coercion, and murder of indigenous peoples were then sold to white settlers and businnessmen, solidifying class distinctions along color lines and low-road capitalism. The expansion of plantations and their operations catapulted the United States and other western colonizing nations into the Industrial Revolution and is still the foundation of current corporate America’s structure to maximize worker output and, consequently, employer profit.
This wealth increase of a few by abusing the powerless many became the blueprint for the American exploitative capitalist economy. Within the Industrial Revolution, widespread abuse of workers and children as well as exploitative systems like sharecropping became the norm in the absence of enslaved workers. Redlining and other racist policies were created to keep money and land in the hands of White Americans and out of the reach of free Black Americans and other people of color. To fight the brutal abuse of workers in big business, the labor movement and unions rose to prominence (though mostly representing skilled, White workers). The income tax was introduced around this time, since 18% of America’s income went to the top 1% of Americans. While the Great Depression, increased union power, and increased taxing brought down the top 1%'s income down to 8% of the country’s wealth, this rebalancing of income and classism was short-lived. With globalization, increasing unemployment, and creeping inflation, neoliberal governmental interventions funneled money back to the top 1% through reduced taxes, union attacks, and deregulation. This was the foundation for the increased wealth inequality contributing to modern-day economic inequality and classism.
These issues have only gotten worse in the past few decades; today, the top 1% of the U.S. population owns 38.3% of the wealth of our entire nation. The rich keep getting richer as the middle class continues to shrink and more people become impoverished. These cycles of wealth amassment by a few White businessmen are upheld by false ideas of meritocracy, morality, and capitalism. This has had a whole host of consequences, from lack of corporate leadership accountability to poor mental health to abandoning initiatives aimed at helping marginalized communities to protecting the wealth potential of a few white families, vastly apparent in the huge profits made by billionaires during COVID. Americans’ continued belief in meritocracy despite growing inequality and less economic mobility leads to further disparity; students are left blaming themselves for lack of success despite systemic barriers and business leaders undervalue the efforts of marginalized communities. Gentrification continues to displace lower SES communities, usually communities of color, in favor of wealthier, white individuals. As generational wealth has been largely tied to economic success, the stealing of wealth and educational opportunities from Native and Black communities has had huge ramifications as well; the wealth gap between White Americans and Black Americans, Latinx Americans, and Native Americans has continued to grow even wider; Black American families on average have 10 cents of wealth to the dollar of wealth of the typical median white family.
As discussed on this page and throughout this website, classism is inextricable from racism, ableism and health issues, and other interlocking systems of oppression. To fight one type of oppression would be incomplete without continuing to learn about and fight the other interlocking oppressions that target individuals and communities. Fighting against classism entails fighting for queer homeless youth, homeless veterans, immigrant families, and others who are systematically exploited and financially affected by oppression. Remember, fighting these systems takes continued learning and continued self-care; social justice work necessitates humility, ongoing education, and self-preservation. Taking care of ourselves ensures that we can continually and sustainably strive for liberation.
Educate yourself and others:
A huge part of unlearning any oppressive system is to confront one’s own position within it; acknowledge your class privilege and reflect on your own positionality within class. While guilt is an understandable piece of this journey, learn how to sit with it so that it does not get in the way of your work or cause you to give up in your allyship.
Continue to learn about classism and how it intersects with other identities and systems of oppression. Learn how EBT, SNAP, and WIC work and advocate for expanded ability to use these forms of payment at businesses. Become familiar with the different definitions of class on this site. Understand the process behind panhandling. Learn about how climate change and classism are connected, especially through environmental racism. Connect with Stanford’s First Generation and/or Low Income (FLI) office and familiarize yourself with all the resources available to FLI students.
Reflect on your language and how you police others’ language and how this upholds classism and white supremacy. Use expressions such as “people experiencing homelessness” to center someone’s humanity versus their class status. Be willing to speak out against classist remarks when you hear them from others. Listen more to others’ experiences. Lean into the idea and skill of humility, let go of control, and make space for people to speak about their experiences of classism and poverty without trying to steer the conversation. Reflect on how your business or organizational practices and expectations may be classist or uphold classism and actively work to not only change them but consider class issues when starting new practices.
In learning more about classism, you will also learn that much of our behavior is shaped by class. Make sure to continue to confront assumptions you make about others- they may be classist or based on classist assumptions; for example, a coworker’s refusal to attend a holiday party may not be because of their lack of “team attitude” or group engagement, but because they cannot afford an extra white elephant gift, take time off from their second job, or feel anxious about being in a different space where they do not know the unspoken social scripts that others with money have learned.
Leverage Your Class Privilege
Donate food, clothing, money, etc. and volunteer at your local homeless shelter. Find different ways your community is already working to help fight classism and poverty. Subscribe and join causes that inspire you to continue to not only give money, but confront values and messages around money and work to redistribute wealth. Reflect on the ways in which you can help redistribute wealth by supporting local businesses (especially those owned by women and folx of color), fighting gentrification, and increasing opportunity to communities not just individuals.
Advocacy & Voting
Be aware of local and federal policies that impact people from lower SES backgrounds and continue to reflect on why you support certain policies in the first place. Contact your local and federal representatives and advocate for these policies. Fight meritocracy and vote for initiatives that focus on creating opportunity for under-resourced communities, like affirmative action. Support and vote for representatives that are not part of the 1% since wealthy Americans already are more politically active and in turn have higher lobbying potential. Donate and support organizations that increase voter registration and representation in systematically neglected communities. Help people who are experiencing homelessness register to vote. Use this directory for organizations on local and federal level and check out this comprehensive list on how to help end homelessness. Support labor unions, workers’ rights organizations, increased wages, and progressive tax reform. Advocate for affordable housing through your vote, join a tenant’s union, advocate for rent control, and protect public spaces. Share resources with fellow students by leveraging class privilege, advocating for free or low cost reading lists, advocating for different modes of learning and immersive experiences, stressing interdependent messages and missions in class, and more.