Classism: Readings and Resources

Sharon Raz

Social class refers to the relative social rank in terms of income, wealth, education, occupational status, and/or power. It is not easy to determine how many social classes exist in the United States. Over the decades, sociologists have outlined as many as six or seven social classes based on such things as education, occupation, and income, but also on lifestyle, the schools people’s children attend, a family’s reputation in the community, how “old” or “new” people’s wealth is, and so forth. Some other sociologists rely on measures of socioeconomic status (SES), such as education, income, and occupation, to determine someone’s social class. For more information, please visit: Social Class in The United States, Sociology, an open source by The University of Minnesota, and/or The U.S Class Structure. For statistics about wealth inequality, you can visit Inequality.org , visit the Census Bureau website, or watch the video Wealth Inequality in America.

In this page we explore the concepts of class and classism, starting with some definitions:

Classism 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. The effects of classism are felt by individuals throughout the United States and has become interwoven into our societal norms. The negative and damaging impacts of classism are felt in such areas as employment, education, housing, and overall political and economic power. The vast differentials in these areas create an environment where people who are considered in “lower” classes are often excluded from public policy making. Thus, their basic needs are not met which can result in devastating results. To better understand the effects on classism on the individual, you are invited to watch: TedTalk Video: Another Glass of Champagne, Please?
Classism, as with other forms of oppression, can be internalized, creating low self-esteem, low expectations, discouragement, and lead to bitterness towards others and can further divide communities. Individuals can also tend to find scapegoats by blaming others, which continues the cycle of classism’s negative impacts, particularly in tough economic times. This results in attention being diverted away from the real damaging policies that benefit the powerful and elite while blaming the working poor, people receiving welfare, and minorities for the woes of society. As a society, we rarely address classism as a form of social oppression, as you can read in Classism: America’s Overlooked Problem. Status can be understood as the degree of honor or prestige attached to one’s position in society. When studying class, status, and classism, we can differentiate between different classes in the American society:
  • Ruling Class: The stratum of people who hold positions of power in major institutions of the society.
  • Owning Class: The stratum of families who own incomeproducing assets sufficient to make paid employment unnecessary.
  • UpperMiddle Class: The portion of the middle class with higher incomes due to professional jobs and/or investment income.
  • Middle Class: The stratum of families for whom breadwinners’ higher education and/or specialized skills brings higher income and more security than workingclass people have. 
  • LowerMiddle Class: The portion of the middle class with lower and less stable incomes due to lowerskilled or unstable employment.
  • Working Class: The stratum of families whose income depends on hourly wages for labor, or on other nonmanagerial work or very minor business activity that doesn’t require higher education.
  • Poverty Class: The stratum of families with incomes persistently insufficient to meet basic human needs.
* From: Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice, Second Edition, Routledge, 2007

For additional information, you can read the discussion about classism in part 2 of Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice (2016): Chapter 7 (pages 213-254) offers a discussion about classism, and you can watch the video Classism and Poverty in America’s Schools.

For a discussion about some myths of the “American Dream” and the concepts of meritocracy, please visit: “The Meritocracy Myth”  by McNamee and Miller.

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