A Close Look at Growing Income Inequality in the U.S.

Timothy Noah does a great job over at Slate, breaking down the growing income inequality that has marked recent U.S. economic history. Slate is running a multi-part series on the growing income gap, called, The Great Divergence: What’s Causing America’s Growing Income Inequality? So far, the first and second entries are posted. They are:

Introducing The Great Divergence, and

The Usual Suspects are Innocent

Both are excellent, and I especially appreciate that Noah makes note of the fact that in the much more equal 1950s (speaking now in terms of income disparities), the “equity” was really only for whites. In all, although wealth disparities are an even bigger deal than income gaps (far larger, far more racially stratified, and far more corrosive to democratic and civil society), this is still a helpful examination of a disturbing trend. There are also good charts and visuals in the series to really highlight the extent of the problem.


11 Responses to “A Close Look at Growing Income Inequality in the U.S.”

  1. I just read them before I came here. Something you might like to address, from the second article: “…the Great Divergence can’t be blamed on either race or gender. To contribute to the growth in income inequality over the past three decades, the income gaps between women and men, and between blacks and whites, would have to have grown. They didn’t.”

    To address it, you’ll have to say something about capitalism, which doesn’t seem to be one of your usual subjects. I think the unwillingness to criticize capitalism is the great flaw of modern anti-racism. Malcolm X and Martin Luther King were both quite critical:

    “…capitalism has often left a gulf between superfluous wealth and abject poverty, has created conditions permitting necessities to be taken from the many to give luxuries to the few, and has encouraged small-hearted men to become cold and conscienceless so that, like Dives before Lazarus, they are unmoved by suffering, poverty-stricken humanity.” —Martin Luther King

    “It’s impossible for a white person to believe in capitalism and not believe in racism. You can’t have capitalism without racism. And if you find one and you happen to get that person into conversation and they have a philosophy that makes you sure they don’t have this racism in their outlook, usually they’re socialists or their political philosophy is socialism.” —Malcolm X/El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz

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    Tim Reply:

    I don;t disagree with you about capitalism, and actually I talk about it often in my speeches, such as the one that has been most prominently featured on You Tube and elsewhere, when I discuss the way the class needs of elites made the creation of whiteness and reification of race “necessary.” As per this series on growing inequality, however, it would be wrong to simply say, “well. that’s capitalism,” and leave it at that. This series at Slate is not about race at all, so I’m not sure why your comments about race and class apply here. What the series does show is that things have gotten worse since the early 70s…now, that isn’t because we just became capitalist: we were also capitalist in the 40s and 50s, when income inequity was shrinking. The difference — and maybe this was your point — is that the form capitalism has taken in the past 35 years or so has become more predatory (agreed), more globalized (agreed), and the de facto bargain in place between capital and labor after WWII was shattered by the mid to late 70s. About all that I agree, and I hope that the author of the series makes that argument: we’ll see I suppose.

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    will shetterly Reply:

    Tim, thanks. I think we’re in agreement so far.

    I have a general frustration with capitalist anti-racism: it focuses on racism rather than the reasons for racism. Martin Luther King’s old observation is still true: “In the treatment of poverty nationally, one fact stands out: there are twice as many white poor as Negro poor in the United States.” The US’s upper class is more racially diverse than it has ever been, yet the gap between rich and poor is greater than it’s been in nearly 100 years. Black folks in poverty aren’t fooled: “African Americans see a widening gulf between the values of middle class and poor blacks, and nearly four-in-ten say that because of the diversity within their community, blacks can no longer be thought of as a single race.”

    Yet capitalist anti-racists continue to focus on making the class system racially proportionate rather than ending it.

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    Tim Reply:

    Indeed, I think we are in substantial agreement in fact

    Frederic Christie Reply:

    I’ve actually never bought that capitalism is THE reason for racism.

    People were killing each other on the grounds of tribal and ethnic distinctions for millenia before capitalism was even an idea. Yes, the names and faces have changed, the racial taxonomies have changed (showing how arbitrary they are), but racism is not caused by capitalism. It existed before it, though not before economic exploitation more generally.

    Rather, I think it’s far more accurate to say that all these spheres of life (gender/kinship, race, economic, and state) interact dialectically, in really complex ways.

    Frederic Christie Reply:

    Yeah, I think it’s facile to blame capitalism per se, though it IS the culprit. It’s just too easy. It’s important to identify which particular policies and arrangements…

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    Will Shetterly Reply:

    For some reason, I can reply to this, but not to your other comment, so:

    Tribalism is not racism. You can join a tribe, but you can’t join a race.

    If you’d like to learn about the birth of racism, you might start by googling the historian Eric Williams, who wrote, “Slavery was not born of racism: rather, racism was the consequence of slavery.”

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    Tim Reply:

    Sorry about the reply limitations…not sure what’s going on there…

    I agree with your assessment about racism and its origins: no doubt about it Will, racism was the result of slavery not it’s cause. I have tried to make this argument for at least a decade, and make it quite blatantly in my 2003 essay, compiled in the book “Should America Pay?” (which explores the subject of reparations). I think this is a critical point, and I appreciate you reminding us of it…

    Frederic Christie Reply:

    So what? Tribes eventually become hardened so that they don’t become that way. And ethnicities are RARELY that way: If you’re born Italian, you’re Italian. Above and beyond being white.

    Anyways, it’s a trivial distinction. Basically, people have hated each other for purely or largely non-economic, non-religious, non-political reasons for millenia. We have a natural tendency to sort by in group and out group.

    The modern idea of races being distinct things enforced by genetics with the specific taxonomies we have (black, Asian, etc.) is of course novel. But you could get rid of that AND of economic exploitation and still have people hate each other because of national origin. Certainly to deny that nationalism, even independent of racism, has been a toxic element of

    Further, this notion is really Western Eurocentric. For people in the Balkans, the white-black barrier is almost a non-issue. The Croat/Serb/Albanian distinction dominated their life. In Africa, tribal hatreds like Hutu and Tutsi were similarly inflamed. (Yes, I am aware of the way that Europeans amplified native racisms through their own silly racial/tribal taxonomy and through the nation-state system, but both tribes existed before Europeans arrived).

    Whether you were Mongol or not, Turk or not, Aryan or not, MATTERED before capitalism was even a dream.

    I insist on this point because people want to say that racism is a creation of the economic system, and to run with that by implying that if we deal with economic elites, we deal with racism.

    Not necessarily.

    We have multiple spheres of inequity. Just like you can solve material inequality and still have women lead pretty rotten existences, or solve class distinction and still have political elites dominating people in tyrannical arrangements, or solve the problem of a capitalist class defined by ownership but not solve the problem of a techno-managerial class defined by access to privileged information and knowledge, you can solve economic inequality and power problems and still have people hate each other for cultural and racial reasons.

    The failure to realize this is why leftists keep getting the problem of dealing with race wrong. We try to say, “You just don’t get it. If you worked with black folks, your wages would go up!” Well, sorry, they just don’t care. Until you deal with the problem of WHY they hate and fear black folks, and value their PSYCHOLOGICAL wage of being better than other people, you won’t bring them to your side no matter how much you bribe them.

    A key insight here is that, while elites created racism, they can’t UNCREATE it. A reason MLK and the movement was able to get the political successes they got was because elite interests necessitated, for a variety of reasons, a reduction in old-school Racism 1.0-style discrimination and segregation. But poor whites would fight tooth and nail even when large portions of the business class realized they needed to abandon it. The ultimate example is the Nazis: The aristocrats and business elites thought that they could use the Nazis as a weapon. But the combination of nationalism, militarism and racism was ultimately harmful even to German elite interests. They didn’t want to see Hitler in charge. They got it.

    Similarly, modern business elites really don’t want a fascistic theocratic uprising. But they’re doing everything in their power to make sure they get it.

    Even if racism was created by elites, it now has its own vital lifeforce and has to be dealt with on its own terms. But I still think the failure to see that insight has to do with the more general problem the Left has of failing to understand gender, race/culture, economics and politics as all fundamentally equal spheres of institutional life that play on each other dialectically, rather than this mythical idea that a small elite group could magically control an entire culture…

  2. Hey Tim,

    I just wanted to say that I LOVE reading your work and that i greatly appreciate your activism.

    Do you know of a scholar named Heather macdonald? It seems like her work says everything OTHER than what you say. Take a look at her writing on racial profiling

    http://www.city-journal.org/2010/eon0514hm.html

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    Tim Reply:

    I’ve seen it, and responded to aspects of it in my previous work in a few places. I think there are two articles in particular where I take on her profiling nonsense. If you search her name in the search function of my site, they should pop up

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