Immigration, Class, and Myths about Opportunity in the U.S.

Immigration, Class, and Myths about Opportunity in the U.S.

As a first-generation child of immigrant parents, I can comment with some authority on the subjects of opportunity, class and how true are the myths that have become attached to them. The Washington Post Outlook, “Five Myths” series, “Class in the United States,” by Nancy Isenberg (July 2, 2016), verifies what many of us know–they have been just myths. not truths, from the Nation’s beginning, 240 years ago.
They are (1) The Working Class is White and Male, (2) Most Americans Don’t Notice Class Differences, (3) Class Mobility is Uniquely American, (4) With Talent and Hard Work You Can Rise Above Your Class, (5) Class Oppression Isn’t as Significant as Racial Oppression.

The first four “myths” can be “debunked” easily by looking at any few issues of the Post itself, the NY Times, or a Google search on any of them. Though you will encounter the usual propaganda about “freedom and opportunity” in each search, the “devil is in the details.” Googling Isenberg’s article is a short-cut, if you want to avoid a lot of unnecessary detail.

My point will address mostly the fifth myth—class oppression. She says something that needs saying: …”Sanders said at a debate this spring: ‘when you’re white, you don’t know what it’s like to be living in a ghetto. You don’t know what it’s like to be poor.’ Other commentators have said that black middle-class families are worse off than poor white ones. They’re dead wrong. Americans have a long history of making life harder for the poor, no matter what their race.”

This myth, itself, is not the point. The point IS: that White Americans have been deluded, or deluded themselves, into believing that they THEMSELVES are NOT as poor as blacks and other minorities—even when it is clear that , as Isenberg says, “Jim Crow’s infamous poll tax divested poor whites as well as blacks of the right to vote. During the New Deal, Southern politicians (except Huey Long) refused to extend Social Security to farm laborers, discriminating against blacks and whites alike.” How did this evolve? Even in 2009, she points out that “the top 1% of earners paid 5.2% of their income in state and local taxes, while the POOREST 20% paid 10.9%”, over TWICE as much.

Two American Presidents, make the point:
John Adams, two Centuries ago said, that “Americans needed someone to disparage, “There must be one, indeed, who is the last and lowest….”
And then, here is how it actually happened to millions of poor Americans, if any proof is needed; 175 years later, President Lyndon Johnson concluded this about American whites: “If you can convince the lowest (poorest) white man he’s better that the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’d empty his pockets for you.”
Can we wonder, now, why schools in the South were more poorly supported than those elsewhere? Why facilities were, for both whites and blacks, (and Hispanics as well) inferior to those elsewhere? And are even now still trying to improve?

Some Implications of “Debunking” This Spurious “Equal Opportunity” Belief
Most prosperous Americans, and most US political institutions have justified or at least did not question the real “inequality” that is part of the ”mantra” of “equal opportunity. Whenever “dissidents,” especially those who begin to develop an alternative to the common political religion—LaFollette, Debs, even Roosevelt, Truman and more recent progressives—they are “damned” as anti- democratic, anti-freedom and opposed to equality.
Who does it? Those who have more, but refuse to support “opportunities” to those who seek to better themselves. Why? Because those “might,” just “might,” be able to “pick the pockets” of someone whose pockets are already being picked by themselves. In short—the more wealthy believe there is not enough for them to share, so they prevent others from participating at all. And, of course, they need “someone to “look down” on, as well.

During the lifetimes of the many families and their children who immigrated to the US in the early 20th Century, the automobile replaced the train and ship as primary ways of transporting people. Airplanes now have largely replaced the ships that carried passengers across the world’s seas. Two World Wars and countless other conflicts have not reduced the growth of the world’s human population. Diseases are being better controlled than ever before; food is produced more easily and cheaply. More people are being educated; communication among humans is easier than ever, and commerce is increasing.
But, the environment—never easily controlled—is becoming more obviously affected by what humans do to it. Humanity itself is abusing so much of the earth’s natural resources that there are predictions that the world will end (meaning that human civilizations on it, as we know them) will destroy themselves (or some natural disaster or cosmic visit) will do it. Some predictions leave survivors who might reconstruct civilizations in some way. Others predict regression to “a new start” for whatever “life” (from microbial to less-than-human), survives, if any.

Technology and the science behind it,are in a race to prevent any of this. How many of humanity’s predicted 9 billion people (by 2050) are needed to win this race? As humans are replaced by machines—the process that began about 400 years ago and is increasingly occurring. What will be done with the excess? And can it be done “neatly” and without the way it is now trending—wars, famine, disease—or a more (or less) voluntary (or imposed) process of “preventing” the growth of excess population in places where they are now (inevitably) increasing without controls?

Equal opportunities as an ideal in a democratic society is clearly NOT an absolute, and it has never been one. Why is it being overtly questioned, now? The social, economic, political, and no doubt military decisions to be made are becoming more and more difficult to make. Democratic governments have serious choices to make. They are now being made by votes, referendums, popular expressions of public views and the election of leaders who are not always capable of dealing with the increasing unrest of poorly-informed and “unequal” populations

Some choices are obvious, some less so. Here are questions that will have to be answered, or their NON-answer answered for in the future, by our leaders—elected or not.

1. Is there time enough to educate world (or national) populations to permit guidance that will resolve the “uncontrollable” aspects of living in today’s and tomorrow’s world? Is there a plan, now, for dealing with major natural environmental world-wide disasters?
2. What MUST voters understand and leaders carry out, to maintain the world’s advances in population, communication, technology and science?
3. Can the “dissident” populations of the world be “contained” and diverted into productive or neutral channels sufficiently to continue progress?
4. Can science and technology overcome the economic damage of “destructive capitalism” to maintain a liveable and productive world for a supportable population?
5. Must there be greater control over individuals and groups, and effective sanctions for violations of “human rights” to maintain the current definition of those “rights” and of offenses against them?
6. Finally, the “weapons of mass (mutual) destruction” that now exist, and others more efficient and/or more easily made and used are likely to fall into the hands of those who may believe in some “either my way or…..” and initiate partial or total destruction. Is there, or must there be, a plan, with policies, procedures, responsibilities, and projected outcomes, and who can, should, must, develop, approve, and administer it? (See also, #1, above.)

World-wide Implications
These questions all stem from thoughts relating to the way Western nations now conduct their politics. The recent “Brexit” of the United Kingdom from the European Union was a world-wide economic and political shock. The event itself is not as serious as what it means in the future. The EU’s 26 other members will now have to develop a very different perspective on how they will be able to function within the Union. Looking forward, what should Europe look like in 10 years? Can it deal with the immigration within the EU while controlling external immigrants? Is immigration, world-wide, something that requires more than regional regulation? How difficult will it be to reach a workable solution?

In the US, the issues of dealing with dissident populations will also become increasingly complex. As technology replaces workers jobs will become more difficult to obtain for the less-than-capable or less educated as populations, especially the poor and immigrants, increase. How the US deals with it may be instructive for the rest of the developed and even developing world. But for the other half or more of the world’s nations poverty, disease, internal conflict, and external pressures will make adjustments difficult or impossible.

The world-wide distribution of weapons increases conflicts, but it affects nations differently. Some use them to control populations, while availability to insurgents makes conflict more likely. The problem for developing nations is that conflicts often spread beyond poorly controlled borders. The consequences are clear from the events in the Middle East, and in other parts of Africa. They are also occurring on the southern border of the United States.

In today’s world, conflict seems inevitable. Controlling it is difficult. Sometimes, like in the Middle East, it can be contained but requires action from other nations. Today, the ME situation is fluid, explosive and unpredictable. It may be, however, instructive to us for the future.

Are our internal economic problems related to the World-wide conflicts and political and economic problems of the rest of the world? Clearly, the US in many ways “sets the tone” for the future by its political and economic activity. What will be the outcome of the November elections? Will it be stability or unrest? The election contest between two people should not affect a world-wide preview of the future, but apparently it can, and will.
Those who want stability will need to hope for a positive change in many more of the elections in the states. It is the American Congress that appears to have been the limitation on progress on many issues of trade, economic policy and military action that have affected the entire world. Another four or eight years of political and economic deadlock, and vacillation on the role of the US in the world will result in consequences that cannot yet even be imagined.


John H. Langer, JD, Ed.D. Retired Federal agency manger, former professor of education, public school administrator, and writer of a number of articles and publications on education, public affairs, substance abuse and social issues. In writing a book on attention and memory as it relates to education, this blog is helping to focus attention n current issues, and hopefully, add something useful as well.

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