Race and Class Parallelism

Herbert A. Miller
Ohio State University

IT has been a popular form of experiment lately to try to select cigarettes when blindfolded. The result has generally demonstrated that the popularity of various brands of cigarettes has been built on their labels rather than on their taste. This does not prove that there may not be differences in the tobacco, but the differences are not evident to the taste, which is considered to be the one thing that counts in such matters.

In estimates of race much the same situation prevails. Qualities that we thought were inherently different are really not discoverable if we are blindfolded. To be sure, just as with the tobacco, there may be differences, but they are not the differences we have thought them to be. Every day it becomes more difficult to tell what a race ís. It is almost an hypothetical concept, of which something may be left after the characteristics which have generally been called racial are explained, without the necessity of using race as an explanation.

Such analyses of the problem are proceeding in many directions. The purpose of this paper is to study the label race in terms of class. Many of our concepts of race were lifted bodily from older notions of class which were thoroughly crystallized long before there was any popular notion of race in the present sense with which it is used. In other words, what we call the race problem is, to a very large degree, the mere inheritance of vocabulary and attitudes which prevailed when class organization was the accepted order of society.


The first race contacts did not attract attention to the fact of race as we now know it. Marco Polo, for example, was interested in the customs of the Chinese and apparently did not notice their race.

Race theories did not develop until the relations between race groups raised class problems. Then rationalizations were made for the explanation and maintenance of the social system. Now that there is some debunking of class lines based on race, the protagonists of status are girding themselves much as the cigarette advertisers have reacted after recent blindfold experiments.

There is nothing more disorganizing than the rearranging of status. Our habits and characters are formed in harmony with it. This is the reason it is so difficult for people to look calmly at the race question. It is not a scientific question, but rather a form of social organization,—not a theory, but a condition.

Under a class system the criterion of membership is birth. It is an inescapable condition which fixes status. Where there is no caste status an individual may be born into any position, but he may leave it if he is able. Under a caste system it is as difficult to leave one's status as it is to leave one's race.

The traditions of America grew out of a reaction against class domination, and the economic opportunities, almost to the present, have made it easy to escape from ideas of class. There may

(2) now be a wide departure in fact from the early ideal, but there is still no better asset for a candidate for th( presidency of the United States than to have been born poor. These tradítions make it difficult to see the actual conditions.

In a class organization there is the assumption of superiority with right: and responsibilities on the one side, and the acceptance of inferiority with it duties and limitations on the other, To a large extent both sides make adjustments without effort or awareness, Codes of conduct develop on both sides, When the wife of an American consul in central Europe was remonstrating with her cook, whose moral conduct was shocking, and tried to point a moral by referring to herself, the cook was surprised and said, "But you are Herrshaften." The servant class code was different from the gentleman's code. It is just as much assumed that the Negro will have a different code. On the other hand, we have the assumption that gentlemen and white people are governed by their own standards.

The argument for the maintenance of medieval classes called for an explanation of their origin by birth, and these arguments had been gaining momentum as the movement for democracy began to emerge. Those who were trying to maintain the old order introduced the same kind of rationalization that is now used by those who are trying to maintain race superiority, and, on the other side, those who were struggling for democracy countered with the same arguments as those who are striving for race equality.

Abbé Síeyes says in his pamphlet inaugurating the French revolution, in reply to the claims of the other side: "Why not drive back into the forest all those families holding the absurd notion that they are descended from the conquering race and have, therefore,inherited the privileges of conquerors? It seems to me that the nation thus purified will be able to take comfort in the thought that it henceforth consists exclusively of the descendants of the Gauls and the Romans."[1]


The crux of both class and race conditions is the notion of higher and lower, superior and inferior, and the body of justifications do not vary. My contention is that the class formulations were developed first, and merely appropriated when race consciousness in its modern form appeared. What we really mean by higher and lower races are higher and lower classes, and the only thing that race has to do with it is as an advertising label before which it is difficult to be blindfolded. The racial cult and the accompanying vocabulary have been built up for the purpose of maintaining class supremacy. As Hertz says, in Germany race theories "served as welcome weapons against democracy."

The very use of the term higher and lower race plunges us at once into the category of class. Whatever the basis of the determination of the level, we always find that one group is dominating the other, either by economic power, or by political or social prestige. When the system is once established the dominating group makes some claim to birth for justification. There is enough mystery and theological associations about birth to raise it to the level of divine sanction. When the dominating group is put on the defensive, it calls on high heaven to prove its case. Each class in Europe that has lost its position of power has made its claim to divine approval for its continuance in power. This is exactly what is now going on in the relation of

(3) races. Where no question arises about the level of races, there is no race question.

In the history of the races in America conditions have supported the idea of class levels. We speak of the immigrants as members of a different race, and at the same time consider them as belonging to a lower class. As a matter of fact this is exactly what they have been. The immigrant has in each of his waves of arrival gone into the lowest economic level and been dominated and exploited so long as he has stayed at that level. When he has learned the language, and his children have acquired the manners of Americans, it has been possible under the democratic conditions of America for him to escape in some degree.

The colored races, however, have found it more difficult to escape simply because people have not been blindfolded. The history of each of the races in America,—black, red, and yellow, has made class attitudes normal and has contributed much to the discussion of race that has nothing whatever to do with it.

The Indian did not fit into any scheme of equality. The European whites who came here were troubled by the inconvenience he caused. His culture was not thought worth considering and so he was driven outside the pale unless some way could be found to fit him into old world measures of aristocracy. Pocahontas, by being called a princess, became the acceptable ancestor of hosts of Americans with a touch of bronze in their skins. The Indian is actually a"lower" culture group in America, exploitable and negligible, though Council Rings, and children's feather bordered clothes, along with heroic stories, indicate a tendency in the other direction, which, however, cannot effect much change until the Indian has actually become culturally and economically comparable with the descendants of Europe.

The Chinese and Japanese are like the European immigrants who were brought here to occupy lowly positions. They have actually done very lowly work. Most of the racial handicaps which Chinese and Japanese students suffer are due to the attitude towards Chinese laundrymen, and to what is known about the position of the Oriental on the Pacific Coast. The Oriental in America to a large degree represents a specific social class even within the yellow race.

The Negro case is the most clean cut. His presence here is known to have resulted from his having been brought into the lowest possible social class, that of the slave. The habits and attitudes which were generated during the two centuries of slavery constitute a culture complex in both races which does not need color for its explanation, but of which color is an inescapable sign.

There is no difference between the way the southern Negro takes off his hat when the white man passes, and the way the east European peasant does his obeisance when a person of the upper class comes along. The Negro who is now speaking of "our group" rather than using the racial name, Negro, formally stimulates a consciousness of kind which increases the persistence of the attitudes, though he is feeling towards something more real.


Class categories have constantly been applied to the relations of whites and Negroes. The objection to intermarriage is assumed to be a racial objection, but it certainly is not a biological objection, or there would not be so many people of mixed blood. It is merely a class objection, and strong as it is, it is no stronger than has pre-

(4) -vailed between clearly defined classes within the same race. Often we have cases of interracial marriages between the high born, and it does not cause more than a ripple of comment. When an American girl recently married a very rich Maharaja of India, even the fact that he already had several wives did not cause much disgust, and the fact of race was hardly mentioned. A number of East Indian, Chinese, and Japanese scholars have married Caucasian women without social disturbance. Racial intermarriages offend class organization and as the culture of the various races now stands this condition will prevail for some time.

In their origin classes were quite generally the result of war. When a victory had been obtained the conquered were enslaved or exploited. The attitudes that were developed out of this relation became very persistent. In 1912 I asked my guide, in Vienna, where the two hundred thousand Bohemians in the city lived. He did not know, but added hastily, trying to save me from losing caste by having asked such an unimportant question, "They are only the servant class, like your Negroes." One time I called on Postmaster General Burleson with a very eminent European, who said as we came out, "Mr. Burleson talks just like a European ' landlord." The lower class, to Mr. Burleson, were the Bohemians in his neighborhood in Texas. When I was a boy in Massachusetts, the region where the Irish lived was looked upon exactly as the Negro section is now regarded.


Another aspect of the parallelism is the reactions of both the lower class and the lower race. Until something has aroused in them a consciousness of the possibility of change, both lower class and lower race acquiesce, and adjust themselves without questions; or they may turn to religion for comfort and merely accept the inscrutable ways of God. Later they both may turn to a materialistic socialism as a substitute for religion. While the ruling group undoubtedly has put over religious doctrines as propaganda in its own behalf, the victims have themselves enlarged their own theology as a means of rationalizing their hardships. This accounts for the exaggerated emphasis which the Jews have given to the claim to be "chosen people." The Negro spirituals and folk stories also contain some of the same thing. It is compensation but at the same time it is not without an element of approval of things as they are.

The real issue, however, begins when the class and the race are in incipient or open revolt. Psychological processes of both groups are the same. Both need to be aroused by appeals to group self-expression. The types of agitators are the same in both cases; some are idealistic intellectuals, some are practical politicians, and some are ranters. Both suffer from psychological distortions which I have called oppression psychosis. The struggle for race equality is scarcely begun but it has to contend with the same lethargy that the class movement has met.

In socialism the two movements are merged. Although individual socialists may have race prejudice, the socialist philosophy has been equally insistent on the breaking down of classes within races and between races. The races have not yet turned to socialism as much as the working classes have done, but the philosophers of the movement have identified the two causes, and their arguments have helped to show the intimate relation of the two groups. Socialism will undoubtedly do more for both groups than religion will be able to do.


Another parallel is to be found in the attitude of liberals. The class movement has always had leaders who have come from the upper classes, and in the movement for race equality many of the leaders occupy the best places in the dominant race. There is a similar movement on the part of the churches. While the church in general may be conservative in matters of class organization, out on the front fringe there are champions who coöperate with those within the ranks. In the race situation we observe the same thing, so that both within and without the two groups there are people who are unwilling to accept status as they find it.

The status of the intellectual and the artist is similar. This may be seen if we take the immigrant as a class. It is difficult for the intellectual of either group to find a place where he will be appreciated. The gap between himself and his own people is wide, so he leads a lonesome existence unless he happens to be an artist and then he has some vogue, but he is not taken completely in. Paderewski may not be conscious of a lack of acceptance as Rowland Hayes is, but Paderewski turns to Poles, even ignorant ones, to find some of his satisfactions. The outstanding individual in either group is a disturber of complacency and plays an important part in the reorganization of relationships.

The real identity of the two problems makes interchangeable the press, the agitator, the youth, the preacher, the psychopath, the arguments, the defenses, and the pseudoscientists. Blindfolded, you could not tell the difference.


  1. Hertz, "Race and Civilization," Macmillan, 1928, p. 5.

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