American Fault Lines and a Silver Lining

by Jonathan J.B. Mijs, Harvard University

The pandemic has had an uneven impact across the U.S. — exacerbating existing inequalities and creating new political challenges. The following are three American fault lines laid bare by the coronavirus, and one silver lining. 1. For millions of Americans, staying at home is a luxury they cannot afford. The comfort and well-being of all Americans depends on grocery clerks, delivery drivers and factory workers putting their own safety second. While the upper middle classes take their work with them, working and middle class Americans are tethered to their jobs: Bureau of Labor Statistics (2018) show that 52 percent of college-educated people can work from home, as compared to just 12 percent of workers with a high school degree, and 4 percent of those without. The same line cuts across race. White Americans are twice as likely as African Americans or Latinos to have the option to work remotely. The coronavirus highlights just one dimension of the increasingly polarized U.S. labor market that offers high compensation and autonomy to a lucky few, and precarious employment for the rest, marked by low-wages, little to no benefits, and a lack of control or security. 2. The government’s slow response to the coronavirus almost certainly cost lives, but arguably the most consequential government action dates back more than half a century. Since 1942, health care in the U.S. has been tied to employment. Across the developed world, losing your job means relying on unemployment benefits, subsidized housing, food banks. In America, it may mean losing your right to health care. As is, a fifth of Americans without a high school degree do not have health insurance, compared to just 3 percent of college graduates (US Census Bureau 2018). Lack of access to mental health care and addiction treatment are part of why those without a college degree are four times as likely to die a “death of despair,” by suicide, alcoholism or drug abuse (Case & Deaton 2020).

While awaiting the final death count of this pandemic, epidemiologists report that past flu and tuberculosis epidemics especially hurt low-income communities that lacked access to health care. In low-income communities, rates of preexisting conditions are higher, the uninsured may delay or forgo care, and medical services, already stretched thin, may be unable to provide treatment. These are neighborhoods like Jackson Heights and Corona, Queens, which account for almost triple the rate of cases as nearby Manhattan. Economic deprivation leads to higher mortality and exacerbates rates of transmission, jeopardizing all members of society. 3. While the President blames the coronavirus on China, the Surgeon General hones in on communities of color, urging them to avoid alcohol, tobacco and drugs. Their words reveal a tendency to blame people instead of circumstances. Scapegoats help maintain Americans’ belief in a just world, where successful people pull themselves up by their bootstraps and poor people face hardship because of bad decisions. My research shows a growing number of Americans believe that hard work is all that stands between failure and success (Mijs 2019). The daily discrimination experienced by Asian Americans, sometimes singled out as culprits of the pandemic, is a reminder of the “probational nature” of immigrants’ existence. In normal times they face stereotypes, but in times of crisis they are to blame. As Mia Tuan (1999) puts it, it is a hard fall from model minority to “forever foreign” — one that American history shows is never too far away.

The Politics of Losing: Trump, the Klan, and the Mainstreaming of Resentment

McVeigh, Rory and Kevin Estep. 2019. The Politics of Losing: Trump, the Klan, and the Mainstreaming of Resentment.  New York: Columbia University Press.

Politics of LosingThe Ku Klux Klan has peaked three times in American history: after the Civil War, around the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, and in the 1920s, when the Klan spread farthest and fastest. Recruiting millions of members even in non-Southern states, the Klan’s nationalist insurgency burst into mainstream politics. Almost one hundred years later, the pent-up anger of white Americans left behind by a changing economy has once again directed itself at immigrants and cultural outsiders and roiled a presidential election.

In The Politics of Losing, Rory McVeigh and Kevin Estep trace the parallels between the 1920s Klan and today’s right-wing backlash, identifying the conditions that allow white nationalism to emerge from the shadows. White middle-class Protestant Americans in the 1920s found themselves stranded by an economy that was increasingly industrialized and fueled by immigrant labor. Mirroring the Klan’s earlier tactics, Donald Trump delivered a message that mingled economic populism with deep cultural resentments. McVeigh and Estep present a sociological analysis of the Klan’s outbreaks that goes beyond Trump the individual to show how his rise to power was made possible by a convergence of circumstances. White Americans’ experience of declining privilege and perceptions of lost power can trigger a political backlash that overtly asserts white-nationalist goals. The Politics of Losing offers a rigorous and lucid explanation for a recurrent phenomenon in American history, with important lessons about the origins of our alarming political climate.

When Race Race Meets Class: African Americans Coming of Age in a Small City

Levine, Rhonda F. 2019. When Race Race Meets Class: African Americans Coming of Age in a Small City. Routledge.

When Race Meets ClassA rare, 15-year ethnography, this book follows the lives of individual, low-income African American youth from the beginning of high school into their early adult years. Levine shows how their interaction and experience with multiple institutions (family, school, community) and individuals (parents, friends, teachers, coaches, strangers) shape their hopes, fears, aspirations, and worldviews. The intersectionality of their social identities—how race, class, and gender come together to influence how they come to think about who they are—influences many behaviors that directly contradict their stated aspirations. Affected, too, by limited access to resources, these youths often take a path profoundly different from their stated values and life goals. Levine explores the volatility and constraints underlying their decision-making and behaviors. The book reveals the critical junctures and turning points shaping life trajectories, challenging many long-held assumptions about the persistence of racial inequality by offering new insights on the educational and occupational barriers facing young African Americans.