The United States of America is considered to be the melting point of diverse cultures and traditions. However, there exists an internal dynamics within it which leads to an unequal status quo and a skewed hierarchy. The society in USA is stratified on various grounds but predominantly by race, class, politics and gender. In this article, different paradigms presented by scholars like Michael Omi, Howard Winant on race, Patricia Hill Collins, Joan Acker on gender and Julian A. Pitt-Rivers on race, colour and class have been presented. Questions such as: what leads to the promotion and maintenance of these stratified pillars in the society, how does it impact the country’s economy, society and culture and what effect does it have on the residents and the immigrants living in the country; all these have been tried to cater to in this article.
The term ‘social stratification’ in sociology is analogous with geological stratification. As rocks of different nature and formation are stacked one on top of the other forming distinct strata, similarly society can and has been understood through a vertical division of the members of society based on the caste, class, race, ethnicity, gender etc. The US society also showcases similar patterns of stratification. It is laid on the pillars with different permutations of power, property and prestige. Thus, to understand these strata, one has to delve deeper into the operationalization of the domains like race, class, gender etc.
History behind Stratification
The present trend of any subject can be best understood by following the trajectory of its history. In the United States, the stratification was largely the result of the racial inequality. It has led to the brunt form of slavery, dividing the society. In the 17th century, Africans were brought to the US colonies to work as laborers in the agricultural domain. This system was retained on the basis of birth where the children of slaves were considered as the ‘Chattel’ of the landowners. Thus, in the US Society, Chattel Slavery was the most dominant form. Though the trend of slave trade diminished in 1808, but the slavery still persisted. It continued till the ratification of the 13th Amendment in the year 1865. Though this year was marked to end the Civil Rights Movement but it failed in its attempt to end slavery in the US. Besides that Jim Crow Segregation Laws institutionalized and legitimized the racial discrimination since 1877 to 1960s. These laws marginalized the Afro-Americans living in the Southern United States as it barred them from right to vote, job, education, opportunities etc. Thus, these attempts strengthened the foundations of stratification in the US society historically.
Stratification in US society based upon:
Race: Race has different contexts in different societies. In the 18th and the 19th century, the race was thought of as a biological concept however the inequalities that it laid in all the societies, made it lies more into a socially originated domain. Max Weber and Franz Boas are the strong proponents of the same. For them, the race is indeed a pre-eminently socio-historical concept. On observing the US society, it can be noted that the Whites are seen as a ‘pure’ category and any racial intermixture there, makes one ‘Non-White’. For example – The Negros. The wide-ranging meanings of ‘Black’ in the United States, refers to all ‘Non-Whites’ encompassing Asian as well as Afro-Caribbean regions. Deeply analyzing the core country like America, Michael Omi and Howard Winant stated that without a racial identity in the US, one is in danger of having no identity. They also discussed in length about the ‘racial etiquette’ which refers to a set of interpretative codes and racial meanings which operate in the interactions of their daily life. These rules implies to the presentation of self, distinctions of status, and appropriate codes of conduct in the US society however these discriminations are ideological in nature.
In the culture of the United States, racial beliefs operate as a way of explaining the variations in human nature. The skin colour differences are assumed to explain the natural differences of intellect, physical and artistic temperaments and also justifies the discriminatory basis. The subalterns of the racial ladder in the United States is believed to be evolved with the progression of racial slavery. By the end of the seventeenth century, Africans were considered to be “black” people and were exploited to its zenith on the basis of racial discrimination. According to the report released by the National Library of Medicine, it stated that 57% of the Blacks faced discrimination in salary and promotion domains. Besides that, 60% of the Black Americans have been sexually harassed and ill-treated because of their racial difference. All these discriminatory practices clearly showcases the operationalization of race in the US society.
Class: In American Society, class plays an important role in stratifying the social structure. Class is more likely to be evaluated on the socio-economic status of an individual. It is premised on one’s income, occupation, education and lifestyle. Though there exists a fine line of difference between the clubbing of class groups in the US society , but can be roughly divided into four types – the Upper Class, the Middle Class, the Working Class and the Lower Class. The concept of ‘Old Money’ i.e. the generational wealth and the ‘New Money’ i.e. money earned through hard work, perseverance etc., also deepens the divide between these classes.
These American social class structure is highly pedestaled on Capitalism which divides the society into the Bourgeoisie and Proletariats. Besides that, the class differences are created due to the notions of Ethnocentrism present in the Whites. They deprive the non-Whites from getting access to higher education, better employment opportunities and viable lifestyle to live in. These carry the historical baggage on an individual. Thus, the chances for the upward social mobility is relatively less flexible. However superficially, it may seem that US society is based on egalitarian principles of equality and equity but reality shows a different picture altogether.
Gender: Patricia Hill Collins and Jean Ait Belkhir stated that there is need to recognize race, class, and gender as interlocking categories of analysis in order to understand the subordination and damnation of an individual in the society. In the United States of America; institutional, symbolic and individual dimensions of oppressions are clearly visible. A perfect example of an institutionalized oppression can be observed in the form of slavery within the American society. Slavery was the prototype of patriarchal domination, establishing white male authority and control of white male property. It stripped off the black population of their legal, educational or property rights and besides that, they also suffered economic exploitation at the hands of the whites. The symbolic oppression in the US society is justified through the socially sanctioned ideologies like men are smart, aggressive and women are passive, dull and weak. A ‘women of colour’ or working class or poor white women do not have the luxury of being termed as ‘feminine’ as the high class white women. Such norms tend to be portrayed as natural, normal or “true” and seem to be a universal language in the United States. The individual oppressions account for operating within the symbolic and institutional structures as all individuals have their unique biographies of oppression that narrate the cumulative effect of their own lives within these structures of oppression. At ground level, non- white women are deprived from getting access to high-paying jobs, better quality education and a feasible lifestyle. Besides that, in comparison to man, they are always subordinated and subjugated. According to the Pew Research Centre report, about 42% of the women in the United States have faced discrimination in jobs based on gender differences. There has always been an attempt by the patriarchs to suppress women from holding top-notch positions in the society. Gender, thus, acts as an important pillar on which the superstructure of stratification rests upon.
Immigrant and Citizenship: Throughout history, it has been observed that Americans have always been suspicious of the immigrants. It was evident through the acts like the Alien Enemies Act, the Sedition Act, the Naturalization Act and the Alien Act. African, Irish, Japanese immigrants were ostracized in the United States. In 1924, the US Congress passed the law named National Origins Act, which restricted the number of immigrants to 2% of the foreign-born population in the US. When the Great Depression hit the American Economy, they blamed the immigrants for the economic chaos. The popular slogan of ‘American Jobs for Real Americans’ reached its peak. Besides that, the Wagner Act of 1935 prohibited the Latin, Asian and Black immigrants to organize amd mobilize unions. Several Acts like National Housing Act, the Federal Highway Act etc. showed that America welcomes immigrant’s labour and not immigrants. It was quite evident through the Bracero Program of 1942 which provides temporary employments to immigrants. However, their children weren’t allowed to attend the public schools, not were their parents allowed to attend the facilities of public health care etc. Despite these discrimination, one also faces brutal atrocities. Under the garb of social security, multiple jobs in the US are reserved for the Americans exclusively. The immigrants are still assigned lower prestige jobs in the society. These patterns of discrimination based on immigration and citizenship even exists today. A report by CNN (2022) stated that the Black immigrants are more likely to be denied American citizenship than the Whites. Nicole Morgan, an associate-attorney at RAICES said that:
‘As a Black person and an immigration attorney who works inside detention centers, I know that Black immigrants are being brutalized, dehumanized, and rendered invisible by the system.’ His statement brought the reality to a larger world.
Impact: The roots of stratification has reached to every nook and corner of the US society. None of the domains has been left untouched. Education, which was quite instrumental in achieving the upper social mobility, has now been moulded to favour the elites. The compulsion of English as the language medium, the skewed in-school environment, the deliberate move of keeping higher fees, the favoritism towards the American students, portrayal of regionalism etc. all these showcases the ways which is implemented to make the non-natives vulnerable. Besides that, the health benefits that an American employee enjoy is often deprived in cases of Africans, Asians and other non-native residents. Besides that, it was seen that the discrimination also persisted in the public health care system where the immigrants and the Blacks were treated badly. They were discriminated on the basis of income, weight, age, education and race. Due to the legacy of the cultural capital and the benefits of the ‘old money’, it becomes easier for the elites to reach the higher social positions and block the way for the non-Whites. The stratification in the US society is the result of the social, political and economic intersection altogether and thereby opens up the realm of subjugation for the subalterns in the US.
Race, class and gender are interlinked categories of analysis and thus becomes extremely important in the understanding of operationalization of stratification in the US society. It can be concluded that though American society seems to be highly advanced in the technological and economic domains, it is yet to achieve a lot in the social, political and economic domain. The realization of the ‘American Dream of equal opportunity to all’ is still a far-fetched reality though the US Congress has come up with many initiatives to achieve the ‘American Dream’. Several Acts like Equal Pay Act (1963), Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (1964) , Immigration Reform and Control Act (1986), the establishment of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission etc.; all these acts have been implemented to provide a safer, inclusive environment to all.
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