Money  /  Book Review

Class, Race, and the Formation of Urban Black Communities

A review of three new studies about how race and class intersect.

Americans’ relationship to social class and status is as muddled as the American dream. Just what is class? Just what does class mean regarding aspirations, ethnic identity, education, freedoms, gender, neighborhood, occupation, race, religion, and region? What we know is that most Americans believe themselves to be middle-class even if their median household incomes do not meet the economic thresholds for their respective states. In these cases, class is defined using cultural markers and sociological factors such as marriage, religious affiliation, and the status of an employer. Class in the United States is equal parts aspiration, income, and occupation.

Historically, we know that the idea of class was raced throughout the Americas. In 1676, Virginia, the British colony began ranking class by race through a legal explication which has had remarkable staying power. In the colony unfree laborers, indentured and the enslaved, ended up in a messy rebellion known as Bacon’s Rebellion. The rebellion was a hypocritical land grab by a privileged Englishman against indigenous communities. The reason laborers joined the rebellion was they saw an opportunity to end their exploitation from tobacco’s back-breaking work regime.

Like so many peasant and slave rebellions over the centuries, this one failed. It, however, put the fear of God in the large agriculture landowners because the coalescing of the indentured and the enslaved—the Bakongo, Fante, Irish, Igbo, Ibibio, Scots, Welsh, and Yoruba—joined in rebellion together to overthrow the punishing labor regime. This insurgency kept the agricultural elite in a cold sweat. They and the British Crown shared horrid nightmares of their profitable investments being confiscated and divided among laborers. In the aftermath of the insurrection, the colonial court ruled that laborers were to be defined by race. African ethnics would be marked permanently as the lowest laborers, slaves. Their black skin or mixed-race heritage both identified them and defined their status as enslaved. Moreover, this legal definition was gendered. Matrilineally, if one’s mother were enslaved so were her children. On the other hand, British ethnics—Irish, Scots, and Welsh—were quasi “free” at least from lifetime servitude but not exploitation. They were ruled “white.” Though enslaved and indentured laborers shared similar fates as exploited laborers, this legal precedent followed everyone including their mutual and different descendants well into the twenty-first century. This seventeenth-century legal precedent was not exceptional as is popularly overstated. Historically the Dutch, French, Portuguese, and Spanish, all British imperial rivals, enshrined racist hierarchy into law to attain a monopoly on unfree labor as early as the fifteenth century. Class, gender, and race were never inseparable.