One of the ills of American capitalism is the growing concentration of wealth in the hands of a few. At this very moment, the gap between rich and poor has never been wider, and it is only growing. As we are unable to even broach the discussion of maximum wages, we frequently argue over raising the minimum wage. These conversations quickly turn to ad hominems aimed at a lazy, unmotivated working class, who, but for their disinterest, would not need such legislation. Thus, we are never going to move forward and pass meaningful living wage legislation at the federal and state levels if we do not understand what cultural and human biases are chiefly fueling dissent.
Often, when Confederate apologists talk about the Antebellum South, they mention how not all white people owned slaves at the time. In fact, just 25% of white families owned slaves. Yet, in 1860, poor and working class southern whites who would never earn enough to own a slave outright advocated and fought for the right to continue their “peculiar institution” in Confederate uniforms. They did this despite the fact that the institution of slavery was economically terrible for them. Moral issues aside, the free labor of an entire race of people depressed pay for unskilled white workers in the south.
So, why did poor whites go to war for this policy that was bad for them economically? The simplest reason, and the most generous, is that it is a natural instinct to want to feel superior to others. Competition is an innate quality of human beings, and the legislation dehumanizing Blacks at the time made every and any white man above every single person of color. Thankfully, for enslaved Blacks and for poor whites, slavery was abolished and both parties benefitted.
Advocates for a living wage are faced with a similar conundrum.
The anger advocates for a living wage receive goes hand in hand with the strong feelings felt towards those receiving government assistance, whether it be food stamps, WIC, or affordable housing. There is a general consensus that these people are lazy, unmotivated, or fraudulent. This is a conspiracy peddled by the wealthy to put the lower classes, those living in extreme poverty and the working poor, at odds with one another. These lies are told to make the lower classes aspire to the wealthy’s status, although doing so requires their underpaid labor and acceptance of a system that disadvantages them still, though not to the extent of the wholly destitute.
This is not to say that people do not need to be inspired to achieve greatness, commercial or personal. There is a human need for motivation and success stories, but we should be critical of the subconscious messaging of who is privileged and who, if anyone, must be triumphed over for one’s own success.
Trump and others like him want underpaid workers to think reaching their level of wealth is possible, instead of questioning the merits and economical implications of multi-millionaires and billionaires accumulating such vast amounts of money. We are not supposed to be angry at the extreme concentration of wealth that is creating dynasties in our country, we are supposed to aspire, and in the process tear down those who are not climbing the socioeconomic ladder as quickly as we think they should, or can. Trump instead wants us to be angry and fearful at those below us, who are aspiring to improve their station in life.
President Lyndon B. Johnson once said: “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and and he’ll empty his pockets for you.” When we keep this simple truth central to our discussions on raising the minimum wage, we protect against falling into the tropes of those whose greed has blinded them to the plight and hard work of others, as well as the human instinct to keep others down in order to lift ourselves up.