From Volume 76, Number 4 (May 2003)
There has been a recent resurgence of interest in class in legal scholarship. This development might have been predictable. Inequality in America has grown sharply over the past two decades. Working people face job tenure insecurity, massive shifts in work structures, and heavy debt. Indigent families have begun experiencing the termination of assistance from the state. Revelations of corporate wrongdoing highlight the power of wealth. But the new interest in class is not rooted primarily in concern with the conditions of low wage workers or the unemployed. Rather, it is a new twist on the topic of race. Out of social discomfort and legal challenges to affirmative action, judges and scholars are seeking a way to confront inequality without confronting race.
Class is important in its own right, but in the United States people usually do not talk much about it. The term is unfamiliar, packed with many different meanings, and uncomfortably radical. In law and popular discourse, the figure of the white working class person has appeared in recent years as the symbol for the need to end or change affirmative action. A searching examination of interest in white working people requires a closer look at class and the social construction of race. The concept of class seems tame only in comparison to the volatility of the discourse on race. It only remains tame if it is understood through a simplistic notion of individual status and divorced from conflict and from consciousness of shared interest among oppressed people – in other words, from groups and relationships of power.