In “The Communist Manifesto,” Marx and Engels tell us that “[t]he history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” In a sense, I agree, although I define the struggling classes differently than they did. In any event, it seems clear enough from what we know about the past ten thousand years or so of human history that people everywhere have been marvelously creative in finding ways to define certain people as members of a class or other group that can and should be treated with contempt, denied equal justice, and exploited without mercy.
Sometimes the groups have been defined along racial or ethnic lines, at other times along religious lines, at still other times along lines of their place of birth or their citizenship status, sometimes by their level or kind of education, sometimes by the language they speak, and so forth, on and on.
When I was a boy, growing up in the San Joaquin Valley of California, I lived in a place where about two-thirds of the population consisted of Mexicans and their native-born children, people who often suffered mistreatment at the hands of the authorities and members of the public. For many of them, the fear of deportation and police abuse was a constant in their lives.
I myself, however, was a member of a different despised class, the migrants from Oklahoma known as Okies. Although these people had previously suffered considerable mistreatment at the hands of the California legislature, police, landowners, and others, by the time my family arrived, in 1951, such mistreatment had greatly moderated, and although I was always aware that we Okies were looked down on by some people for our poverty, our lack of education, and our speech, I never dwelt on such minor lack of respect, and indeed I personally suffered not at all in this regard when I attended the same small-town schools as everyone else and succeeded there academically and athletically without my group membership’s holding me back at all.
After I became a professor, I spent much of my time during the first fifteen years of my career engaged in research and writing about American blacks since the War Between the States. This work was often hard to bear because of the nature of the subject. It was not that I was studying people who had low incomes, little education, or other deficiencies, often as a result of their treatment at the hands of the powers that were, especially in the South. It was more because of how the whites in general treated the blacks with contempt and viewed them as inferior by virtue of nothing but their race. This sort of pervasive withholding of basic human respect made my blood boil. As I studied occasions when such disrespect spilled over into the outrages for which the South became justly infamous – lynchings and similar savageries—I often had to struggle to keep my tears from staining my notes.
Nowadays, I have the same reaction to the contempt with which so many Americans treat the migrants from Mexico, Central America, and elsewhere solely because they belong to a different ethnic group, speak a different language, are very poor, or—worst of all—lack the official stamp of government approval that endows them with permission to be here, a right that no peaceful person ought to have been denied in the first place. Reading about the injustices perpetrated so lavishly on these people, especially by police, but also by various vigilantes, nativists, xenophobes, and other yahoos, I find again that my blood boils and my tears well up.
When, oh when, will people finally learn to treat all human beings as their brothers and sisters? Sad to say, I believe the answer is, never.