Racism and the underclass: a love story

The underclass is, according to the Oxford English dictionary, “the lowest social stratum in a country or community, consisting of the poor and unemployed.” Some time ago I visited Atlanta, Georgia and until then I’ve never been confronted with such a large and visible underclass. To be fair, the Netherlands has its fair share of unemployed and poor, but we tend to take care of them by all sorts of social welfare institutions. Recently, we’ve had elections here and some of the things said during the campaign made me think. Geert Wilders, especially, mentioned Moroccans being over-represented in the underclass. He then, to paraphrase him, went on to say that Moroccans have themselves to blame for it, that they are the source of all things evil and that we should get rid of them. The real problem, however, is not so simple.

My visit to the US was hardly surprising in any kind of way, but I can now claim to have seen it with my own eyes. The underclass in America usually consists of a single ethnic minority. In Atlanta it was black people. Every single homeless person I saw was black. Without exception. And there were a lot of them. My American friends tell me it’s mostly black people throughout the States, although in the south west it tends to be Native Americans and, of course, Mexicans. Why this strong correlation, you might ask. The answer, you may have guessed, is racism.

The dynamic can be put in simple terms. Members of any ethnic group that is being discriminated against have harder times finding jobs. This forces disproportionate numbers of them into the underclass. The group’s reputation, bolstered by prejudice, becomes worse and worse. The odds of finding employment decrease even further. The vicious circle is complete. This type of mechanism is called a positive-feedback loop in science and engineering: the two effects reinforce each other leading to a runaway process spiralling out of control.

Racism is therefore in love with the underclass. It is attracted to the underclass like a dog in heat. It sticks to the underclass like glue. It strives to make the underclass ethnically uniform. If racism leads to the over-representation of Moroccans in the underclass, then becoming even more racist is most certainly not the answer.

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