Category Archives: Class and Race

Caste Away: Mass Incarceration and the Hardening of Economic Inequality

“Caste Away” originally appeared as part of the University of California Press’s blog series coinciding with this month’s American Sociological Association’s annual conference: “Hard Times: The Impact of Economic Inequality on Families and Individuals.”

I first met Elizabeth at a drop-in center for poor and homeless women shortly after she was released from prison. Elizabeth’s father was a firefighter. Her mother worked for years at a stable job in a factory. Her parents owned their home in a working-class white community in a Boston suburb, and raised their children with aspirations of college and a middle-class life. By the time Elizabeth came of age America’s economic landscape had changed. Secure jobs that pay good wages were scarce and even though Elizabeth earned an associate’s degree she wasn’t able to do better than a series of unreliable jobs in food service. When a family tragedy (her sister’s illness and eventual death) made her too sad to smile at restaurant patrons she was fired. Broke and depressed, she lost her apartment, began to drink excessively, suffered several assaults, and was arrested and incarcerated on charges of creating a public disturbance and shoplifting. “Free” now for more than five years, she is stigmatized, unemployable, and sick.

As wealth and income gaps in the United States have dramatically widened over the past decades, the life paths of rich and poor Americans have diverged to the point in which, I believe, we should consider using the language of “caste” to describe American society. Caste arises when social differences become so significant that individual personalities, preferences, talents and weaknesses become subsumed to stereotypical images of the characteristics of a community or group as a whole – what we often call profiling. Groups are identified in terms of physical differences (real or imagined), inter-group interactions become formalized and limited, group characteristics become infused with moral meanings which justify and enforce differential access to valued resources and occupations, and group characteristics come to be seen as inherent and unchangeable.

Elizabeth has helped me understand the workings of caste. She experiences geographic segregation, whether in jail, in homeless shelters or in public housing. She has been arrested for trespassing simply for sitting down and relaxing in neighborhoods not assigned to, in her words, “people like me.” Elizabeth recognizes that there are structural barriers to changing her status, but most days she attributes her position to classic caste-like physical traits: a genetic tendency for alcohol abuse or to PTSD that has “rewired my brain.”

Having been raised in a working-class community, Elizabeth is aware of how differently she is treated now that she has lost some of her teeth and acquired the clothes and mannerisms of the untouchable caste. She once told me that people don’t like to sit next to her on public transportation. “They look at me like I smell bad even though I shower every day.” The only non-poor people she has contact with these days are service providers such as therapists and doctors, or law enforcement agents. Her caseworkers berate her for being involved with men who are, as she puts it, “messed up.” But, Elizabeth explains, “no man who is any good is going to want a woman like me.”

In the twenty-first century health and wealth are tightly correlated. Poor Americans are sick because the housing they can afford is clustered in environmentally unsound neighborhoods; the jobs they can get involve debilitating physical labor, ongoing exposure to toxic chemicals, or harassment by bosses or customers; the food they can afford is nutritionally unsound; and access to consistent health care (especially dental care) is limited. In a cyclical manner, poor health, and especially visually obvious signs such as rotting teeth, limits the ability to get the kinds of jobs that pay living wages.

For Elizabeth, as for many Americans, a prison record sealed her caste membership. She is not alone. By age 23, 49% percent of black men and 16% of black women, 44% of Hispanic men and 18% of Hispanic women, and 38% percent of white men and 20% of white women have been arrested. Poor and low-income Americans are far more likely to be arrested and incarcerated than better off Americans. Over half of the incarcerated population has been diagnosed with a mental health issue and at least 40% suffer from chronic illness. Unhealthy prison conditions partly explain the substandard health profile of Americans involved with the correctional system. But the fact is that people entering prison are already sicker and poorer than other Americans.

Elizabeth often says that before her life fell apart she didn’t even know that there are people who live the way she lives now. But of course, caste is not a new phenomenon. In the United States racial categories traditionally have constituted a caste system and African Americans have long experienced segregation, barriers to occupational advancement, and ascription of morally suspect traits and behaviors such as mental illness, cognitive impairment, infectious diseases, hypersexuality, promiscuity, drug use, defective parenting, and childlike dependence on public assistance. The news, then, is not that America is a caste society. Rather, it’s how easy it has become to join the ranks of the caste of the ill, impoverished and criminalized.

You can read more about Elizabeth in my new book: Can’t Catch a Break: Gender, Jail, Drugs, and the Limits of Personal Responsibility.

What Pennsatucky’s Teeth Tell Us About Class in America

Author’s note: Friends and colleagues who know that I’ve spent most of the past decade working closely with criminalized women have asked me what I think of “Orange is the New Black”. While I could do without the dubious emphasis on sex among the women, and I doubt that women prisoners ever have the kind of power attributed to Red or Gloria, overall I think the series does a good job portraying women prisoners as real, complex human beings and of showing the miseries of life inside and outside of prison for most incarcerated women.

(A version of this post with fabulous photos: http://bitchmagazine.org/post/what-pennsatucky%E2%80%99s-teeth-tell-us-about-class-in-america)

I know she is supposed to be a cross between a villain and comic relief, but Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett is my favorite character to watch this season on Orange is the New Black. For those (few) who have not watched the series, Tiffany is a caricature of an ignorant / hillbilly / Jesus freak / meth head. In the first season we saw her provoke and eventually fight Piper, the attractive, articulate protagonist and author of the book on which the series is based. At the start of season two, when Tiffany returns from a three week stint in solitary, even her former friends – the other poorly educated, young white women – turn on her.

Tiffany isn’t cute or funny or even a font of homespun southern wisdom. But in the midst of a prison culture formally and informally divided by race, Tiffany embodies an equally powerful yet rarely articulated social divide: class. Though white, she has nothing in common with the other white women: Machiavellian Alex (Piper’s lover and nemesis), gender savvy Nicky, hip Sister Jane or even Russian entrepreneur Red, all of whom are presented as smart, literate, able to plan and scheme, and holding some understanding of the outside world. Tiffany doesn’t even fit in with Morello, a none-too-bright white woman with a working-class accent who lives in a fantasy world of romance and Hollywood magazines.

The producers of the series provide viewers a clear visual cue to the class divide. The first time Pennsatucky opens her mouth we see a hideous display of broken and missing teeth. More than any other marker, teeth indicate class status. Perfectly white and straight teeth – the kind we see on celebrities — belong to the super rich who can afford costly cosmetic dentistry. Nicely aligned and healthy teeth are the sign of professional and upper middle class individuals who can afford regular dental care and basic orthodontia. Crooked teeth with delayed root canal work and a few crowns means the mouth belongs to a young or middle-aged middle or working class individual (someone with access to basic dental care but no more); a complete set of dentures indicate an older working class individual. And rotted teeth, like those sported by Tiffany, marks one as poor, a status with both economic and moral meaning. As I’ve been told countless times by Americans who do not earn enough to scrape by, being too poor to have respectable teeth is like wearing an “L” for loser on your face.

Teeth: The Orphan of the Healthcare System Continue reading What Pennsatucky’s Teeth Tell Us About Class in America