Who Rules America?  By G. William Domhoff, University of California at Santa Cruz

Social Class and Social Justice: Changes From Within and Pressures From the Outside

by Richard L. Zweigenhaft, Guilford College

Speech given at Middlesex School (Concord, MA), September 25, 2006


When Daniel Scheibe invited me to speak at Middlesex, my first response was a combination of curiosity and pleasure. I have heard about, and written about, Middlesex, for years, but, until today, I've never been to the school. I even emailed my friend and co-author, Bill Domhoff, with whom I've written about the American power structure, telling him that I might be adding Middlesex to my "life list." He wrote back and asked: "What's a 'life list?'" I explained to him (maybe some of you don't know either) that serious bird watchers, of whom I'm not one, often keep a list of the various species of birds they have seen, with special pride in the rare ones. So I'm happy to add Middlesex, a rare bird, to my life list of the elite boarding schools I've been writing about for more than twenty-five years.

My second response to Dan's invitation was to ponder whether I had anything meaningful to say about the class system in America, and, more generally, about social justice, to a group of Middlesex students. I'm not sure if I do -- you'll be the judge of that -- but I do have some thoughts about social class, social justice and how social change comes about. More specifically, I have some thoughts I wish to share with you about working from the inside, and pushing from the outside, in order to bring changes to institutions and societies that discriminate against African-Americans, Latinos, women, the handicapped, homosexuals, those at the bottom of the class structure...take your pick. Historical and contemporary examples of institutional oppression are not hard to find.

One of the books I assign in one of the courses I teach is titled The American Class Structure: In an Age of Growing Inequality. The author provides compelling data to demonstrate that the gap between those at the top and those at the bottom of the class hierarchy in this country has been increasing dramatically since the mid-1970s.[1] Most demonstrably this can be seen in the difference in pay for Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) of Fortune-level companies and the lowest paid workers at those companies. That gap has skyrocketed over the past 25 years. A recent report puts the average pay of a Fortune-level CEO at 821 times as much as a minimum wage earner; this means, that the CEO, as the report puts it, "earns more before lunchtime on the very first day of work in the year than a minimum wage worker earns all year."[2] Or, perhaps another example will speak to the experiences of some people in this room: that CEO will earn more in one day than a teacher here at Middlesex earns in an entire year.[3] Long, long ago, back in 1980, CEOs also earned more, but only 42 times as much as the lowest-paid workers.[4]

The phrase "growing inequality" in the subtitle of the book I've just referred to, and the comparative data from 1980 and 2006, serve to underscore the fact that the class structure, and the distribution of this country's wealth, are not static. In the 1950s and the 1960s, a period the author of the textbook calls the "age of shared prosperity," the gap between those at the top of the class system and those at the bottom decreased. Many factors affected the reversal that began in the 1970s and accelerated in the 1980s, a reversal some economists call "the great U-turn,"[5] but I wish to stress that these were not random patterns -- they were the result of actions and decisions made by men and women. Many of the articles in your packet of summer readings ("Drawing the Line") seem to assume that there are inexorable economic forces that lead to the distribution of wealth in this country. As Geraldine Fabrikant puts it in her article about old and new money in Nantucket, "the hyper-rich...emerged in the 1980's and 1990's, when tectonic shifts in the economy created mountains of wealth."[6] Her choice of geological imagery suggests that these mountains of wealth were created by forces beyond human control, but, in fact, political, social and economic decisions determine who gets what portion of the pie. Ronald Reagan and the United States Congress were not innocent bystanders in the 1980s when many became "hyper-rich" and when, as Fabrikant points out, many working class people could no longer afford to live in places like Aspen and Nantucket, just, as we'll see in a bit, some people became "hyper-rich" in the 19th century based on the system of slavery.

Despite the widespread myth that ours is a relatively classless society, as you can see quite clearly in the various articles in your summer reading, there is a class system in this country, and it is very much related to issues of social justice. The USA, like other capitalist countries, has seen the need for laws and regulations to curb certain behaviors that ensue if the so-called free market is left to operate totally on its own. Here we could consider child labor laws, civil rights laws, or laws that require that workers be paid at least a minimum wage and how much that minimum wage is. Just how much protecting, and the extent to which such laws and regulations are enforced, has varied tremendously over time, again based on the decisions (and often the ideology) of men and women in positions of power.

I've chosen three examples for us to examine. Collectively they may help us draw some conclusions about what leads institutions to change. Each concerns both race and class. The first is the racial integration of elite boarding schools. Why, in the early 1960s, did a group of 16 prestigious boarding schools decide to put effort and money into recruiting African American students from working and lower class backgrounds through a program called "A Better Chance"? The second example concerns the racial integration of the boards of directors of the country's largest corporations. The third example is even more historical than the first two, which means it happened before the 1960s (putting it, I guess, in the realm of "ancient history"). It's about the movement to end the slave trade in England, a movement that began in 1785 when a divinity student won an essay contest, in Latin, and culminated 51 years later with the passage in the British parliament of legislation that banned the trade of human beings.

The origins of the ABC program

The story of the A Better Chance (ABC) program begins in the early 1960s with a conversation between two headmasters at Massachusetts boarding schools, Howard Jones at Mount Hermon and John Kemper at Andover. They sought to create a way to find talented African American students who could not only survive, but thrive, both academically and socially, at schools like theirs. Although black students had attended both Mount Hermon and Andover for many years, this was not the case at many other boarding schools; moreover, Mount Hermon, Andover, and other boarding schools that wanted to enroll black students had difficulty finding qualified applicants, they had difficulty persuading them to come, and many who did come did not stay. After this initial conversation, Jones and Kemper scheduled a meeting at Andover in February 1963 that was attended by headmasters from 23 New England prep schools. An executive committee was formed that consisted of Jones, Kemper and Charles Merrill; Merrill was the son of the Merrill who founded the company that was to become Merrill Lynch, and he was also the headmaster at the Commonwealth School, a school in downtown Boston that he funded and started in 1958.

From these efforts, an organization was formed that was soon to be named the A Better Chance (or ABC) program. What motivated these three men? Well, the civil rights movement was in full swing. In 1961, just a few miles from where I teach in Greensboro, North Carolina, four students at North Carolina A&T had defied the law by sitting down at the segregated lunch counter at the local Woolworth's. They refused to leave when told to do so, they were arrested, and that act of civil disobedience sparked a movement that led to marches, protests, many more arrests and, it is crucial to add, beatings and murders. Martin Luther King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech was delivered to thousands and thousands of people who had taken to the streets in Washington, D.C. in August 1963. Perhaps these three New England headmasters would have decided it was time to integrate their schools even if there had been no civil rights movement, but I doubt it. As one of them said to me in an interview in 1988, "The revolutionary implications [of the civil rights movement] hit even us, we the headmasters. I mean, we knew history was moving fast." It is therefore important to give these men credit for their willingness to use their influence, to work from inside their mostly segregated institutions to bring about change, and to acknowledge that they and other headmasters faced considerable opposition from their boards, from alumni, and in some cases from their student bodies (to cite just one example: at Pomfret, in 1960, the headmaster was dismissed and considered a Bolshevik by some because he advocated accepting black students into the student body).[7] It is, however, also important to acknowledge that these headmasters acted in a larger context, and that the protests at lunch counters and in the streets played an indirect role in the integration of many prep schools.

Let me tell you an additional piece of the story that reveals what can be the indirect and unintended effects of challenges to the status quo. This new program needed money and it needed a home for a summer orientation program that the headmasters considered essential to prepare these new students for the dramatic changes they were about to experience. The money came from three sources: the Merrill Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and from 16 schools that signed on as charter members. The money from the Merrill Foundation was a snap, since Charles Merrill was on the foundation's executive committee. The money from the Rockefeller Foundation turned out to be a snap also, and the reason reveals the way power works internally and the way external pressures have their effects, even when it is not as obvious as civil disobedience at lunch counters. In the summer of 1963, the president of Dartmouth came to Mount Hermon to give a speech. That night, the Mount Hermon headmaster, told him about the various efforts taking place to get the ABC program started. As it turned out, Dartmouth's president was under pressure to do more to demonstrate Dartmouth's commitment to equal educational opportunity. In fact, that very same week, he had received a proposal that called on Dartmouth to establish a secondary school on campus for black students from poor backgrounds, to reduce the size of Dartmouth's freshman class to make room for 80 black students, and to allocate at least one percent of its annual budget to this effort. The Dartmouth president had turned down the proposal, but when he visited Mount Hermon he was still trying to figure out a way to satisfy those who were pushing for a greater commitment to bringing black students to Dartmouth. He was also on the executive committee of the Rockefeller Foundation. Without hesitation, he told the Mount Hermon headmaster that Dartmouth would house the ABC summer program, and that he would obtain funds for the program from the Rockefeller Foundation.

The third source of funds came from the 16 schools that joined the ABC program as charter members. The executive committee had mailed 50 invitations, 30 schools responded favorably, and the following 16 schools actually joined: Choate, Commonwealth School, Deerfield, Emma Willard, George School, Groton, the Gunnery, Hotchkiss, Northfield-Mount Hermon, Phillips Academy (Andover), Pomfret, the Putney School, St. George's, St. Paul's, Taft and Western Reserve Academy. Two of these schools are on my life list, but, as you perhaps noticed, Middlesex was not among the charter members. I encourage any of you with an interest in local institutional history to look carefully at when Middlesex became involved with ABC, and why, and, more broadly, to explore what the internal and external factors have been that have led to the current diversity in your student body. (I note that Milton is also not on the list -- but I also note that an ABC graduate of Milton may be the next governor of Massachusetts).

The corporate boardroom

Let's move from prep schools to the corporate boardroom (a pathway that some of your fathers, and now perhaps some of your mothers, have traveled, and perhaps some of you will travel). When did America's largest corporations first invite African Americans to sit on their boards of directors, and why did they do so? Again, the answer is the mid-1960s, and the very same civil rights protests that motivated the headmasters motivated the men who sat on the boards of the largest companies in America. In fact, one of the first two corporations to invite a black onto its board was a company called W. T. Grant, a general merchandise chain of 1000 stores which, like Woolworths, included many segregated lunch counters in its stores in the south. W. T. Grant had been picketed, and the publicity was not good for business.

When I looked at the first dozen companies to ask African Americans onto their boards, there was a very clear pattern in terms of who was invited to join: all were professional men, well-educated and from relatively privileged families. They were not likely to rock the boat. There was one exception and it, too, demonstrates the residual effects of protest.

In 1971, General Motors, the largest corporation in America, was under fire for its hiring practices, and for its lack of corporate responsibility. An anti-management group formed, and by buying GM stock the group managed to place some proposals on the annual shareholders' ballot. Even though none of these proposals garnered more than three percent of the vote, they had a number of indirect effects. One was the result of something that took place at the annual shareholders' meeting. James Roche, the CEO, was on his feet for most of what turned out to be a contentious six and a half hour meeting. Near the end of that meeting, he was challenged by a young activist, a minister from Ohio, who asked if GM was not a public corporation. Tired and frustrated, Roche answered with a racist slip of the tongue (it had to do with being "free" and "white").[8]

A few months after this embarrassing episode, one that was widely reported in the press, Roche approached Leon Sullivan, an African American minister in Philadelphia well-known for his activism -- this was a man who did rock the boat. When Roche called Sullivan to ask if he'd come to New York to discuss joining the GM board, Sullivan told him he was too busy but he'd be glad to talk with Roche if he came to Philadelphia. Roche accepted this demand for respect, and Sullivan went on to join the GM board. Sullivan later became central in the movement to divest holdings from companies that did business in South Africa during its apartheid regime (many know of him for what came to be called "the Sullivan principles").

So, again we can conclude that the men in power at some major corporations did the right thing by integrating their boards, but they did so only because of various kinds of protests from below, some in the streets and some at the annual shareholders' meeting.

The end of the slave trade in England

On one of his records, Arlo Guthrie, an old hippie singer-songwriter from my generation, and the son of Woody Guthrie, the great protest singer from the mid-20th century ("This Land is Your Land"), tells a great story in the middle of a moving rendition of "Amazing Grace." It's about a ship captain who halfway across the ocean had an epiphany in which he realized that slavery was wrong, so he turned the ship back, and set the slaves free. It's a powerful story, but unfortunately it is incorrect. John Newton was a ship captain, he did have a religious epiphany, he did leave the slave trade, he did become a minister and he wrote many hymns, including "Amazing Grace." However, after having become a very rich man because of the slave trade, and after he became a man of the cloth, Newton made no public comments against slavery for more than thirty years, even though he preached thousands of sermons. Finally, when he was in his sixties, when the abolitionist movement in England had gained unstoppable momentum, he spoke out against the slave trade.[9]

But who were the abolitionists in England? As I have mentioned, a key figure was a twenty-five year old divinity student who in 1785 won an essay contest at Cambridge University -- in Latin -- in response to the question, "Is it lawful to make slaves of others against their will?" Adam Hochschild, the author of an excellent recent book on this topic titled Bury the Chains, writes that winning this essay contest was a widely celebrated event. As he puts it: "Latin and Greek competitions were a centerpiece of British university life. As with the Heisman trophy or a Rhodes scholarship today, to win one was to gain an honor that would be bracketed with your name for a lifetime."[10]

Thus catapulted into instant celebrity, Clarkson soon found himself communicating with a group of Quakers who had been working on this issue for many years with little success. These Quakers saw the value in working with a young, celebrated, essay winner; he saw the value in working with a group of like-minded people who had long been committed to changing the status quo. According to Hochschild, Clarkson's meeting with 12 Quakers in London in 1787 was the start of a movement. Within five years, 300,000 Britons were boycotting sugar (the chief slave-grown product), but it took another 51 years before the powers that be in England legally banned the slave trade (this, of course, was decades before slavery was declared illegal in the United States). It is a remarkable story that begins with a mere handful of deeply committed people, astute political organizing, and both disruption and working within the legal system.

Thomas Clarkson, the divinity student who won the contest in 1785, spent his entire adult lifetime agitating to end the slave trade. Another who worked on this issue from the 1780s through the 1830s was a man named William Wilberforce. Clarkson was an outsider to the halls of power, described by Hochschild as "an agitator," and "a fiery radical;" Wilberforce was an insider, a member of Parliament, a cautious conservative and an Evangelical Christian. Together they were "one of history's great partnerships" (p. 352). Hochschild explains this in the following way:

Absent revolution, the usual purpose of building a movement, after all, is to get legislators to change laws. Clarkson would not have been an effective agitator had he not shared the dreams of change and freedom in the air during this pregnant interlude between the American and French revolutions. Wilberforce would not have been an effective member of Parliament had he not shared the worldview of his fellow M.P.s who were mostly reactionary landowners.

I very much recommend Hochschild's book, which I've given only the briefest treatment to here, but for now I encourage you to consider these three examples and what they reveal about what leads institutions and societies to change in ways that bring about greater equality and move us closer to social justice.[11]


Whether one looks at the integration of prep schools, the integration of corporate boards, or the end of the slave trade in England, or if one looks at a larger sample of social protests in the last two hundred years, as one sociologist has done,[12] it is clear that there is a role for the agitator and a role for the insider in order for change to occur. Agitators can be, well, disruptive, self-righteous, and in some cases quite obnoxious, and part of my purpose today is to encourage you to keep in mind the crucially important role that agitators play in making the world a more just place.

Especially those of us who benefit from the status quo can find such agitation off-putting not only because agitators can be annoying but because they make us feel uncomfortable. Many people, perhaps most people, avoid taking a stand on issues of injustice. Many join in as best they can -- the 300,000 Brits who gave up sugar in the 1780s were doing their part to end the slave trade. Some individuals provide invaluable leadership, either as insiders or as outside agitators.

As each of you considers what role you wish to play, and what issues you wish to confront, I encourage you to keep in mind the importance of working from within and from the outside. Some of you might become great agitators (many of history's most successful rebels have come from economically privileged circumstances). Others of you might, like those headmasters at Andover and Mount Hermon, like those corporate board members who decided to break the color line at their companies, or like William Wilberforce, the evangelical Christian member of parliament who was central to the legislation that ended the slave trade in England, be insiders who contribute to changes that make for a more just world. As I've tried to demonstrate, insiders and outsiders are often in opposition, but they also, sometimes in unexpected ways, can be interdependent.


[1] Dennis Gilbert, The American Class Structure: In an Age of Growing Inequality (New York: Thompson Wadsworth, 2003).

[2] Bob Herbert, "Working for a Pittance," New York Times, July 3, 2006.

[3] "A Teacher's Year, A C.E.O.'s Day: The Pay is Similar, New York Times, September 3, 2006, Business section, p. 2. I'm taking the liberty of assuming that the pay for Middlesex teachers is similar to that of public school teachers in the state of Connecticut. This may not be true.

[4] Gilbert, 2003, p. 74. CEOs in Europe and in Japan earn far less than CEOs in the United States. See Gilbert, 2003, p. 79.

[5] Gilbert, 2003, p. 19.

[6] Geraldine Fabrikant, "Old Nantucket Warily Meets the New, New York Times, June 5, 2005.

[7] Adam Hochschild, Half the Way Home (New York: Viking, 1986), 97-98.

[8] He began his comment by saying "We are a public corporation owned by free, white...." At this point, realizing that he had slipped into a well-know racial canard, he finished, lamely by saying "umm...and...and...black and yellow people all over the world." See Richard L. Zweigenhaft and G. William Domhoff, Diversity in the Power Elite: How it happened, Why it Matters (Rowman & Littlefield, 2006), p. 97.

[9] Adam Hochschild, Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005), pp. 77, 130-131. If you're looking on the web, you're likely to get an incorrect version that is closer to Arlo's than to Hochschild's carefully researched and documented treatment of the topic. Wikpedia says this of Newton: "Later he renounced his profession, became a minister, and joined William Wilberforce in the fight against slavery." No mention of Clarkson, and no mention of the thirty year gap between renouncing his profession and his coming out publically against the slave trade. Another online explanation, at a website titled "Annointed Christian links," explains it this way: "He continued in the slave trade for a time after his conversion; however, he saw to it that the slaves under his care were treated humanely."

[10] Hochschild, 2005, p. 88.

[11] Hochschild, 2005, p. 125.

[12] In 1975, William Gamson, a professor of sociology at Boston College, published a book titled The Strategy of Social Protest; in 1990 he wrote an updated second edition of that same book Wadsworth, 1990).. The first edition examined the experiences of 53 protest groups in America chat challenged some aspect of the status quo between 1800 and 1945; the second edition included a new chapter that looked at protest groups between 1945 and 1990. He concludes that "the willingness to break rules and use noninstitutionalized means -- to use disruption as a strategy of influence" -- works (p. 156).

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