John McWhorter continues to really impress me with his political commentary. His most recent piece is Antiracism, Our Flawed New Religion. In it, McWhorter continues his attack on White Privilege theory, primarily for being (1) practically useless and (2) largely designed to appeal to comfortable white folk.
Antiracism as a religion, despite its good intentions, distracts us from activism in favor of a kind of charismatic passivism… Real people are having real problems, and educated white America has been taught that what we need from them is willfully incurious, self-flagellating piety, of a kind that has helped no group in human history.
Of course, it’s a little interesting–as a religious person–to see religion used as basically a pejorative, but I’m kind of desensitized to the stereotype of religion as pathological irrationality. One thing at a time. And, in this piece, McWhorter does a good job of explaining why antiracism fails to benefit poor black people, and who it really does benefit.
I’ve got serious misgivings with the way “privilege” is often used in political discourse these days, where the assumption is always that it’s racial, gender, or other forms of privilege that matter most. It’s not in any way that I deny that these forms of privilege exist, but the discussion is too simplistic and too myopic. Privilege is not absolute. It’s contextual. And race and gender and sexuality and other identity-based forms of privilege aren’t the only forms that exist. They aren’t even the most important. More important? The privilege of coming from a stable, two-parent, biological family, for one, and the privilege of a low ACE-score for another.
So, although most of the folks who share this comic (and possibly the author, too) would probably disagree vehemently with me over the topic, I share it because it’s actually a very, very good example of how privilege really works:
What’s really good about the comic is that it actually illustrates specific examples of privilege and, in this case, the privilege of class. The two children both have strong families, are both white, and gender doesn’t focus prominently in the storyline. Instead, it’s all about who can afford to study while in college vs. who has to shoehorn studies and menial work into the same schedule. It’s also about who has family connections that can smooth the transition into a competitive job environment, and who has to figure things out on their own.
Class is a better framework for discussing privilege than race or gender (although race-based and gender-based privilege do exist) because it gets closer to the heart of the matter: power. The trouble is that Americans don’t really like class. We’re not sure what it means and we kind of like to pretend it doesn’t exist. No one is more keen to pretend that class is not an issue then the upper-class, of course. This is one reason for the fascinating relationship of brand prominence to price.
Today, anyone can own a purse, a watch, or a pair of shoes, but specific brands of purses, watches, and shoes are a distinguishing feature for certain classes of consumers. A woman who sports a Gucci “new britt” hobo bag ($695) signals something much different about her social standing than a woman carrying a Coach “ali signature” hobo ($268). The brand, displayed prominently on both, says it all. Coach, known for introducing “accessible luxury” to the masses, does not compare in most people’s minds in price and prestige with Italian fashion house Gucci. But what inferences are made regarding a woman seen carrying a Bottega Veneta hobo bag ($2,450)? Bottega Veneta’s explicit “no logo” strategy (bags have the brand badge on the inside) makes the purse unrecognizable to the casual observer and identifiable only to those “in the know.”
One function of this kind of invisible prestige (although not the only consideration) is that it allows the most privileged to avoid attracting attention from those who are less privileged. Only their fellow elites can recognize their subtle status cues. This is also the reason that identity-based privilege is so appealing to middle- and upper-class Americans: it obscures more privilege than it reveals by quietly taking class off the table. Identity-based privilege is loud and boisterous, but it poses a negligible threat to existing socio-economic power structures. It’s about as revolutionary as a Che Guevara t-shirt.
Today’s elite is a long way from the rotten lot of West Egg. Compared to those of days past it is by and large more talented, better schooled, harder working (and more fabulously remunerated) and more diligent in its parental duties. It is not a place where one easily gets by on birth or connections alone. At the same time it is widely seen as increasingly hard to get into.
The rest of the article tries to explain why this is so, citing assortative mating as one big reason. Perhaps because of the same social attitudes that have led more women into the workplace and to getting college degrees, “between 1960 and 2005 the share of men with university degrees who married women with university degrees nearly doubled, from 25% to 48%, and the change shows no sign of going into reverse.” These pairs are much more likely to be correlated in terms of intelligence and other genetic factors that help people be successful, for one thing. But even if you set aside the genetic component, successful people are likely to raise successful children because they value success and they obviously understand what it takes to be successful. So the more you have assortative mating, the more a meritocracy ends up looking a lot like an aristocracy after all.
So… what do we do about? The Economist article has nothing to suggest.
But, writing nearly three years ago, David Brooks did. In Why Our Elites Stink he argues, similarly to The Economist that “today’s meritocratic elites achieve and preserve their status not mainly by being corrupt but mainly by being ambitious and disciplined.” Although wealth is obviously a factor, he argues that “the real advantages are much deeper and more honest.” So, are meritocracies just fundamentally flawed? Brooks doesn’t think so:
The corruption that has now crept into the world of finance and the other professions is not endemic to meritocracy but to the specific culture of our meritocracy. The problem is that today’s meritocratic elites cannot admit to themselves that they are elites.
Brooks’ argument is definitely not a popular for a lot of reasons. First, he doesn’t want to overthrow the meritocracy. He wants to work with it. I don’t think that this is because he likes it. I think it’s because he has that conservative tragic vision of the human condition: that life is fundamentally unfair and the only way to combat that unfairness is to recognize it. Some people are born smarter, stronger, and better looking than others. That will always be true. So life isn’t fair. There will always be elites. If the elites know they are elites, they can actually respond to that in appropriate ways (e.g. by being more service-oriented). But if we deny the fundamental unfairness of life, then we’re saying that people who have all the advantages don’t have to take any particular special care to help others.
The best of the WASP elites had a stewardship mentality, that they were temporary caretakers of institutions that would span generations. They cruelly ostracized people who did not live up to their codes of gentlemanly conduct and scrupulosity. They were insular and struggled with intimacy, but they did believe in restraint, reticence and service.
Today’s elite is more talented and open but lacks a self-conscious leadership code. The language of meritocracy (how to succeed) has eclipsed the language of morality (how to be virtuous). Wall Street firms, for example, now hire on the basis of youth and brains, not experience and character. Most of their problems can be traced to this.
If you read the e-mails from the Libor scandal you get the same sensation you get from reading the e-mails in so many recent scandals: these people are brats; they have no sense that they are guardians for an institution the world depends on; they have no consciousness of their larger social role.
Although it wasn’t a focus of his, I think another major element to this is the problem of America’s obsession with individualism. We have gone overboard in rejecting our collective, social nature. That is why modern hotshots have no sense of being “guardians for an institution the world depends on.”
Life will never be fair. There will always be elites. Saying that terrifies people, because they immediately think of racial or cultural or religious bigotry. But we can’t be so paralyzed by fear that we fail to heed reality. Also, the fear are largely unfounded, as The Economist observes that elites “included people with skin of every shade but rarely anyone with parents who worked blue-collar jobs.” So here we are, in a world that is unfair where elite people will pass down their elite traits to their elite kids. We can either try to redistribute everything (which will kill all incentives and lead to total social ruin) or we can instill an ethos of service and humility in elites. It’s not a perfect solution, but it seems like the best one.
Allison Benedikt has a piece at Slate urging people to “not just acknowledge your liberal guilt—listen to it.” Specifically, Benedikt states that “you are a bad person if you send your children to private school.”
I’d like to give Benedikt credit for having good intentions. The problem is that nothing in her argument actually substantiates her blind belief that if all kids went to public school, then public schools would improve. She even acknowledges that the rich would cluster in rich neighborhoods and nothing could be done about it, but somehow inner city public schools would miraculously rebound anyhow.
How? Benedikt doesn’t say. I feel bad pointing it out, but Benedikt might have done a better job at stringing together a cogent argument if her own education hadn’t been so poor. That’s not a mean-spirited slam on my part. I just don’t know what else to take from a piece that fails to provide any rationale whatsoever for its core thesis, but does include statements like “I left home woefully unprepared for college, and without that preparation, I left college without having learned much there either.” along with an eyebrow raising claim that “getting drunk before basketball games with kids who lived at the trailer park near my house” is an equivalent experience to reading Walt Whitman. Maybe if Benedikt had ever read Whitman, she would be qualified to weigh in on that, but since she claims to have hardly read any literary books ever I’m not sure why she thinks anyone would be interested to her opinion on the topic.
In the meantime, my kids don’t go to private school because my wife and I are rich and it’s a status symbol or class affectation. We stretch our budget to the breaking point to afford their tuition (and go without things like a second car) because we don’t want them to have to relive experiences like the vicious bullying I endured or the rampant sexism my wife survived. If you want us to risk putting our kids through that, you’ll have to do a damn site better than this as an argument. I’m guessing Benedikt doesn’t actually have kids, or she would understand that.
At the end of the day, the sad irony is that Benedikt’s piece is so terribly reasoned it is a stark warning against sending your kids to public school. If you do, they may end up writing nonsense like she does.