Class Anxiety of Privilege Denied

There were yet more outraged upper middle class people at work last night. It’s not an isolated incident, working as I have in a parking ramp for the past two decades. I see all types and it’s not as if working class and minority people never get upset, but never quite so often or to the same degree.

This particular couple was so angry that, if it were a cartoon, steam would have been blowing out their ears. They were screaming and honking their horn. They got out of their car a couple of times. I was starting to fear violence and made sure the doors were locked to my booth. It goes without saying that I don’t normally fear for my life while cashiering.

Fortunately, several large muscular police (all of them white) showed up and set these people straight. It’s nice when the police have your back, as a fellow city government employee. It might help that I’m a white guy and so, even as working class, I get some amount of privilege. I’d probably be more worried if I wasn’t white, as there is a history of systemic racism in this town (one of the highest racial disparities of drug arrests in the country; not to mention the last time a well off white guy started a fight with a poor black guy, it was the poor black guy defending himself that the police shot — see below*).

This couple was yelling at me not just because of some abstract notion of privilege, as so much about our society promotes that sense of privilege with concrete results. No doubt they are used to telling people what to do and getting their way. It’s at such times that I’m glad I’m unionized because I have no doubt they will contact my boss and try to get me fired (this is why every worker should be a union member and every workplace should be unionized). What they don’t understand, in their privilege, is that I don’t back down from rich assholes. Then again, neither do I treat anyone differently no matter their socioeconomic class. If someone is nice to me, I’ll do my best to be nice to them. I didn’t care that they have privilege in our society, not in and of itself or not anymore than privilege in general bothers me, but I do care that they flaunted their privilege in trying to intimidate me into submission.

After the incident, I was thinking about why they were so angry. I hadn’t seen anyone that angry in a long time. Even most upper middle class white people are perfectly fine. I rarely have trouble with any customers. Still, why is it that when there is conflict it disproportionately involves those with privilege? What does privilege mean in a high inequality society such as the United States? People like this are among the few who are socially, economically, and politically secure in American society. They have few worries. Paying the 23 bucks for a lost ticket is nothing to them (filling the gas tank of their SUV would cost far more than that). But being treated like a normal person felt like a threat to their entire sense of reality. And indeed it was a threat because without entitlement their identity of superiority can’t be maintained. Probably at stake, in their minds, was the very social order and their place within it.

Few poor minorities would dare to escalate a situation to that level. That is because they have proper respect for the police showing up. This couple, however, had no concept that any and all authority figures wouldn’t automatically take their side no matter what. And they knew that no matter how much trouble they caused the police were unlikely to shoot them or arrest them, as they might do to a poor minority. I intellectually understand that. Yet what really is at the bottom of that fuming outrage? It’s such a strange thing to observe. And I don’t even take it personally. From my view, they really are no different than any other customer. As a unionized government employee, I take it all in stride because I’ve seen it all before. It’s just another day on the job.

I considered the possibility that they had a really bad day for a thousand different possible reasons. Or maybe they had been drinking. But that doesn’t really explain anything. Unhappy drunks and unhappy people in general are as common as they come. Most people, no matter what is going on in their life and no matter their state of mind, don’t have public tantrums that lead to altercations with the police. It was plain weird. I could sense how shocked, flabbergasted they were that they couldn’t get me to do what they told me to do. I do what my employer tells me to do, not what a rich asshole tells me to do. That is how capitalism works. Now if my employer were a rich asshole, that would be a different situation.

This reminds me of Keith Payne’s The Broken Ladder. He explains how high inequality stresses out everyone, including the rich. It creates a social condition of pervasive anxiety, divisiveness, conflict, aggressiveness, short-term thinking, etc. That last one applies here, since it wasn’t only anger but an inability to think of consequences. That couple was completely lost in the all-consuming moment of blind rage to the point of an apoplectic fit. I’d argue that their behavior was morally wrong, at least according to standards of basic humanity, but more than anything their behavior was supremely stupid. That is a point Payne makes, how as inequality worsens so does decision-making ability.

What stands out is that such relatively wealthy people would argue over such a small sum of money, as if they were poor people and I was trying to take away their last dollar. Payne explains this, in demonstrating how people feel poor and act poorly in a high inequality society, even when no poor person is involved in any given situation. The sense of class conflict and status insecurity is a shadow that looms over the lives of us all, rich and poor alike.

This phenomenon isn’t limited to inequality or rather not only to socioeconomic inequality, as there are many forms of disparity between individuals and groups. Any stressor will have similar consequences, but few stressors are likely to have much impact without one kind of inequality or another already being present. It is the differences and divides of inequality that transforms an individual stressor into large-scale and pervasive social stress. This among much else, as Payne explains, leads to the clinging of social identity — from race to politics, but often class. And that is how we come to see our neighbors and fellow citizens as potential threats, as enemy others to be fought and defeated or to go down trying.

In such a state of anxiety and fear, every incident can become a perceived existential threat. But the seeming point of contention focused upon, whether a ramp charge or a political argument, is rarely if ever the real issue. What matters most is how this cuts to the heart of identity and, in these reactionary times, turns the mind toward the reactionary — it not being all that relevant what is being reacted to. Lots of heat, little light.

* * *

The Broken Ladder
by Keith Payne
pp. 2-4 (see earlier post)

As they discovered, the odds of an air rage incident were almost four times higher in the coach section of a plane with a first-class cabin than in a plane that did not have one. Other factors mattered, too, like flight delays. But the presence of a first-class section raised the chances of a disturbance by the same amount as a nine-and-a-half-hour delay.

To test the idea another way, the researchers looked at how the boarding process highlights status differences. Most planes with a first-class cabin board at the front, which forces the coach passengers to trudge down the aisle, dragging their baggage past the well-heeled and the already comfortably seated. But about 15 percent of flights board in the middle or at the back of the plane, which spares the coach passengers this gauntlet. As predicted, air rage was about twice as likely on flights that boarded at the front, raising the chances of an incident by the same amount as waiting out a six-hour delay.

This air rage study is revealing, but not just because it illustrates how inequality drives wedges between the haves and the have-nots. What makes it fascinating to me is that incidents of rage take place even when there are no true have-nots on a flightSince an average economy-class ticket costs several hundred dollars, few genuinely poor people can afford to travel on a modern commercial airplane. Yet even relative differences among the respectable middle-class people flying coach can create conflict and chaos. In fact, the chaos is not limited to coach: First-class flyers in the study were several times more likely to erupt in air rage when they were brought up close and personal with the rabble on front-loading planes. As Ivana Trump’s behavior can attest, when the level of inequality becomes too large to ignore, everyone starts acting strange.

But they do not act strange in just any old way. Inequality affects our actions and our feelings in the same systematic, predictable fashion again and again. It makes us shortsighted and prone to risky behavior, willing to sacrifice a secure future for immediate gratification. It makes us more inclined to make self-defeating decisions. It makes us believe weird things, superstitiously clinging to the world as we want it to be rather than as it is. Inequality divides us, cleaving us into camps not only of income but also of ideology and race, eroding our trust in one another. It generates stress and makes us all less healthy and less happy.

Picture a neighborhood full of people like the ones I’ve described above: shortsighted, irresponsible people making bad choices; mistrustful people segregated by race and by ideology; superstitious people who won’t listen to reason; people who turn to self-destructive habits as they cope with the stress and anxieties of their daily lives. These are the classic tropes of poverty and could serve as a stereotypical description of the population of any poor inner-city neighborhood or depressed rural trailer park. But as we will see in the chapters ahead, inequality can produce these tendencies even among the middle class and wealthy individuals.

What is also notable about the air rage study is that it illustrates that inequality is not the same as poverty, although it can feel an awful lot like it. That phenomenon is the subject of this book. Inequality makes people feel poor and act poor, even when they’re not. Inequality so mimics poverty in our minds that the United States of America, the richest and most unequal of countries, has a lot of features that better resemble a developing nation than a superpower.

* * *

*Let me note one thing, for sake of fairness.

Even with the proven history of racial bias around here, I have to admit that in my personal experience the Iowa City Police are quite professional. Blacks living here very well might have different experience than my own, of course. All I can say is that I’ve observed no police bias, racial or class, in my years as a city employee. Maybe the police are more careful these days about biases, as it does seem they’ve sought to increase diversity of officers.

They dealt with this white upper middle class couple with a calm but firm authority, effectively de-escalating the situation. But I’ve seen them do the exact same thing with a black guy in my cashier lane some years ago. In neither case, did they threaten the customer nor did they have to resort to arresting them. The police here don’t seem to look for trouble, even when the problematic individual is looking for trouble.

I wanted to give credit where it is due. The police handled the situation well. Of the times police have showed up when I was dealing with a customer, I can only think of one time where the officer in question was less than helpful. It’s nice to be able to expect a professional response from the police, considering that evidence implies that isn’t always the case with police departments in some other cities.

Young Poor Darker-Skinned Minority Men

The recent incidents of cops killing poor black men puts the issues into context.

Some have pointed out that poor whites and black women also get killed by cops. But the point is that they don’t get killed as often as poor black men. Also, rich black men don’t get killed either very often. Bill Cosby doesn’t have to worry about being shot.

It isn’t just getting disproportionately shot that is the problem. The entire criminal system directs itself most strongly against poor black men. Actually, it is young poor black men. To be yet even more precise, it is young poor darker-skinned minority men, as research shows that darker skin leads to greater racial bias.

Simply being a lighter-skinned young poor black man will likely save you some grief with the police. Or being a woman will make a major difference in how likely you are to be arrested and convicted for the exact same crimes committed by a man. Or just aging a bit transforms a dangerous threat to society into a wise old black man.

It isn’t just a race issue. It isn’t just a conflict between whites and blacks. It involves a centuries-old class war and much else besides.

It’s this combination of factors that is so strange to my mind. All of it gets mixed up. Why is the young poor black man the ultimate in bigoted scapegoating and police targeting? What does this stereotype represent in our collective psyche?

To Know Racism

The reality of races can be argued about to a certain extent. The argument doesn’t go very far because of the lack of evidence. The reality of racism, on the other hand, is quite different. There is no debate to be had because the evidence is so overwhelming.

The challenge of debate is that the evidence is only overwhelming to the extent one knows the evidence. So, debating the reality of racism becomes a game of presenting data while the other side refuses to acknowledge or dismisses it. It is like trying to build a block tower with a toddler who just wants to knock it down.

I meet people who are overtly and intentionally anti-intellectual. Others are just situationally and opportunistically anti-intellectual. Most people, though, aren’t anti-intellectuals in the normal sense, even when they are uninformed and misinformed.

The fact of the matter is that schools and the media don’t do much in the way of helping people understand the nitty-gritty everyday reality of commonplace racism. Not bigotry, just the racial bias that seeps into ever cranny of society and every crevice of our minds.

It isn’t as if racism is hard to grasp intellectually. The basic data isn’t all that complicated either. Almost anyone could be given a basic education of the subject in a short period of time.

I went for walk with a friend. This topic was on my mind. So, I discussed it with him.

He isn’t the type of person who reads about race, crime, and other social science subjects. Like me and like most Americans, he didn’t learn much if anything about systemic and institutional racism from his public education or even from his college education. As we walked along a wooded trail, I read some statistics from a book. It was specifically about crime and incarceration, and it is a good primer for understanding how racism is systemic and institutionalized.

Within a few minutes of pleasantly chatting, he became more informed than the majority of Americans on this subject. Even if you read the entire chapter slowly while deeply contemplating it at most it would take you a half hour to get through it all. If we sat all Americans down, we could inform the entire population in a few minutes. Not a in-depth education, but we could bring most Americans up to speed with a basic groundwork of knowledge.

This isn’t rocket science.

Paranoia of a Guilty Conscience

A big issue in the city I live in, Iowa City, is the racial disparity in arrests. This is a problem all across the country, but the data shows that this town has one of the highest disparities in the country. That contradicts the liberal self-image of this middle class white college town.

This relates to the majority white population here being freaked out about black people from Chicago. White people and wealthy people from Chicago, however, are perfectly fine. Just not those low class gangbangers and welfare queens.

When my parents moved back to town in 2008, there was an unusual spike in criminal activity or at least a spike in the media’s attention on criminal activity. I always wondered if there was any real change in crime, though. There was some youth gang activity, but it mostly seemed like high schoolers pretending to be in gangs.

The black issue became all the buzz, despite the fact that the spike of murders that year all came from middle class white people, including a banker and a mother who separately killed their families. Of course, no one fear-mongered about the dangers of middle class white people going berzerk. But some black youth shoplifting sure did get a lot of attention.

A recent article in the local alternative media (Study Shows IC Police Stop Minority Drivers At Disproportionate Rates) cleared up something I’ve been wondering about for some years now:

“However, despite the 2008-2009 uptick, data show violent crime has still trended downward over time, even in those so-called high-crime neighborhoods.”

Even as the media obsessed over violent crime incidents, the actual rate of violent crime was going down. This has been true nation-wide. Many people think violent crime is worse right now in the US, despite it being at the lowest point in my lifetime.

How can we have a rational public debate when the public’s view of reality is so distorted by media? This irritates and frustrates me.

I did find some data on crime rates in Iowa City (from It even breaks it down, although not in as much detail as i’d prefer. It only includes data between 2005 and 2012 and so, unfortunately, the larger trends can’t be seen.

Within that limited timeframe, it shows Iowa City’s crime rates are about the same as for all of Iowa. And Iowa’s crime rates are generally low by national standards.

For example, Iowa City’s murder rate is extremely low for most years. But there was that temporary jump in the murder rate for 2008. The murder rate for that particular year stands out as the murder rate for years before and after it are so low, typically at zero for most years. Iowa, in general, has one of the lowest homicide rates and one of the lowest gun homicide rates in the entire country, and that should be put in the context that Iowa has a high gun ownership rate.

The only Iowa City crime rate that is above the national average is for rape. And that is probably because it is a college town. I would guess that all college towns with on average younger populations have higher than average rates of rape. Whereas towns with on average older populations probably have lower rates of rape. Young people tend to rape more than old people. Also, as other data shows (from, the high rate of rape in Iowa City is mostly rape by acquaintances that occur in residences/homes, not roving gangs of Chicago black thugs randomly defiling young white maidens.

The violent crime rates have been going down in this town, in this state, in this country, and across the world. We haven’t seen such low rates of violent crime since a half century ago when it dropped down from a high rate earlier in the 20th century. What is this obsession with imaginary violence? And why are real blacks getting blamed for it?

As the data shows, blacks are less likely to commit crimes such as using illegal drugs, carrying illegal drugs, and carrying illegal guns. Yet blacks are more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested, harshly judged, and imprisoned for these crimes. Most of the murders in this country aren’t committed by blacks. Besides, most of the murders by blacks are committed against blacks, just as most murders by whites are committed against whites. In a majority white place like Iowa City, why are people so worried about blacks who are a tiny percentage of the population?

It is hard to see how this can be explained by anything besides racism. In Racism: A Very Short Introduction (p. 11), Ali Rattansi puts it in the context of one particular piece of data:

“It is even more difficult to decide exactly how racism might be involved in, say, the fact that in the USA black men are 10 times more likely to go to prison than whites, and 1 in 20 over the age of 18 is in jail. Or, as revealed in an Amnesty International report of 2004, why black defendants convicted of killing whites have been sentenced to death 15 times more often than white defendants convicted of killing blacks. Also, blacks convicted of killing other blacks in the USA are only half as likely to suffer the death penalty as when they are convicted of killing whites. Is this racism at work? Where does this and similar instances fit into the American, and indeed general, narrative of racism?”

One should be forgiven for jumping to the conclusion that American society puts a lesser value on the lives of blacks. I sometimes wonder if the real fear that many white Americans have is that the maltreatment and injustice committed against blacks might one day come home to roost, that blacks would do the same to whites if given the opportunity. Basically, it seems like the paranoia of a guilty conscience.

* * * *

6/22/14 – I came across something that fits this post perfectly.

It is a review of a book about racism and the media in Iowa City. That is awesome that someone went to the trouble to write a book about it. Now if only Iowa City residents would read it and learn something about the community they live in.

The book is A Transplanted Chicago: Race, Place, and the Press in Iowa City by Robert E. Gutsche, Jr. The review is How the Media Stokes Racism in Iowa City – and Everywhere by Eleanor J Bader (source: Truthout). Here is part of the review:

“His answer: Unabashed racism. In fact, Gutsche concludes that virtually every news item about the southeast conforms to stereotypes depicting African Americans as lazy, uneducated, dependent on government handouts and prone to criminal or immoral behavior. To make his case, he cites a newspaper article about the opening of a new shelter for homeless families. The story was illustrated by a photo of a black woman leaning against a window. The caption identified her as a Chicago native who had been living in the shelter with her five children for nearly a year. “Just that single sentence says it all,” Gutsche writes, “Poor blacks (especially mothers) continue to come to Iowa City with their children, (far too many for the woman to care for) and take advantage of the city’s good will and resources (by staying in the shelter for nearly a year) . . . The caption was wrong. The woman and her children had only been living in the city – and at the shelter – for a couple of months . . . What is interesting about this caption and photograph is how it matches with dominant discourse surrounding Iowa City’s southeast side and the migration of folks from Chicago to Iowa City.”

“Central to this discourse, of course, is the belief that low-income women, aka “welfare queens,” are taking advantage of government programs and feeding at the trough of public generosity. “Chicago has come to mean more than just another city,” Gutsche concludes. “It signals the ghetto, danger, blackness – and most directly, of not being from here.” That two-thirds of the low-income households registered with the Iowa City Housing Authority were elderly and disabled – not poor, black or from Chicago – went unacknowledged by reporters. Similarly, the drunken escapades of mostly white University of Iowa students have been depicted by reporters as essentially benign and developmentally appropriate. “Just as news coverage explained downtown violence as a natural college experience, news coverage normalized southeast side violence as being the effect of urban black culture,” Gutsche writes. “News stories indicated that drunken packs of college students were isolated to the downtown, whereas southeast side violence was described as infiltrating the city’s schools, social services and public safety.””

* * * *

6/23/14 – Another article compares the safety of states:

“By safety, we’re not referring exclusively to protection from violence and crime. The term encompasses various categories, among them workplace safety, natural disasters, home and community stability, traffic safety and, of course, financial security.”

Both Iowa and Illinois are in the top 10 safest states in the country. Illinois is even ranked at number 3 for the lowest number of assaults per capita. Many people think of Illinois in terms of the media image of Chicago. It turns out that overall Illinois is one of the safest states in the country, even with all those supposedly dangerous inner city blacks. Maybe it is because these are such safe places to live that any act of violence stands out.