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.

The Privilege of Even Poor Whites

I just don’t get the belief in genetic and cultural determinism. It doesn’t really explain anything.

As an example, “whites” used to have much lower IQs on average than do “non-white” minorities now. The first IQ tests were done in the early 20th century. It was a time of many social problems, not unlike these past decades. It was a time when ethnic Americans of European ancestry were targeted and scapegoated by WASPs not unlike how minorities are still treated.

Along with testing as low IQ, those ethnic Americans had higher rates of violence than have been seen since, much of it related to substance abuse, youth gangs, and organized crime. It was the highest rates of violent crime ever recorded in US history and, because of mass immigration from Europe, probably was the largest “white” majority in US history (or rather perceived “white” majority as those included and excluded is always changing).

That was the largest influx of “white” genetics and culture ever to happen on American soil. If “whites” are inherently superior, why didn’t that even larger “white” majority immediately drive down the violence and push up the IQ? It took decades before those early 20th century social problems improved with the help of public education, Progressive policies, the GI Bill, etc… not to mention oppressive Cold War tactics of cultural genocide and forced assimilation of hyphenated Americans into proper “white” mainstream culture, a part of the original purpose of such things as public education which is why the KKK supported it.

So, if even lower IQ and more violent “whites” were able to see vast improvements over such a short period of time, why is it assumed that “non-white” minorities today are different? Why wouldn’t the same improved environmental condtions that improved the lives of ethnic “whites”, if implemented universally, also improve the lives of all other Americans? Why is genetic and cultural determinism only applied to rationalize the social problems impacting some groups and not others?

This is a personal issue for me, as a descendant of ethnic immigrants, some who likely identified as hyphenated Americans.

My non-English ancestors experienced oppression and prejudice. They worked hard, and through generations of struggle they were allowed to move up in society.

My mother’s family a few generations ago were poor whites: distillers, farmers, clam diggers, manual laborers, etc; when they were lucky enough to find work. They definitely knew poverty and unemployment during the early 20th century. They were under-educated and uneducated, often illiterate and unable to write until recent generations. They wouldn’t have tested as high IQ. They also had many of the problems associated with ethnic Americans, such as alcoholism and bootlegging during Prohibition. They were simple people, just getting by in life, whatever that took.

It was only with my mother’s generation that most of her family began graduating from high school and, in some cases, getting college degrees. Within a single generation, many members of my mom’s family went from poor to middle class. Their perceived “whiteness” gave them privileges and advantages of social and economic mobility.

It wasn’t genetic and cultural determinism that had kept them poor and disadvantaged for centuries upon centuries. It was the social conditions that initially kept them at the bottom of society and that then allowed them to rise. Their perceived “whiteness”, after they had been either willingly or forcefully assimilated, doesn’t explain this change. Rather, their perceived “whiteness” was the change or an expression of that change. Before being “white” or fully “white”, they were treated as second class citizens and so they suffered the fate of second class citizens. The twentieth century, however, gave them new opportunities with a new racial and social identity. They were now “white” and hence “real Americans”.

Many whites take this kind of cross-generational upward mobility as a point of pride. Their family did it. So, it is no one else’s fault for those who are seen as failures. But this ignores the reality of our society, the remaining forms of classism and racism. It was also only a brief respite for many families, as new generations find themselves falling back down into poverty once again, no better off than the rest of the poor who have been stuck there. The American Dream has been a mirage because it never was built on a strong foundation, never was integrated into a functioning democracy.

The racial myth of superiority has been shown to be the lie it always was. Poor whites have always been the majority of the poor and those on welfare. A temporary respite from poverty for some white Americans didn’t change this fact.

Why do we want to use social categories to choose who will be allowed to succeed and who will continue to be punished with prejudice and oppression? Instead, why not treat all Americans equally and give them all equal opportunities and assistance? Making excuses of determinism helps no one and harms everyone as it undermines the very values and ideals that justify our country’s existence. If American isn’t about an actual American Dream accessible to all Americans, then what is it about? Do we really want to cynically embrace Apartheid? Why not live up to the hopes and aspirations our country was founded upon?

To Not Feel, To Not Care, To Not Know

This relationship of racism and lack of empathy is sad beyond comprehension. Talk about empathy isn’t just a philosophical debate or an academic exercise. White privilege is a very real thing with real impact on real people in the real world.

One of the benefits for whites of white privilege is that people, both whites and blacks, not only take your pain more seriously but they perceive it as being greater and more real than the pain felt by blacks. Racial prejudice is internalized and becomes unconscious. It’s just there, hidden and below the surface, but the effects are real and the consequences are great

This probably relates to why jurors, both white and black, punish blacks more harshly than whites for the exact same crimes. To say someone doesn’t feel pain strongly is to imply that they are less human, less worthy. Scientists used to do dissect living and conscious animals because they believed animals didn’t feel pain.

Empathy and the lack thereof is the core issue upon which so much else pivots.

Here is the article that brought so much sadness to my thoughts:

I Don’t Feel Your Pain
A failure of empathy perpetuates racial disparities.
By Jason Silverstein
From Slate.com

Read that article and then read a post I wrote last year:

Republicans: Party of Despair

Considering conservatives have been shown to have a less inclusive sense of empathy, is it surprising what results from when they gain political power? Or to return to the issue of white privilege, which party in recent generations has fought against civil rights and racial equality? Also, might empathy inequality be at the core of economic inequality?

It reminds me of something said by Tim Wise (see the video at the end of my post, Knowledge Doesn’t Matter). What white privilege ultimately allows is for one to be ignorant of privilege itself. It isn’t just about not feeling and not caring. It is about not even knowing, ignorance of even one’s ignorance. Complete blindness and numbness, no voice to be heard, as if the uncomfortable reality didn’t exist. Like the three monkeys with hands over ears, eyes and mouth.

Knowledge Doesn’t Matter

Does knowledge matter?

I was having a discussion about that question with a friend. He isn’t an anti-intellectual, but he is one of those post-Enlightenment New Agey liberals who mistrusts rationality. To give you an idea of the type of guy he is, he didn’t cite evidence for his argument, but instead cited a lyric to a song. To give you a further hint, my dear friend in support of his view referred to Jonathan Haidt’s metaphor of the rider and the elephant… don’t even get me started on Haidt.

I, on the other hand, am a fierce defender of truth. Damn it, just give me some red-blooded truth and give it to me raw. It was only my friendship that made me hold my tongue in that discussion. I will never understand any person, whether conservative or liberal, who thinks truth doesn’t matter or who will devalue it in any way.

Truth. Not just information, not just knowledge, but all of that and the insight, the wisdom that goes with it. Truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Truth that enflames the senses, pierces the heart and sets the mind ablaze.

Truth isn’t some tiny detail. Truth is reality itself. We breathe truth for if you try to stop breathing, I swear to God, you quickly will know it. Now, that is the force of truth. It ain’t no intellectual game. We have to start getting serious about this reality we all share.

The force of truth can at times hit you like a brick wall. I personally love that sensation. It means I’m awake and still alive. My face smacks up against something that doesn’t move and I start to suspect that there might be something fundamental in front of me. So I reach out into the dark, find a switch, turn it on… and well damn there is a wall right there. What kind of fool tries to walk through a wall? A fool walking in the darkness of ignorance,  I tell ya.

But truth is usually more subtle than that. It creeps up on us. Little bits of info piling up, a comment here and an example there, an observation here and an insight there. Then before ya know it, a new understanding begins to dawn. Usually, though, something finally brings it all together.

I’ll give you two examples, one of each variety: a face-smacking wall and a slow dawning.

The first example is my having learned about sundown towns.

That bit of truth came at me from an angle. I was reading about regional cultures when the author, David Hackett Fischer, made a comment another author’s work (Sundown Towns). So, good truth-seeker that I am, I bought that other book and began reading it. That other author, James W. Loewen, was talking about my particular region. He even mentioned a town I live right next to. Once upon a time, that town had a bunch of black families… and then shortly later all the blacks disappeared. Where did they go? This happened a thousand times over, all across the North.

I knew racism existed in the North, including systemic racism, but I didn’t have a clue that it was so pervasive. I just figured Iowa was naturally a white place where blacks didn’t live in the past. I figured blacks had little interest in living here, until recently that is. I assumed blacks simply went to the big cities because that was where the jobs were. I assumed most blacks wanted to live with blacks in black neighborhoods and ditto for whites with whites, as that has been the basic order of the society I’ve grown up in.

It never occurred to me that after the Civil War large numbers of blacks moved all over this freaking country in every state and in every town, rural and urban, North and South, East and West… but that they soon found they weren’t welcome in many of these places, not welcome in particular neighborhoods or in some cases entire states. Only after this great migration did they all head to the big cities seeking safety in numbers.

I was ignorant of this piece of history. Plain and simple, I was ignorant. Worse still, my white privilege allowed me to remain ignorant for so long. My white skin color and my white Midwestern heritage corresponds with the dominant white culture. Just because I’ve had black friends doesn’t change this condition. My only excuse is that I was ‘educated’ to be ignorant in this way. Sad but true. Ignorance must be learned… and so ignorance must be unlearned.

Reading Loewen’s book on the topic was an educational experience, a brick wall that bluntly forced me to reassess what I thought I knew.

The second example has to do with affirmative action and white privilege.

Over the years, I’ve come across mentions of the relationship of racism to the Populist and Progressive Eras.

For example, I came across the intriguing fact that the KKK supported universal public schooling and the banning of child labor. The reason they took this position was because kids, black and white, were competing for the same jobs that KKK members wanted for themselves. So, if you got the kids out of the factories, you had to justify it by sending them somewhere and public schools made for a good way of keeping the kids occupied, and as any good KKK member knows you particularly want to keep those black kids occupied or else they’ll cause trouble.

Another example I’ve learned about in the past is that black farmers didn’t get the same funding that white farmers received. This was done intentionally, of course. It is no big secret at this point. Just another data point in a long history of racism.

For whatever reason, I didn’t quite fully and coherently think about this in a larger context. It didn’t quite come together, beyond knowing about the general history of racism. I knew many of the details and incidents. And I knew the individual pieces might fit together in various ways. But it took someone else to clearly connect the dots before I saw the picture it formed.

The person in question is another author, Ira Katznelson, and the guilty book is When Affirmative Action Was White. It isn’t a matter of the original intention of many progressive reforms. Racism was rampant, but most people weren’t overtly thinking in terms of racism. Even so, racism was able to trump other concerns by co-opting the policies that were implemented. It became white affirmative action by default. The wording of progressive reform didn’t state it as white affirmative action, but that was the result successfully implemented by the racists in power who wished to maintain their grip on power. Progressivism was just a convenient front for old racial injustices. This is how Jim Crow was rooted in the New Deal.

Framing white privilege as affirmative action helped me to see the profound impact that it has had. It wasn’t just racist policies in the South or even isolated racist incidents in the North. It was a systematic strategy that was nationwide, even if the strongest impetus was in the Jim Crow South. With this new framing, all the pieces of the puzzle came together.

Ignorance is a strange thing. We can’t know we are ignorant for we are ignorant of our being ignorant. We don’t know what we don’t know and we don’t know that there is something we could know, until something forces us to begin to know and then the comfy sweater of our ignorance begins to unravel.

Ignorance upon ignorance, generation after generation. All of this ignorance, individual and collective, took a long while to be learned. It took our entire history, in fact. And so it will take a very long time to unlearn. We should see others in this more forgiving light, especially older generations. But a forgiving attitude can be a hard thing to hold onto when the stakes are so high. Culpability must be accepted, even if the blame game isn’t helpful.

In this regard, my parents are typical of their generation… or I should say they are typical of white Americans of their generation… a generation, by the way, that was born and raised when Jim Crow laws were at their height and were well into adulthood when the Voting Rights Act was passed. If anything, they should personally know of the effects of racism better than I know it for they saw it when it was truly powerful as a blatant political force. But they don’t know what they don’t want to know, don’t know what offers them no personal benefit to know. No surprise to that normal human response toward uncomfortable truths.

My mom doesn’t see white privilege at all, even though she obviously benefited from it. My dad’s thinking is a bit more nuanced. But all my dad can offer, when his good fortune is pointed out, is that God must have been looking out for him. I guess God disproportionately looks out for whites and in particular middle class white males. It never occurs to him to consider the possibility that he is no more worthy of divine intervention than all the poor minorities. I’ve heard that Jesus message is specifically about helping the least among us, but I guess that doesn’t apply to issues like racial oppression and prejudice. God, after all, is a conservative, maybe even a right-winger. There are even rumors that God is white.

Joking aside, my parents are as much the product of their environments as I am of mine. They simply believe what they were raised to believe, speak what they were taught to know. It is their truth, even if it isn’t objective fact. I don’t wish to deny my parents’ sense of truth in their pride in having worked hard or even that God has looked kindly upon them. Those are their truths. But a personal truth becomes an untruth when uprooted from the larger truth of our shared reality. The trick is to begin with the truths you know and from there expand your vision. Attacking someone’s truth, however, creates fear and doesn’t encourage them to expand their vision.

I can feel righteous at times, but it’s hard to maintain righteousness. We are all ignorant to varying degrees and in various ways. Still, I want to be righteous about truth and righteous for the right reasons. It really does matter. For that reason, I want people to see the truth, be it a brick wall to their face or a dawning of the light.

More than anything, I respect not just truth but a passionate zeal for truth. We can’t let ignorance get us down, not even our own. We have to be brutally honest, especially with ourselves. Words must not be minced.

Now, here is the kind of thing that inspires me, that gets my juices going. Tim Wise is a truth-teller about racism, if there ever was one. Listening to him speak, I had to restrain myself from yelling out loud ‘Amen’ and ‘Praise the Lord’. Maybe it isn’t the eloquence of an MLK speech, but it sure does hit the spot. All the MSM BS makes me downright hungry for a healthy heaping plateful of simple straightforward meat-and-potatoes truth-telling.