Archive for inequality
Capitalism’s emphasis on property rights has been historically fraught with peril since its inception as an economic force in the Western world. Capitalism is an economic system in which assets are privately owned and commodities and services are produced for profit in an otherwise global and competitive market place. But, as seen when the many bloody European revolutions transpired during the fall of feudalism, capitalism has routinely placed property rights over human rights.
American roots in capitalism run deep, beginning early during the Transatlantic slave trade when Africans were brought to the eastern shores of what is now North America. Stolen from their native lands and placed in chains for the voyage to America, Africans were exploited for their labor power, leaving their status among the ranks of humans to be determined by elite white men. Slavery built up the economic engine that propelled American capitalism, creating enormous wealth for white elites on the backs of Blacks. The history of African Americans and other race-based conflicts provided a blueprint for further economic-based exploits that stratified people on the basis of social class position, further advancing economic class divisions by deepening the gulf between the haves and have nots. Class matters because it provides individuals with access to society’s most valued resources like good paying jobs, stability and other financial rewards. The higher the class position the more resources afforded for individuals and families.
But not all people benefit equally and few actually move up in social class position in life, as we uncritically tend to believe. People of color and women disproportionately make up the bulk of the working class and working poor who are generally invisible and out of sight from the daily happenings of the shrinking middle class. Given our past development in maintaining cheap labor such as the utilization of “sweat shops” by our nation’s major corporations, the mounting pressure of increasing inflation and economic instability have cause the working class to take matters into their own hands. Fast food workers in 60 cities walked off their jobs en masse recently, protesting the economic injustice they have long endured before a greedy restaurant empire.
The fast food industry has long exploited the working class for cheap labor, maintaining a protracted policy of low wages that only benefits corporate elites. Currently, the minimum wage of $7.75 per hour is on the edge of the poverty line for an individual and certainly cannot support a family of four. The reluctance on the part of the government (Department of Labor) to mandate steady increases has contributed, in part, to the wage disparities currently under scrutiny. There is much evidence to show that paying living wages to sustain life above poverty is good for society and makes good business sense.
Research consistently shows that more unequal societies generally have higher levels of social problems, negative self-perceptions, poorer health status, and increased mental and emotional disorders than more equal societies. Conversely, there are also positive benefits to equal societies that translate into a better-educated citizenry and overall better general health, more innovation from within society, higher social mobility and greater levels of societal trust, which results in a lowered crime rate. Thus, when working class individuals are able to secure and maintain steady decent employment and compensation that allows them to rise above the poverty line, society benefits as a whole. As Dr. King so eloquently said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
The meager wages that fast food workers are paid in the United States compared to other parts of the Western world reveals much about where our national interests lie and the degree of pro-government involvement with the corporate world. This relationship has allowed many US corporations to flourish, at times creating extraordinary profits even during economic downturn. But capitalism comes at a high price for the oppressed, usually at the at the expense of the poor and disadvantaged. In this case, the proletariat is primarily women with children, who make up the bulk of low-wage fast food workers. This sort of labor requires no formal education and generally attracts people from the fringes of society who are trying to maintain a good living in our downwardly mobile economy.
Many Western European democracies consider the United States an unequal and stratified society, historically divided around skin tone, religious persuasion, sexuality, wealth and income inequality. Capitalism deepens this suffering as the very idea of a system designed to allow great economic success for one must come at the expense of another. This history is now being met with contemporary appeals by a growing economically disenfranchised populace who are left to fend for themselves in a class-based society where there is more rhetoric over the ability to move up the ladder than research actually shows.
The degree of American discontent over the uncertainty of the economy and the class-based society that defines us as a nation, divided not only by race but by social class position, is our legacy to bear and hopefully undue as it is a matter of public policy for the common good. Like other forms of white-imposed oppression, class-based injustice presents a growing threat to our national security, image and standing in the world as well as our well being as a nation. But it does not have to be this way. American understandings of work, which has notoriously placed property at the center of analysis, can reverse course by beginning to legislate and implement sound policies. To improve our society, these policies must include greater attention to wages and benefits that have the potential to economically empower its most valuable commodity, its citizens.
Dr. Darron Smith is an assistant professor in the Department of Physician Assistant Studies at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center. Follow him on twitter @drdarronsmith.
Two events that took place just hours apart 50 years ago serve as a metaphor for our nation’s struggle for racial equality.
On June 11, 1963, John F. Kennedy gave a speech to the nation demanding that the federal government aggressively put in place measures to guarantee the constitutional rights of blacks. JFK was comprehensive in his goals, insisting that the federal government be actively involved in addressing institutional racism in housing, the labor market, schooling, access to voting, and public accommodations. This call for racial equality occurred when Jim Crow laws were the norm, a majority of public schools were racially segregated, and blacks were politically disenfranchised. When JFK gave his speech, more than 80 percent of all black workers were concentrated in farming, manual labor, and service-sector jobs that guaranteed subsistence wages and intergenerational poverty.
JFK’s call was righteous, radical, and quintessentially American. It was a demand for equal rights and opportunity based on the Golden Rule. Kennedy argued
We are confronted primarily with a moral issue . . . whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated.
The next morning, in Jackson, Miss., white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith sat hidden behind a bush, waiting for Medgar Evers, the local NAACP field secretary and a father of three, to return home. Beckwith shot the civil rights activist in the back, and he died within the hour. Although the evidence linking Beckwith to the murder was overwhelming, he was acquitted twice by all-male, all-white juries. Thirty years later, Beckwith was retried and convicted of murder. He died in prison in 2001.
Social scientists are fond of pointing out that when individuals, typically white individuals, discuss racism, they use the past tense. As a nation, we like to believe that the odious and racist views of people like Beckwith have died out and been replaced by the idealism of an equitable and just society embodied in the aspirations articulated in JFK’s speech on racial equality. How much has changed in 50 years? Is our democracy self-correcting, with our moral arc consistently bending toward justice, as evidenced by Beckwith’s eventual conviction? Or is this just another example of “justice delayed is justice denied,” an enduring feature of how this nation treats racial minorities and newcomers?
JFK’s own words allow us to empirically examine the progress in racial equality over the last 50 years. He observed
The Negro baby born in America today . . . has about one-half as much chance of completing a high school as a white baby, one-third as much chance of completing college, one-third as much chance of becoming a professional man, twice as much chance of becoming unemployed, about one-seventh as much chance of earning $10,000 a year, a life expectancy which is seven years shorter, and the prospects of earning only half as much.
Compare JFK’s statistics with today’s. In 2010-11, whites graduated from high school at a rate of 76 percent and blacks at 60 percent. In 2010, whites graduated from college at a rate of 62 percent, blacks at 40 percent. In 2013, unemployment for whites was 6.7 percent; it was 13.2 percent for blacks. In 2010, 35 percent of whites and 24 percent of blacks worked in “management, professional, and related occupations.” A salary of $10,000 in 1963 would be worth $75, 990 today; 18 percent of black families and 34 percent of white families made $75,000 or more. On average, whites live five years longer than blacks. Median household income in 2011 was $55,214 for whites, $32,229 for blacks.
At least in the categories mentioned by JFK, it is undeniable that progress has been made. A mountain of earth remains to be moved, however, to level the playing field.
We like to believe that people like Beckwith die off or are marginalized by good people of conscience, and that their exit means social progress is being made. We are invested in the narrative that growing racial tolerance necessarily means shrinking racial inequality, although this equation no longer depicts reality. A black president can be elected (twice), and we may not blink at an interracial couple walking down the street, but that doesn’t mean that racial inequality is in decline or in its death throes. The recession has hurt almost everyone, but it has disproportionately wreaked economic havoc on some racial minorities.
What we should be asking ourselves is, Where are the speeches like Kennedy’s that appeal to the citizenry’s better angels to right a social wrong? Where are the pleas to Americans on moral and ethical grounds by those who can use the bully pulpit to raise public awareness of the social inequalities that continue to plague our nation?
Charles A. Gallagher is chair of the department of sociology and criminal justice at La Salle University. E-mail him at email@example.com. See some of his work here.
On 28 January 2013 Idle No More protesters gathered in no fewer than 30 Canadian cities. They were joined by solidarity protests around the world as the indigenous grassroots movement marked a global day of action.
We contend that: The Treaties are nation to nation agreements between The Crown and First Nations who are sovereign nations. The Treaties are agreements that cannot be altered or broken by one side of the two Nations. The spirit and intent of the Treaty agreements meant that First Nations peoples would share the land, but retain their inherent rights to lands and resources. Instead, First Nations have experienced a history of colonization which has resulted in outstanding land claims, lack of resources and unequal funding for services such as education and housing.
We contend that: The state of Canada has become one of the wealthiest countries in the world by using the land and resources. Canadian mining, logging, oil and fishing companies are the most powerful in the world due to land and resources. Some of the poorest First Nations communities have mines or other developments on their land but do not get a share of the profit. The taking of resources has left many lands and waters poisoned – the animals and plants are dying in many areas in Canada. We cannot live without the land and water. We have laws older than this colonial government about how to live with the land.
We contend that: Currently, this government is trying to pass many laws so that reserve lands can also be bought and sold by big companies to get profit from resources. They are promising to share this time…Why would these promises be different from past promises? We will be left with nothing but poisoned water, land and air. This is an attempt to take away sovereignty and the inherent right to land and resources from First Nations peoples.
We contend that: There are many examples of other countries moving towards sustainability, and we must demand sustainable development as well. We believe in healthy, just, equitable and sustainable communities and have a vision and plan of how to build them. Please join us in creating this vision.
A rather malicious reaction to the Idle No More Movement concerns the widely held belief that “it is about time these people moved out of the past and into the 21st century”. Just assimilate and get over it! After all, conventional “wisdom” suggests that white Europeans “conquered” the “Indians.” This is, of course, propaganda.
Contrary to popular belief, indigenous peoples did not surrender their land or sovereignty to the Europeans. Treaties were a scheme devised by the white man to circumvent costly Indian Wars, like those ensuing in the American West (see also here). Moreover, it was believed that once whites “killed the Indian and saved the man,” the treaties would prove unnecessary because supposedly all indigenous peoples would become “civilized” and assimilate into white society.
The white man believed indigenous peoples were just that docile! The white man was wrong!
Aaron Paquette, one of Canada’s premiere First Nations artists, recently captured just how erroneous this thinking was when discussing the Idle No More Movement. He asks: “why are Canada’s Indigenous Peoples the only ones who are standing up? Why are they now the World’s Protectors?”
This is much greater than angry protesting natives, this is about becoming aware. First they gutted the sciences, long term studies that would help us understand our ecosystem better so we could develop more responsibly, and no one said a word. Then they cut funding for our shared history and those who work to preserve it, while at the same time dumping tens of millions of dollars into celebrating a British colony war that happened before we were even a country, and still no one said anything. Then the world was made aware of the shameful conditions for small children growing up on underfunded, polluted Reservations. A small murmur and then nothing. And now, because of the apathy they see, this government has taken galling steps to sell out our wilderness, our resources and sovereignty. And not even to the highest bidder. It’s a yard sale with no regard for responsibility or care for anyone who might be negatively affected (in other words, all of us). From millions of protected waterways a couple weeks ago, we now have hundreds. Yes, you read that right.
As Kent McNeil, professor at Osgoode Hall Law School, York University (Toronto) has argued, the Idle No More Movement deserves the thanks of all Canadians as it has exposed a lack of respect for aboriginal and treaty rights on the part of the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
April Blackbird is a sociology honours students and politics major at the University of Winnipeg in Manitoba, Canada and a First Nations activist. Kimberley A. Ducey is a faculty member in the Department of Sociology, University of Winnipeg.
“We are the 99 percent” – a message powerful in its simplicity and its call for renewed social justice. The Occupy movement took on new dimensions on Wednesday as protesters moved beyond marches and rallies to attempt to disrupt port operations in the nation’s fifth busiest port, while 100 military veterans marched in uniform in front of the New York Stock Exchange to express support for Scott Olsen, an Iraq war veteran injured in the Oakland protests.
The message of Occupy Wall Street that gave rise to this movement refers to the overwhelming majority of ordinary Americans who have lost economic ground in the recession while corporate profits have reached their highest point since 1950. In this regard, the Congressional Budget Office reports that between 1979 and 2007, income grew by 275 percent for the top one percent of households and just 18 percent for the bottom 20 percent. In fact, the United States now has the highest poverty rate among developed countries with 46 million people living in poverty. The stories of lost ground are real, anguishing, and personal: stories of foreclosure, people in debt without health insurance, those who cannot afford to heat their homes, college graduates with student loan debt who cannot find work, and many others whose photos and stories can be found at here. We wonder if this is a new America.
In The Global Auction: The Broken Promises of Education, Jobs, and Incomes (2011), Brown, Lauder and Ashton tell us that emerging economies have leapfrogged decades of industrial development and created a highly skilled, low wage workforce that provides cut-priced brain power. This “reverse auction” for jobs has weakened the trading position of American professionals in the effort to attain a comfortable standard of living. In support of their thesis, the unemployment rate for U.S. college graduates over the past year is 9.6 percent, while for high school graduates, the average is 21.6 percent. And corporations have unquestionably contributed to this reverse demand by outsourcing American jobs overseas. A Wall Street Journal study published on April 19, 2011, U.S. multinational corporations employed 21.1 million at home in 2009 and 10.3 million abroad, with increasing numbers of highly-skilled foreign employees.
The recession has unquestionably deepened the racial economic divide to the extent that some are even calling it a “race-cession.” A Pew Research Center analysis based on 2009 data reveals that the median wealth of white households is now 20 times that of black households and 18 times that of Hispanic households. The report documents the differential impact of the recession upon minority families, with a decline in median wealth of 66% among Hispanic households and 53% among black households, compared with 16 % among white households. Nearly one quarter of black and Hispanic households had no assets other than a vehicle, compared to 6% among white households. And foreclosures have a disproportionate impact on minority borrowers in 2007-2009, with 8% percent of Hispanics and Blacks losing their homes to foreclosures compared to 4.5% of whites.
The statistics for minority unemployment are sobering. Black unemployment has been at 16% or above for several months, the highest level since 1984, with Hispanic unemployment at 11.3% and white unemployment at 8%. The underemployment rate is at least double the official employment rate, including those working part-time who want full-time work, those who work at minimum wage but seek higher wages, and those discouraged workers who have given up looking for work due to the job shortage. Furthermore, the duration of unemployment for minorities has exceeded the average duration of 40.5 weeks or more than nine months. For some minority groups, such as Blacks, Latinos, Native Americans, and some Asian American groups, at least one third are either unemployed or underemployed. As a case in point, take the startling report, “Only One in Four Young Black Men in New York City Has a Job” published by the Community Service Society that documents the disproportionately high rates of unemployment among young black men ages 16-24.
Given these stark employment realities, will troubled white workers begin to target minority workers more than they do now as the recession deepens? We have seen minority workers blamed for difficult economic times when white farmers and workers reacted to the large numbers of freed blacks during and after Reconstruction, or with the more recent backlash against migrant Mexican workers taking jobs in America even though Mexican immigration has actually declined over the last few years and few many Americans are not willing to work under the abysmal working conditions associated with the agricultural and non-agricultural jobs held by migrant workers.
As the base for the Occupy Wall Street movement expands, it promises to be a movement that returns us to our democratic ideals and unite us in the cause of social justice across the divides of race, gender, age, and class. A recent press release by Ben Jealous, President of the NAACP articulates this unity of purpose:
We are encouraged by the broad national support and by the great diversity of Americans who have been participating in the Occupy Wall Street campaign. The movement and the peaceful protesters who are a part of the campaign share many of the same goals as the NAACP.”
The NAACP shares the protesters’ concerns about the growing disparity in the access to wealth in America, and the decline of economic opportunity for poor and middle class Americans. For over 102 years we have supported the policies which create, preserve and expand living wage jobs, increase economic opportunity and protect the right of every American to build and retain wealth and equity.
And in poetic terms, Archibald MacLeish captures the importance of this new movement in his description of our living democracy:
Democracy is never a thing done. Democracy is always something that a nation must be doing. What is necessary now is one thing and one thing only that democracy become again democracy in action, not democracy accomplished and piled up in goods and gold.
Reuters had a very interesting set of comments on the racial and class riots in Britain, titled “Riots shake faith in UK austerity, stability.” The journalist quotes an establishment figure, Pepe Egger, an analyst of London’s consultancy called Exclusive Analysis:
I don’t think the implications of this have been fully thought through or accepted yet . . . . What we have here is the result of decades of growing divisions and marginalization, but austerity will almost certainly make it worse. Yes, the police can restore control with massive force but that is not sustainable either in the long term. You have to accept that this may happen again.
When even some in the elites can see that decades of great inequality can bring down Western political and economic systems, it really suggests to me just how far we are into the decline of Western nations and empires. The article then adds the views of the young people, most of them people of color presumably, in the streets. They add that the “division” involves real wealth inequality and racial prejudice:
Speaking to Reuters late on Tuesday, looters and other local people in east London pointed to the wealth gap as the underlying cause, also blaming what they saw as police prejudice and a host of recent scandals.
By scandals, they mean the massive financial scandals that have created near Depressions in Western countries. The article goes on to suggest for some British folks (maybe even Reuters journalists?) the scandals and crimes of the wealthy outshine what many see as the crimes in the streets from rioting. Fairly insightful for mainstream media? And very interesting that people in the streets are quite aware of the white collar crimes at the top of British society. Are folks in the US as savvy?
A recent article published in the New York Times by Kirk Semple reports that federal officials have had to send a memo to various states and school districts informing them that asking for citizenship status before enrolling children is illegal. It seems not only are many school districts (139 in New York State alone) are asking for documentation of students, but certain states such as Oklahoma are considering state bills requiring it. This should not surprise us considering the fact that Congress could not pass the Dream Act, that we have witnessed record number of deportations in recent years which have separated families and placed children in the foster-care maze, and that states have passed discriminatory laws like Arizona’s SB1070. These examples all point to a dark shadow side of America, this land of immigrants.
Xenophobia is nothing new in America, especially during economic hard times. Politicians and other civic leaders historically have succeeded in redirecting the public’s attention to symbolic policy issues that target the most vulnerable, the voiceless, and those who are marginalized. To an American of Asian, African, Middle Eastern, Jewish, Irish, or Southern or Eastern European ancestry, this isn’t news. Immigrants from these groups know all too well what it is like to be needed for one’s labor, but despised for one’s presence. We’ve been down this road before. Recall the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and the Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907, halting new Japanese immigration in exchange for non-discrimination against those of Japanese descent already in the U.S., as examples of racist immigration practices in America’s past. Arizona’s SB1070 is not unique in our history. What is different now is that this treatment is now being directed to children too.
The current immigration debate focusing on Latinos is no different from our past. Whether one is a proponent of earned citizenship through some time of amnesty, tougher border enforcement either by building fences or militarizing the border, a proponent of another guest worker program, or is engaged in the on-going debate about whether immigrants cost or benefit society, Latinos in America are experiencing prejudice, discrimination, cruelty and mistreatment from this latest round of scapegoating. The bottom line is that the 50 million Latinos in this country—16.3 percent of the population according to a new Pew Hispanic Report, are not accepted or seen as real Americans, regardless of our legal or professional status as discussed in a forthcoming book on Latino professionals. The current debate on immigration underscores this fact.
People need to remember some fundamental American values, such as the Golden Rule and what it means to walk in the footsteps of another. If we can honestly put ourselves in immigrants shoes, we may see that most of us would make the same decisions that undocumented workers have made. Regardless of the law, we would make the sacrifices necessary to do the best we can for our families. For example, try to sincerely imagine living in an agricultural community that, since the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, has suffered tremendous financial hardship. Local corn, grown there for generations, can no longer compete against the corn imports from the United States, which are heavily subsidized by the U.S. government. To clothe your children, your wife has taken to sewing their underwear out of old flour sacks. Your children lack shoes. Your family eats little protein, maybe once a week. Meals mostly consist of “chicken” soup, without the chicken — a watery broth of tortillas or rice and beans. The only hope seems to be to go work in the U.S. While it breaks your heart to leave your children behind, knowing your youngest may not even remember who you are upon your return and knowing your older ones need you to learn life’s lessons, you make the only rational decision a family-centered person can. You give up everything and join the countless numbers of people who have left their communities empty of working-aged men.
Not many of us could sit back and watch our children or elderly parents suffer hunger and destitution without doing something to ease their suffering and improve their lives. Missing from so much of the immigration debate is the humanity of the undocumented immigrants who are making sacrifices such as being separated from their children often for years, or being away and unable to return if a parent dies. These are sacrifices most of us cannot even imagine.
It is only through an understanding of the complex circumstances that lead people to migrate that we can create a much-needed constructive, humane, realistic, and just immigration policy. Blaming undocumented immigrants is not the answer. As Michele Wucker states in her book Lockout, “The population of immigrants who are in this country without legal papers did not grow to more than 10 million people without America’s full participation in the legal charade.”
Instead of focusing on the unjust immigration laws, politicians, political pundits, and anti-immigrant advocates have hypocritically taken the stance that undocumented workers are “lawbreakers” who need to learn to “follow the rules” and “do it the right way.”
They should take note that laws can be, and are often, wrong. When half the American population could not vote until 1920, were women wrong to demand the law changed?
Instead of hiding behind the façade of law, we should remember the humanity of undocumented immigrants. We all lose when we discriminate against one another. We are a better country than to require children to prove residency status in order for them to go to school. Targeting children is not the answer.
Two weeks ago I had the pleasure of meeting the nation’s only black four- star general , William E. Ward. His forty year career spanned work in the Middle East, Africa where he was the first head of the U.S. Africa Command, Deputy Commander of the European Command, a stint with the 82nd Airborne, action in Somalia and Bosnia and numerous other assignments. He is a charming, personable man who will be retiring this May. His successes over decades of service to this nation give credence to the belief that hard work can lead to good outcomes and triumph over racism.
I would not want readers to misconstrue the tenor of my previous blogs. I do believe in the virtue of industriousness and the rewards of hard work and individual initiative. I grew up in this society and learned these values as other kids do through our education system. While these virtues often help some people to achieve success and gain recognition, (they certainly help perpetuate the existing social system), they do not guarantee everyone equal outcomes. For example, today’s military is thought to offer people of color access to upward mobility, but African Americans are still underrepresented in the highest ranks. While blacks comprise about 17 percent of the military, they account for only 9 percent of the officers. Only 5.6 percent of the 923 general officers and admirals were black as of May, 2008. Just ten African American men have ever attained four-star rank, five in the Army, four in the Air Force, and one in the Navy.
The highest echelons of the private sector are even more segregated. As of February, 2010, there were only nine African-American CEOs in the Fortune 500. A Wall Street Journal analysisin 2008 found only a tenth of the CEOs of the largest corporations in the United States were racial and ethnic minorities, and their percentage on boards of directors was small and virtually unchanged since 2000. In fact, the percentage of companies in the Standard and Poor’s 500-stock index with no minority directors increased from 36 to 41 percent between 2000 and 2007. (Women don’t fare much better in this white man’s world, with only 25 heading Fortune 1,000 companies in 2007.)
Although over 600 cities today have African American mayors compared to virtually none in the ‘60s (clearly a sign of political progress and demographic trends in the nation’s metropolitan areas), there are no African American members in the U.S. Senate, one black governor (Deval Patrick of Massachusetts), and only two African Americans have ever served on the U.S. Supreme Court. But hope springs eternal—I never thought I’d see a man of color in the White House, or, for that matter, a person of color as the head of the Joints Chiefs of Staff or Secretary of State. (The latter under Republican conservative President George Bush.)
While remarkable changes have occurred in race relations in this country over the last several decades, giving some people of color access to better lives and others (whites included) hope in the future, the fact remains that disparities between whites and people of color exist in important areas:
1. In educational attainment, as measured by graduation rates and standardized test scores in math, reading and science, blacks and Latinos are 30 percent lower than whites, and a disproportionate number of children of color are suspended and expelled and relegated to special education programs.
2. In health, measured in longevity, black life expectancy is as much as eight years less than whites; infant and maternal mortality nearly double that of whites; and blacks and Latinos have lower rates of health insurance coverage than whites
3. In criminal justice, measured in the disproportionate number of people of color incarcerated and the disparities in sentences they receive compared to whites for the same or similar offenses.
4. The net worth of whites is eight to ten times more than blacks. Three times as many blacks as whites live below 125 percent of the poverty level, and black median household income is only 65 percent that of whites.
These disparities have not changed significantly in decades. The gap between whites and blacks and Latinos has even been widening since the onset of the Great Recession. Unemployment among African Americans has been twice as high as whites and 50 percent higher for Latinos than whites.
We are raised believing in the notion of a meritocracy—that one can become successful by embracing the concept. The assumption in this proposition is that of a level playing field where we all have equal opportunities to develop our abilities and potential. Conversely, if someone or group fails in the game of life in America, then that is because of some personal defect of character or even biology. We have seen this theme repeated in attempts of the wealthy and their apologists in the Academy to link intelligence to success and superior genetic endowment. It is a recurrent theme used to blame the victims of systemic, institutionalized racism, sexism, abelism, homophobia and all other forms of discrimination used to marginalize people who have been systematically prevented from participating fully in this society.
While it may be comforting and convenient to believe that only the most highly qualified people are recruited to occupy the upper echelons of the organizations which run our society (and indeed the world’s), it is far too simplistic to assume that the centuries of human pain, suffering and failure experienced by marginalized groups rests solely on their purported social, psychological and physiological imperfections. Certainly, marginalized people have made political and economic advances. They must continue to believe that there is hope for more, but we all must recognize the limitations imposed on people by institutions that are dominated by a white male minority who continue to resist significant changes in their use and abuse of power. I believe in this country and the concept of a meritocracy, but I am also aware of the balance of power and political realities that limit people who have not had the opportunities which prepared them to assume the roles of political and corporate leadership. By analyzing and exposing the weaknesses in our system, it is my hope that we will be able to fulfill the promise of “liberty and justice for all.”
For more information on these points see:
1. Joe R. Feagin, Racist America. Second edition. N.Y.: Routledge, 2010.
2. Stephen Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man. N.Y.: W.W. Norton & Company, 1996.
3. H. Roy Kaplan, The Myth of Post-Racial America. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Education, 2011.
4. Stephen J. McNamee and Robert K. Miller, Jr., The Meritocracy Myth. Second edition. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2009.
H. Roy Kaplan, Ph.D.
Research Associate Professor, Department of Africana Studies, University of South Florida
Two articles that appeared on April 1 in USA Today caught my attention. At first you might think they were an April Fool’s joke. Over a million homes went into foreclosure this year and last. Nearly 15 million people are unemployed and, according to a Gallup Poll last year, 30 million more are underemployed. Poverty is pervasive among people of color, especially their children. More than a third (34 percent) of African American children and 29 percent of Latino children live below the poverty level. A report in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine in November, 2009 noted that nearly half of all children and 90 percent of black children will be on food stamps at some point during childhood. And yet we learn that 75 percent of top CEOs received raises in 2010. While middle and working class people are tightening their belts and being inexorably forced into poverty, (one in seven lives below the poverty level in the U.S.), we find that the compensation of the top 25 CEOs ranged from a low of $15,121,370 for David Cordani of Cigna to the “comfortable” $84,409,515 of Phillippe Dauman of Viacom. (USA Today, April 1, 2011:2B)
It would seem the economy is doing well—at least for some people.
On page 12C of the same paper sports aficionados can scan the salaries of all the teams and players in major league baseball. There are disparities there, too, though many people struggling with their rent or mortgage payments, food, fuel and health care bills probably would not commiserate with players on the “low end” of the scale, drawing in a paltry $414,000 annual salary. And who would begrudge Alex Rodriguez, of the New York Yankees his $32,000,000, or Vernon Wells of the Dodgers his $26 million? With average player compensation this year at $3.31 million, they won’t have to worry about cuts in Medicaid, Head Start, and food stamps.
Should we begrudge businessmen and athletes their salaries? The American Dream, based on the concept of a meritocracy, holds out the promise of wealth to anyone who works hard and plays by the rules. Tell that to the victims of Bernie Madoff, and the millions of children who were not lucky enough to be born to wealthy parents or win the genetic lottery as they struggle to survive. I ask you, how much is enough? Is any job worth that kind of money? What will be the effect of the recent budget deal on the lives of American children?
H. Roy Kaplan is Research Associate Professor in the Department of Africana Studies at the University of South Florida, and author of The Myth of Post-Racial America.