Friday, August 26, 2011

Social Class Hierarchy and Inequity - How social class is different than gender and ethnicity

Will Barratt

I have been reading DeMethra LaSha Bradley’s Chapter in How to talk about hot topics on campus: From polarization to conversation in which she explores the idea of victims and victimization in the context of social class. While that is not the main topic of the chapter it is an idea that has troubled me for some time. Oppression and oppressors is a central theme in much of the literature and teaching that occurs in and around the ideas of gender and ethnicity. However as Bradley points out the victim/victimizer dichotomy does not recognize the nuances of social class reality.

Zweig, in What’s class got to do with it notes that often in multicultural training on ethnicity and nationality students are taught that all cultures are equivalent. In that context this idea of equality reflects my colleague Cseresnesy Lazlo’s comment “Not better, not worse. Only different”. This reduction of hierarchy between ethnicities and nationalities is a good thing. All cultures are equal, there is no hierarchy among ethnicities and cultures.

Freire in Pedagogy of the oppressed explores the idea of oppression quite extensively. In the Brazilian context in which he was writing the oppression came on multiple fronts; from economic to social to political to language, to many others. His idea that the oppressed becoming the oppressor when power shifts is useful on the macro / social and micro / individual scale. Oppressed / victims and oppressor / victimizer are an effective dichotomy at first glance. However, when a nuanced look at gender, ethnicity, and social class takes over, this dichotomy becomes troubling. This is particularly true when dealing with social class.

One proposed remedy for gender and ethnic oppression is the equalization of peoples. People of all genders should be equal, people of all ethnicities should be equal, people of all religions, along with people who are non-religious, should be equal. This is a laudable and achievable goal. When we are all judged by the content of our character and by our behaviors it will be a more just world. Achieving gender equity, ethnic equity, and other forms of equity is a long process and we are moving forward. Many of the egregious inequities found in the US between genders have been slowly and effectively removed. Many more remain, and the price of equity is constant vigilance. Worldwide, things are moving forward toward equity, albeit slowly. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights outlines the path to equity by preventing discrimination and encouraging equal opportunity. President Truman changed the behaviors of everyone in the US armed services by integrating the military, formally establishing ethnic equity. Behaviors changed and attitudes followed, albeit slowly. Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 forbade certain behaviors related to gender and encouraged others. This was a good thing, and there is still work to be done on gender equity.

Solutions to gender, ethnic, religious, and many other forms of inequity are possible because there is no inherent difference between the members of these groups. Men and women, are for all intents and purposes, are physiologically and psychologically the same, with the exception of their reproductive physiology. There is no measureable physiological or psychological difference between members of any religious or non-religious group. And so on. Equality between genders and between other groups is possible because of the inherent physiological and psychological equity among members of those groups. A solution strategy is to promote equity and disassemble hierarchy. There are behavioral differences between groups, and these are learned. One group may pray on their knees and another may pray standing up. Behaviors are what distinguish between members of groups, cultures, and religions.

Members of different social classes, however defined, are the same physically and psychologically. So should we move toward social class equity? This inherent equity of all peoples is one of the underlying principles the Communist Manifesto. It is also one of the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is also one of the founding principles of the United States of America.

The people in the diversity movement are correct when they assert that everyone is equal, that there is no hierarchy among the genders, among people of various or no religions, among people of various ethnicities, etc. Applying this same concept of equality to social class is a different thing altogether.

The problem is hierarchy. Gender is a social construct based on biological dimorphism. There is no inherent hierarchy in gender. Ethnicity is a social construct based on geography of origin. There is no inherent hierarchy in ethnicity. GLBTQ, seen as either a biological or social construct or some combination, is not a hierarchy. Social class is based on a common collection of beliefs about a hierarchy.

Behind social class is hierarchy. No amount of asserting that there is equity among the classes can change this. The social class hierarchy is complicated. Seeing the hierarchy as resources, then equalizing resources can remove the hierarchy. However paying a physician the same as an administrative assistant is just not going to happen. Seeing the hierarchy as education, then equalizing education, and access to education, can remove the hierarchy. However, even among colleges there are hierarchies of perceived prestige, so a college degree from one college is not perceived as the equivalent of a college degree from some other school. Seeing social class as cultural, the asserting the equality of cultures should ameliorate this hierarchy. However, the billions of dollars spent on marketing products to population segments (read different social classes) may pose an impediment to changing the perceived prestige of social class cultures.

The social class hierarchy is something that we all co-create and that is manifest in multiple ways. The injustices of social class can be ameliorated, but as long as social class exists, there will be hierarchy and there will be social class based injustice. This is because the idea of social class is at its core about hierarchy.

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