Has tackling discrimination led to a more elitist society?

Has greater social equality fueled the creation of a more elitist society? Alexander Still, in a recent piece titled “The Paradox Of the New Elite” for the New York Times, raises this question:

IT’S a puzzle: one dispossessed group after another — blacks, women, Hispanics and gays — has been gradually accepted in the United States, granted equal rights and brought into the mainstream.

At the same time, in economic terms, the United States has gone from being a comparatively egalitarian society to one of the most unequal democracies in the world.

Many of us will assert vigorously that the U.S. has hardly reached the promised land when it comes to equal opportunity. Nevertheless, it would be hard to argue that substantial progress hasn’t been made.

Concentrated wealth and opportunity

During this time of social progress, we’ve also witnessed a tremendous concentration of wealth and opportunity through what some might call the American meritocracy. As Still explains:

But with educational attainment going increasingly to the children of the affluent and educated, we appear to be developing a self-perpetuating elite that reaps a greater and greater share of financial rewards. It is a hard-working elite, and more diverse than the old white male Anglo-Saxon establishment — but nonetheless claims a larger share of the national income than was the case 50 years ago, when blacks, Jews and women were largely shut out of powerful institutions.

So…Still raises a provocative question: Are the two trends — less discrimination and the rise of a supposed meritocracy — related or coincidental?

Class struggle, if not warfare

In a recent post, I wrote about Chief Justice Warren Burger’s 1971 judicial opinion in the case of Griggs v. Duke Power Co. (1971), where the Supreme Court struck down two job requirements — a high school diploma and passing scores on two aptitude tests — that had the effect of excluding most African American job applicants from consideration for higher paying jobs in the company. In addition to holding that the company’s hiring policy had discriminatory impact, the Court found that the company could not prove that the requirements were closely related to skills and abilities necessary for the jobs in question.

Here’s the relevant piece of Justice Burger’s opinion:

The facts of this case demonstrate the inadequacy of broad and general testing devices as well as the infirmity of using diplomas or degrees as fixed measures of capability. History is filled with examples of men and women who rendered highly effective performance without the conventional badges of accomplishment in terms of certificates, diplomas, or degrees. Diplomas and tests are useful servants, but Congress has mandated the common sense proposition that they are not to become masters of reality.

In that one paragraph, the Chief Justice brilliantly anticipated the craziness to come: High-stakes educational testing at multiple levels. The U.S. News & World Report rankings of colleges, universities, and graduate programs. Out-of-control anxieties over college admissions. Employer love affairs with graduates of elite institutions. Higher and higher settings of the credential bar to enter professions and obtain opportunities.

Higher education as an example

Don’t get me wrong: Discrimination still exists. Definitely.

But over the past decade I’ve seen these class-based patterns gaining a stronghold in my world of higher education. New (or resurgent) barriers of class and privilege are nudging aside the old ones of race, gender, and sexual orientation, especially when it comes to faculty recruitment. As our faculties are becoming somewhat more diverse in terms of “check-the-box” demographic categories, they are becoming even more homogeneous in terms of socio-economic and professional backgrounds, with heavy emphasis placed on holding higher degrees from a very small number of elite universities.

The implications for teaching and scholarship are enormous. Knowledge sharing and creation increasingly are being funneled through very narrow bands of life experiences and perspectives. It’s a problem that transcends standard-brand categories of diversity and political ideology, which may be one reason why it isn’t receiving much attention from within the academy.

26 responses

  1. Damn straight. Affirmative action has never been class-based and as a result, our social institutions have successfully presented a facade of diversity. We can add all the color we want, but there remains little tolerance for diversity in thought, speech or dress, and those who do distinguish themselves in these regards become potential targets of aggression. As for academic institutions, on the one hand, an education is the best route for ascending class. On the other hand, working class professors are disproportionately targeted for mobbing the more they think, talk and look working class. Where I come from (Michigan auto worker stock), when management screwed workers, they stuck together and spoke out — because their safety was on the line. But when I became a professor and spoke out about abusive conduct, I was called mentally ill by the people who taught — what’s that? Class and race. They like us as research subjects, and like putting us on their bumper stickers to show their class solidarity, but when it comes to sitting next to them at the conference table, it’s “talk this way,” and “think this way” or “get out of my way.”

  2. When I was growing up I lived in a neighborhood in Denver that was mostly white. Their were households headed by sales people, CEOs, defense plant workers, warehouse workers, skilled-trades people and professionals. It was class diverse, but only slightly racially diverse. I don’t see any class-diverse neighborhoods these days. The CEOs have most definitely moved out. The non-college educated don’t live in middle class neighborhoods any more either.

  3. Class is a curious concept. I was once teaching at the University of Houston, an urban-based university with over fifty percent non-white and largely “working class” students. In an intro class I once asked how many people were workiing class, yet only a couple of hands shot up. When I asked how many were middle class, most hands went up.

    It wasn’t at all surprising; after all, how is class defined by the common citizen? By relationship to means of production? Income? Profession? Education? Parent’s class? Social perception? My 14 year old daughter asked me yesterday why the politicians all talk about the middle class, and never the working class. The truth is, most working class people would consider it an insult to be called working class, at least here in America where class is made invisible (in contrast to Europe where there is a greater awareness of class divisions and their roots). We are, indeed, “The Other” even as we are the majority of our society.

  4. Survey after survey reveal the tendency of individuals to self-identify as “middle class,” even if they’re earning a VERY healthy income or on the very edge of the poverty line.

    I think this tendency also plays into our resistance to address class issues in society. It’s a very threatening topic.

    • I am curious to know, how do we classify income statuses in our society and what is the politically correct terminology to use today? When I attended, Aquinas College, we were taught that there were several classes or groups of workers~Blue Collar (service workers), White Collar, (high end Executives, CEO’s etc…) and even Pink Collar (nurses, beauticians…). I have only heard of middle class~and among them upper middle class, the poor and the working poor would belong to what class? Where did the term low-income originate and what would be the opposite of low-income, or is there even a term for that? I strongly believe what we are facing today is a class war. Groups are pitted against each other~the poor and the working poor, the later left to believe that all their strife is due to taxes taken out of their wages to support the poor~ so they can justifiably target their anger towards them, ignoring what is really happening.

  5. I grew up in a small, one industry town. Small enough that we all had “no class”…everybody was just a neighbour and some had bigger houses. I brought that attitude to my work in a “big city” and have paid mightily for failing to understand the nuances of class and power differentials! We should all be so fortunate as to live somewhere that personal connections must ALL be cultivated because there aren’t enough “others” to bother with distinctions!

    I have always maintained that I could live without most of the highest paid individuals in society, but would find it difficult to get by without the local garbage collector. Income doesn’t tell me anything about the value of a human being. It’s what you do with what you’ve got. Anybody who is doing their best with whatever they’ve got to work with in any arena is about as good as it gets from my perspective! And I am generally suspicious of highly “credentialed” people…because I know how much those credentials cost and wonder who paid for them. Many people with daily mundane responsibilities (like feeding themselves and keeping a roof over their heads) don’t have the time and money to obtain them, and are of much higher practical value than those with the impressive education bought at the expense of life experience.

    I wonder how much the homogenized neighbourhoods of larger centres leads to classism? If everyone grows up surrounded by families that share similar demographics, the neighbourhood defines the norm and everyone thinks that they are representative of a larger portion of society than they are!

  6. Insightful. I was reading a book called Health care’s forgotten majority: Nurses and their frayed white collars by Goodman-Draper (1995). She makes clear the class struggle for nurses between “workers” and professionals by using E. O. Wright’s class model to measure dimensions of control within a workplace. This is essentially the topic at hand, the control of the extant society over the working class and the aggression and abuse of power used to exert that control or enforcement of values. I think the middle class is rapidly disappearing. It will be the 1% controlling the 99% no matter how highly educated the 99% become.

    • Hi James, thanks for the link. It’s interesting that Mintz says that “You can’t legislate ethical behavior,” which is a standard line we hear about legislation designed to address bullying. Actually, we legislate ethical behavior all the time!

      More to the point, the workplace bullying legislation I’ve authored is much different than what we’re seeing with the school bullying legislation. The Healthy Workplace Bill enters the picture when the behavior becomes abusive and provably hurtful.


  7. I think at one time I would concur that there was an imbalance between “black and white.” However, with certain criteria in place, people of color were able to enter the “white” world. I remember riding on a train to work and reading a sign that they posted that said, “a mind is a terrible thing to waste.” Help support the american negro fund. I came from a working class enviornment, some poor, some not so poor, and I thought, I wish there was a fund for me. That was in the late 60’s and I didn’t go to college until I could afford it myself at a later age. Nuf said.

    • I understand the concern about wishing there were more opportunities for working class of any color or ethnicity to have access to higher education; I had to work my way all through school and it made it all the more difficult to get good grades and establish the social networks that help graduates get professional jobs. And I had no idea how to get into graduate school, and had to figure everything out as I went along. Clearly, a class-based affirmative action program would address many of these issues.

      But we must be careful that when discussing class, that the many ways that people of color are excluded are not dismissed. Racism crosses all class boundaries, and as a white woman, I have benefited from my “white privilege” in many ways that I would not if my skin were darker, despite my class origins.

      An insightful read on the history of white poverty is “Redneck Manifesto.” I don’t recall the author, but he traces the historical legacy of indentured servitude and how it has impacted white poverty. Or watch The Wild Wonderful Whites of West Virginia. Just for laughs . . .

  8. Maybe I wasn’t clear. In my life, there was no differentiation in “class.” I did not grow up in a ghetto, either. As I left my little hamlet, I guess you would call it a suburb of Boston…lol, I jumped the fence, (really the tunnel) and learned to live in so many different environments. I had great jobs and made great money despite not graduating college.I had already lived with poor people, and later lived with very rich people. If I didn’t like them, it wasn’t because of who they were and what they had or didn’t have, but what they were and if they were good people. That goes across the board. I was raised without any bias and remain that way. My mother was non-biased also; however, she made it clear that she admired the Asian culture and the American Indian. Luckily, my father, who by the way, came from a very affluente family, was always away. And, at the age of 11, he retired and then I started to hear what bigotry was about. Thank God, it was too late. I was already who I was going to be. I think children form their life-long character by the time they are at least seven and I truly was raised that we are all equal way before that age. So, Janice, I won’t be reading those books. Human nature makes all of us wishing, at one time or another,for things that seem unattainable. I may take you up on this reading material; however,. I probably have already lived the scenarios. Have you?

  9. Maybe I wasn’t clear. In my life, there was no differentiation in “class.” Didn’t even know or care about the difference between a mercedes or a ford. I did not grow up in a hamlet either…it was called the projects. As I left my little enclave, I guess you would call it a suburb of Boston…lol, I jumped the fence (really the tunnel) at the age of 20. Headed for Hawaii and learned to live in so many different environments. I had great jobs and made great money despite not graduating college. I have to thank the Notre Dame sister who gave me a college education in high schooI. I had already lived with poor people, and later lived with very rich people.(here comes the class card) If I didn’t like them, it wasn’t because of who they were and what they had (and they had a lot) or didn’t have, but what they were and if they were good people. That goes across the board. I was raised without any bias and remain that way. My mother was non-biased also; however, she did admire the Asian culture and the American Indian. Luckily, my father, who by the way, came from a very affluente family, was always away. And, at the age of 11, he retired and then I started to hear what bigotry was about. Thank God, it was too late. I was already who I was going to be. I think children form their life-long character by the time they are at least seven and I truly was raised to believe that we are all equal way before that age. My mother used to tell me to remember that I was no better than anyone else…and not to be vain. Human nature makes all of us wishing, at one time or another, for things that seem unattainable. Me too! So Janice, I may take you up on this reading material; however, I probably have already lived some of it. Have you?

  10. A few responses to another stimulating exchange….

    Janice, we are largely in agreement about the way that class is treated in academe. Those of us who don’t talk or write like pages ripped out of the Oxford English Dictionary often are regarded as somewhat suspect, and heaven help those who challenge the orthodoxies of the faux-liberal, upper middle class status quo that has gained a toehold in academe. Some of those denizens are not exactly welcoming of diversities that don’t fit into their definitions of diverse.

    Reading over these comments generally, I keep returning to my belief that it is harder (though not impossible) to understand various types of “isms” without having personally experienced them, or at least observed them up close and personal. However, understanding what it feels like to be on the weaker end of a personal and institutional power relationship is a good starting point and gives us some common ground.

    On that, I’ll again reference the work of Robert Fuller, whose important work on “rankism” and the need for a “dignitarian” society I wrote about in 2009:


    • I really appreciate your comments and can say I have been on “both sides of the fence.” Good nite and God bless. mj

  11. Dr. Yamada,
    What an amazind article. I appreciate your wisdom. This helps so much in understanding what happened in my academic bullying experience. Actually, I suspected these dynamics when I lost my job. (bullied out) But I could not believe it at the time.
    I am an IT Professional with almost 20 years experience. I taught Technology at a local Technical College. I was amazed that these dynamics you spoke of would reach all the way down to a Technical College….but apparently it has. I am a highly experienced IT Pro with a killer resume. Not boasting….just honest. I have a great track record with many accomplishments. I have also worked for some of the best companies in the world. Yet…I was bullied out of a teaching job with completely insane accusations & implications. I loved what I was doing…I had a great relationship with my students and my classes were always full.Great reviews also.

    The ONLY thing I could rationally figure out was:……I don’t have a Masters Degree in Technology.

    But my knowledge & experience far transcends having a Masters Degree.
    Your article validates exactly what I have felt in my gut. I.E….Elitism…even at the Technical College level. Thanks again.

    • Paul, I’m glad this piece could shed some light, though I wish it didn’t hit so personally. I know that for many people, these discussions are hardly “academic.” They very much relate to personal experience.

      When you say “insane accusations,” I get it. There’s nothing rational about these behaviors; it makes no sense from the standpoint of the institution’s own best interests.

      In fact, here’s another distinction: If someone is on the receiving end of, say, racial discrimination or sexual harassment, people will understand the underlying bases of the behaviors, at least to the extent that we know that certain types of bias exist in our society. But explaining the rationale for bullying often is much more difficult — often it takes some digging to get to the core motivations, and sometimes they simply aren’t apparent even after that.

      • Dr. Yamada,
        Boy isn’t that the truth. It took me months to figure out what was really happening. Even now I feel like I do not have the whole truth. I’m torn as to whether it was a personal, one-on-one thing. Or from a “corporate” (larger) purpose/source. To be honest….it seems like it is a “one off” personal thing. My supervisor definitely had a personality disorder or something else very wrong. One thing I know…she was stressed out per her emails to all Instructors. She was relatively new (1.5 yrs) in a very visible and demanding postition. But HOW can anything justify her behavior? Not just to me…but many others before me. This is why I’m thinking there may be a “corporate” motivation behind it. Same idea with mannnny of the bullying in Academia stories I read & hear of.

  12. Almost all the academic mobbing targets I’ve interviewed were either people of color or came from working class backgrounds. Some of the class differences that stand out are speech styles (working class speak more directly and more simply); approaches to conflict (working class are more likely to approach conflict head on, consider it over when it’s over, and report managerial misconduct or other issues that could affect the safety/morale/income of the workforce); emotional expression (working class are less likely to suppress emotional expression, whereas upper classes learn to suppress and conceal emotion at an early age); and allegiance to authority (working class do not identify as closely with management, nor respect managers until they have earned it, whereas upper classes are much more aware of how their own status is reliant upon kissing up and will disrespect the person who does not do so regardless of their opinion of the management). These are generalities, of course, but important cultural factors that contribute to why working class get targeted more often, perceived as crazy/threatening (you know when a working class person is angry or anguished but an upper class person is more likely to smile or go silent). In addition, working class are more economically vulnerable, and may react more emotionally when their livelihoods are threatened. Does anyone have different experiences? I’m still thinking this one through myself.

    • Janice, I haven’t personally seen the upper class/working dynamic concerning mobbing or bullying in academe, but that may be because there are even fewer people of genuine working class backgrounds that find their way into law teaching.

      In my little neck of the woods, I’ve seen the division more between upper middle and middle. I see those distinctions you make — speech, conflict, emotions, authority, etc. — all the time.

      And oh yes, as someone who typically does not bury his emotions, I have learned that academe is very uncomfortable with expressions of emotion. In fact, what works very well for me in the classroom — a very natural combination of content, analysis, humor, seriousness, and dialogue — rarely has a place in any given faculty meeting.

      Along some of the lines you mention about appealing to authority, you may find interesting a post I wrote up about the “Let me impress you” clubbers:

    • RIght on, Janice! Working class tend to speak and ‘tell it like it is’ instead of hiding behind “nice”-btw-what you are saying is substantiated in linguistic research. Since universities are middle class domains, working class academics often have a difficult time. One thing comes to mind–student opinions of working class female professors who tend to be more direct are considered “mean” and “harsh.” I know of several female prof. who have been described like this and then ‘punished’ by middle class ‘nice’ chairs who won’t tolerate this treatment of students. Hardly anyone talks about the ‘class wars’ in academia, except for the folks in Working Class Studies. I definitely agree that class issues need to be addressed with respect to bullying and mobbing.

  13. Great discussion! Yes, the current concept of “diversity” is only skin deep. Exceptional employees are bullied out of work. If you speak up, you are labeled mentally ill. People who think, speak, or dress differently are squashed. Employers look for credentials over integrity, honesty, creativity, work ethic, and the ability to think. Racism is still a problem. It’s all an elitist version of primitive tribalism.

  14. Pingback: Meet Professor David Yamada, Suffolk University Law School Professor, and host of the Minding the Workplace blog, from The New Workplace Institute. | Workspace Practices

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