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.