We have a national myth that everyone is in essence equal, yet we have a disparity of wealth where 10% own more than the other 90% put together and 50% have no net assets. How does one square away occupying a position of extreme privilege in a democratic society? Often, by convincing yourself that your privilege doesn’t exist.
I go thinking about this when I saw a doco on the telly earlier this week. An American teacher/civil rights activists took her race relations education exercise to the UK. A group of volunteers were invited and segregated into brown-eyed and non-brown-eyed. While not a strict racial division, meant the non-brown eye group was exclusively of European ethnicity while the brown-eyed group consisted of people from all ethnic groups. From the start, the teacher treated the groups differently – the brown-eyed group talked with her for two hours in a relaxed setting while the others were left in a room by themselves with no information. When the groups were brought together, the non-browned eyes had to conform to the group organisation that had already been established. If they objected, the teacher said ‘well, you know what those non-brown-eyed types are like, always complaining’. If they got upset, it was further evidence of the inherently uncivilised nature of non-brown-eyeds, which in turn justified treating them poorly and awarding privilege to the brown-eyeds.
It was remarkable how quickly the participants starting conforming to the roles of this little society. Keep it going for generations, bring up children in it, and they would automatically believe that non-brown-eyeds were disobedient troublemakers.
What was interesting was that, despite being in an exercise that showed how systematic discrimination becomes self-reinforcing, many of the people of European descent still refused to believe that this was an explanation for the ethnic divisions within their real-world society. Most said ‘well, I’m not a racist’. Fair enough. But they also had a problem with acknowledging that their ethnicity gave them a relative position of privilege in their society. Many refused to accept as valid the accounts of racism by the non-European participants. You have to, though, don’t you? We’re all raised to believe (and most of us do) that human beings are essentially equal. So acknowledging that you’re privileged means the system is wrong and ought to be changed, which means giving up your position of privilege. Easier not to acknowledge the privilege at all.
Which brings me back to the title – “Rich”.
How many times do we see rightwing columnists use inverted commas around the word rich? As if richness doesn’t really exist. Just a figment of everyone else’s imagination.
It’s the same mechanics at play. Once you acknowledge inequality, it’s a hell of a lot harder to justify benefiting from it. If you won’t acknowledge that you’re rich, you don’t really have to acknowledge that others are poor.
I’m not saying that people don’t acknowledge the ultra-rich. I’m talking about high incomes – the top 10%. That’s an income over $70,000. Those top 10% get 34% of the income, more than the bottom 70%. These are the people who have benefited most from the tax cuts – they pay $2.4 billion less income tax than they did three years ago. And that’s justified by saying ‘they’re not rich’.
Objectively, they – I should say ‘we’ because I’m in that top 10% and so are a high proportion of our readers – are rich. I acknowledge my privilege and am happy for it to be reduced – through higher tax, by giving to charity, and through better wages at the lower end etc – because I want to be part of a better society that more fully realises human potential. And that can’t occur when a tiny portion have most of the wealth.
But for many, too many, they can’t acknowledge they are “rich” because then they would have to question the system that has made them “rich” while so many are poor.