Interesting article in the London Review of Books entitled "What Matters." Link below. The author argues that efforts to eliminate or minimize racism and sexism and homophobia have had no positive effect in changing society for the better, except for the benefits received by the small, elite group of women and minorities and gays who are now members of higher-paid professions. The lack of focus on inequality in income and asset ownership, or class differences, and the focus instead of racism and sexism, has allowed the situation for most people to deteriorate over recent decades.
I think his position can be summarized as follows: assuming that the top 20% of our society owns 80% of the country's assets, and takes home 80% of the country's income every year, then the bottom 80% of society is economically unequal -- they are denied their fair share of wealth. If we succeed in eliminating sexism and racism so that the top 20% has a representative number of whites and minorities, but the distribution does not change, then society as a whole has not benefitted. Society is just as unequal, and unfair, for 80% of its members, as it was during the height of racism and sexism.
It's an interesting analysis. It may be that it's easier for people to demand "equality" based on natural-born characteristics, and harder for people to demand economic equality based on a government-sponsored redistribution of wealth. In other words, most people might agree that it is wrong to refuse to allow any woman to go to law school. But they might not be able to articulate an argument about it being wrong to allow some of our citizens to have no home, no food, no money, no safety net. It's almost as if the powers that be might be willing to give up racism and sexism, but would never consider income redistribution.
Income redistribution is the legitimate purpose of a progressive tax system. When people earn ten million dollars, for example, a progressive tax system should take most of that money for public purposes. There are many reasons for this, including the fact that we should try to prevent any group of people from accumulating so much wealth that they can, essentially, put every single politician on their payroll, and control the country without ever having run for office. Which is what's happened in our country today.
For example, we used to have laws that prohibited one person or company from owning multiple TV stations, radio stations, newspapers, magazines, believing that democracy is best served when many voices can be heard. But some scum-bucket like Rupert Murdoch comes into this country and starts bribing politicians, and suddenly the laws are changed to allow him to buy up much of the media in the country and use it to promote fascist propaganda. Rich people destroy democracy, and that is why they should not be allowed to get too rich.
For another example, if Bill Gates had been taxed at 90% on his "earnings," maybe he wouldn't have charged the public so much for his crappy operating system, maybe he wouldn't have been so eager to keep competitors from entering the marketplace, maybe he wouldn't have devoted so much time to getting H1b visas to bring in 6-year immigrant labor and pay them less than Americans, all being the types of predatory conduct of people who know they're not going to pay much in taxes, so they are motivated to get as much as they can.
Of course a percentage of our taxes, and those from every country with any wealth, should be turned over to an NGO supervised fund for development, and used to end poverty in the third world. Why should a few ultra-rich people in this country have gold-plated toilets and multiple homes, while millions throughout the world starve? Why is it considered radical to say that this type of inequality must be ended?
We have gone through a period in which we theoretically have a national commitment to being more "fair" to our own people, but the end result is more unfair. Fewer people run everything, the politicians are openly selling their votes, a few rich people own and control all the media, we have more people out of work, more people homeless, fewer people can afford to own a home, states and cities are bankrupt, schools are underfunded, the rich pay less in taxes, more people have been forced into poverty. This isn't progress towards a more fair society. It's just a bit more mixed in terms of gender and race.
Walter Benn Michaels
"Who Cares about the White Working Class"
edited by Kjartan Páll Sveinsson
"... [I]t would be a mistake to think that because the US is a less racist, sexist and homophobic society, it is a more equal society. In fact, in certain crucial ways it is more unequal than it was 40 years ago. No group dedicated to ending economic inequality would be thinking today about declaring victory and going home."
"In 1969, the top quintile of American wage-earners made 43 per cent of all the money earned in the US; the bottom quintile made 4.1 per cent. In 2007, the top quintile made 49.7 per cent; the bottom quintile 3.4. And while this inequality is both raced and gendered, it’s less so than you might think. White people, for example, make up about 70 per cent of the US population, and 62 per cent of those are in the bottom quintile. Progress in fighting racism hasn’t done them any good; it hasn’t even been designed to do them any good. More generally, even if we succeeded completely in eliminating the effects of racism and sexism, we would not thereby have made any progress towards economic equality. A society in which white people were proportionately represented in the bottom quintile (and black people proportionately represented in the top quintile) would not be more equal; it would be exactly as unequal. It would not be more just; it would be proportionately unjust. "... ...
"Thus the primacy of anti-discrimination ... performed the intellectual function of focusing social analysis on what she calls ‘questions of racial or sexual identity’ and on ‘cultural differences’ instead of on ‘the way in which capitalist economies create large numbers of low-wage, low-skill jobs with poor job security’. The message of Who Cares about the White Working Class?, however, is that class has re-emerged: ‘What we learn here’, according to the collection’s editor, Kjartan Páll Sveinsson, is that ‘life chances for today’s children are overwhelmingly linked to parental income, occupations and educational qualifications – in other words, class.’ "
Walter Benn Michaels teaches English at the University of Illinois, Chicago. His most recent book is The Trouble with Diversity; his next will be The Death of a Beautiful Woman: Form Now.