October 27, 2015

LIBERALLY BLONDE | Privilege and Inequality

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“Since many of you are from upper-middle class families, why care about inequality?”

In last week’s developmental sociology section, this question was asked of my discussion group. While it was a genuine question designed to invite discussion, it nonetheless struck a chord. There are no economic or political prerequisites for acknowledging inequality. There are no required justifications for considering it a prevalent problem. While certain socioeconomic groups are undeniably more affected by the issue, anyone and everyone can examine statistics, hold conversations, read literature and feel passionate about the problem. Income often does not – but more importantly should not – dictate empathy.

I will admit an irony does exist where certain members of the wealthy, upper class decry economic inequality. It is often hard not to question the elites’ motivation for supporting progressive taxation and similar liberal policies designed to reduce the income gap. However, I fail to see the purpose in criticizing this irony. As long as the wealthy individuals do not claim to fully understand or experience the effects of poverty, there is no harm in their advocating for economic reform. Arguing that “limousine liberalism is a problematic view” is problematic in itself. It implies that, in order to credibly care about poverty, individuals must themselves be impoverished. When taken out of context of the issue, this logic appears foolish, even distressing. Should every proponent of gun control be a victim of violence in order to credibly support the issue?

Rather than questioning or critiquing others’ recognition of inequality, we should be working to improve our own understanding of the problem. In my freshman year of high school, my speech and debate team participated in an activity called “the privilege walk.” My peers and I stood in a straight line in the middle of an empty room as our teacher read aloud a list of statements. If the statement applied to an individual, he or she would take a step forward. If the statement did not apply, that person would take a step back. The statements our teacher asked ranged from “There were more than 50 books in the house that I grew up in” to “I am sure I can enter a store without being followed,” and were designed to inspire reflection and inspection. When our teacher finished reading, she told us to look around the room. This was the first time inequality was directly explained to me, and this visual, obvious explanation left a lasting impression.

As I looked around the room, it became apparent that my peers and I were not only divided by race and gender, but also by socioeconomic status. While there are many factors and intricacies involved with this exercise, it become apparent that those from the poorest households were stationed far behind the starting line (some students were standing at the wall), while others from wealthier homes stood far in front of the starting line. This exercise taught me that inequality is not only a matter of a gap in earnings, but also a matter of a gap in opportunity. This exercise taught me that inequality is not a matter of income, but a matter of an unfair division of resources. This exercise taught me that inequality is penetrative, infiltrating every aspect of individuals’ lives.

The fact that inequality exists is undisputed; it is an unspoken, bipartisan agreement. However, agreement does not exist concerning who should care, why we should care and if we should care. Less important are the first two questions, most important is the latter. We should care because inequality is inefficient, economically and politically. We should care because inequality leads to disillusionment and disempowerment. We should care because the “American dream” has become “The Unattainable Dream.” Last week, instead of asking, “Why care about inequality?” my teacher assistant should have asked, “How can we make a difference?”

Kayleigh Rubin is a freshman PAM major in the College of Human Ecology. Kayleigh is an American Ninja Warrior fanatic, ice cream addict and literature enthusiast. Liberally Blonde appears on Tuesdays this semester. She can be reached at [email protected].