Ending Racial and Economic Inequality, and the Disaster of Political Correctness

Posted: October 18, 2015 in Economics, Language Use, Livin' in the USA, Politics
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GUILT, n. The preferred leftist means of manipulating the white working class into political activism, and a means particularly favored by academics and those from upper middle class backgrounds. The theory behind this is that telling people who are under constant financial stress, have no or inadequate medical insurance, who put off necessary dental care for years, are one paycheck away from being on the street, and are working 40 or more hours per week at jobs they hate that they are “privileged,” and that they should examine their “privilege,” is the ideal way to induce them to altruistically “struggle” in their copious free time for the “liberation” of the “oppressed” in order that the “oppressed” might reach the same “privileged” status that they themselves are so fortunate to enjoy.

–from the revised and expanded edition of The American Heretic’s Dictionary scheduled for June 2016

* * *

Racial inequality and economic inequality are very real problems in the United States. What’s the best way to address them? What’s the best way to talk to people, the best way to motivate people to right wrongs? One way, the inclusive way, is to approach such problems from an economic standpoint, to talk  about rich and poor, to talk about how poor people of all colors get screwed, and what can be done about it. A concrete example of that would address racial imbalance in higher education by demanding that the top 10% or 20% of every high school graduating class in a state be automatically admitted to the state’s university system. An even better, even more inclusive,  demand would be that all who want to attend be automatically granted admission, and that higher education be free for all.

There’s no economic reason not to make such a demand. This is the richest country in the world, but a large majority of people face frightening artificial scarcity, and making such a demand necessarily entails talking about artificial scarcity, the reasons for it, and what can be done about it — a very good thing in itself.  Such an approach has the potential to unite people of all colors. And it has the potential to improve the lives of people of all colors — which is self-evident. (For an explanation of artificial scarcity in the U.S.,  see Why The Work Week Should Be Much Shorter, Parts I, II, III, and IV.) This is the inclusive approach.

Then there’s the divisive approach. It’s commonly called political correctness. It addresses inequalities in racial terms, demanding improvements for members of one race only, while ignoring economic class. Crucially, it implicitly accepts the artificial scarcity in our country, it implicitly accepts that there’s not, and will not be, enough of anything good to go around. The very strong implication of this approach is that improvements for members of one race come at the expense of another.

When translated into government programs, the politically correct approach does divide people. It does drive working class whites into the arms of their right-wing “protectors.” “Affirmative action” is a good example. (The term now means something drastically different from its meaning when JFK first used it in an executive order in 1961; then it meant that government contractors “take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin.” Now it means that some individuals are given preference because of race.) The underlying assumption, which virtually no one talks about, is that there’s not enough to go around. Affirmative action implicitly and strongly endorses this flat-out-wrong assumption.

It’d be far better to demand that good jobs and education be available to all who want them, and that if there are temporary blocks to this, that preference be given purely on the basis of economic need. That’s a persuasive argument, an argument that would gain wide support, and, if adopted as policy, would disproportionately benefit black and brown kids, who are disproportionately poor. The divisive PC approach, “Your kid can’t get into college because there’s a black or brown kid who’ll get preference because he’s black or brown” will, on the contrary, stimulate wide opposition and set up competition based on race.

The end result of racially based policies?  Poor and working class people of different colors fighting over crumbs, hordes of poor and working class whites flocking to right-wing demagogues–and the rich and their corporations still firmly in the saddle. Divide and conquer.

So, make your arguments and approaches economic, not racial, in nature and you might get somewhere. If you make them racial in nature, you’ll end up with poor people of different colors fighting over crumbs.

Another aspect of the problem is guilt-tripping politically correct language. Such language largely comes from academia and more especially, one suspects, from multiculturalists and postmodernists in Ivy League women’s studies, cultural studies, and sociology departments. Take for example the terms “white privilege” and “white skin privilege.” I just did a search for the origin of “white privilege” and discovered that “white privilege” only started being widely used by, first, academics and then leftists after the term was popularized in the 1980s by a Wellesley professor of women’s studies, and subsequently taken up by other academics. (I haven’t done similar searches for any of the other standard PC terms, but I suspect that most if not all have a similar origin.)

What’s wrong with the term “white privilege”? (Black and brown people do, of course, get screwed worse than white people in the USA.) Well, “privilege” is  exactly the same term that almost everyone uses to describe the rich. And, guess what, if you describe one group (whites) with exactly the same term that you describe another (the rich), it makes sense that the group so described/attacked will, at least subconsciously, conclude that they have more in common with the others being so attacked than with those doing the attacking (PC leftists).

The term also implies that white people, as such, no matter what their economic circumstances, cannot be oppressed — how can you oppress someone who’s “privileged”?–again driving a wedge between people of different colors. There’s a crucial difference between accurately describing white working class and poor people as “less oppressed” than black and brown working class people, and inaccurately calling them “privileged.” The accurate description, which posits that all economically deprived people are oppressed,  stimulates thought and discussion among all people; the inaccurate one is a grotesque insult that provokes anger among poor and working class whites. It’s profoundly divisive.

There are other problems with PC terminology. First and foremost, it’s awkward, artificial, manipulative, and often wordy and imprecise; it lends itself to ridicule. So, everyday people don’t use it. I’ve lived in a poor, 75%-brown/black neighborhood for nearly a quarter of a century, I’ve known some of my neighbors for nearly two decades, and I can’t recall ever hearing any of them use any of the standard PC terms.

So, why did politically correct phrasemakers come up with these terms in the first place? Their apparent purpose was to manipulate everyday people into a state of “higher” political consciousness through endless repetition of PC terms and phrases. After decades of use, though, it’s very evident that that project has been an abysmal failure.

Given that, why do a small minority of people continue to use these awkward, artificial terms? Some, especially “progressive” politicians and academics, seem to use them out of conventionality–their colleagues use these terms, and they want to fit in–and also out of the fear of ostracism and retaliation (in employment, for instance) within their spheres.

For those who aren’t using PC jargon purely out of conventionality and fear, it serves the same purposes all in-group jargon serves: it makes those who use it feel good about themselves, how enlightened and special they are, and it allows them to recognize each other. That most ordinary people don’t use PC terms and find them ridiculous or off-putting is entirely beside the point. The point, among those who use these terms out of fear, is self-preservation; among those who use them out of choice, the point is to feel superior and to use the terms as indicators of in-group status.

So, please drop the PC terminology. If you want people to listen to you, don’t use alienating jargon. Talk to people in plain language, the language they themselves use.

And if you want to improve their lives (and your own) economically, make your demands purely in economic, not racial, terms.

  1. Certainly an interesting article but I feel that you somewhat miss the point of what you are talking about.

    You try and quantify everything in terms of economics when the race-problem in America, and in many other countries around the world, is not simply an economic matter. I agree that it should be, but it fundamentally isn’t.

    ‘White privilege’ isn’t a term reserved for ‘rich whites’ it is also a social issue. Races get profiled, this then leads to problems with getting jobs and alters the way that institutions treat and view them.

    The police shootings in Ferguson is one example of this. The police don’t have a higher chance of shooting just poor people but rather poor black people.

    Also, to try and justify right-wing ideology by there being an existence of the left-wing is massively wrong. People become right wing (or racist as you have alluded to in your piece) through ignorance and intolerance and not through economic circumstance or opportunity. AA is there to help people from minority backgrounds elevate themselves in society – it gives them opportunity for which they can hope and aspire.

    Would you rather the status-quo where minorities are put on the back burner for the rest of time, forced to be underprivileged forever? I’d hope not.

    The fact is, white privilege does exist and it does need to be addressed.

    Interesting article but I think you may have missed the mark slightly.


    • No, I’m not “quantify[ing” everything in terms of economics.” Of course, there are other problems, but the point is to unite rather than divide in pursuit of common goals, and economic goals are the most obvious ones.

      Also, regarding the use of “white privilege” in the U.S., you’re missing the point. Why not just talk about how black and brown folks are more oppressed than white folks? Everyone who works for a living is oppressed, some more than others, and some face additional types of oppression. Portraying those who are less oppressed as “privileged” is divisive, insulting, and leads many to identify with another notable “privileged” group, the rich.

      “Would you rather the status-quo where minorities are put on the back burner for the rest of time, forced to be underprivileged forever? I’d hope not”

      That’s not an honest question–that’s an insult. You know the answer to that as well as I do, so why do you ask? Your presumption that use of alienating PC language (“white privilege”) is integral to addressing the additional oppression black and brown people face is absurd. The civil rights struggle of ’50s/’60s took place prior to the widespread use that divisive, alienating term. Was the use of that then-nonexistent term necessary to the civil rights movement’s success? (One rhetorical question deserves another.) The black lives matter movement is another case in point. Simply pointing out and clamoring against blatant injustice should eventually work. It’s not necessary to alienate potential allies–who are murdered in lesser numbers by the cops–by insulting them as “privileged.”

      One of the points I was making in the post was the stupidity of using divisive, alienating language rather than inclusive language. If PC types actually want to make real progress in fighting racial and economic injustice, rather than patting themselves on the back, they’ll drop it in favor of inclusive terms.

      No one is denying that black and brown folks face additional oppression. The point is that divisive PC language serves to perpetuate the very evils it decries by alienating potential allies.


  2. tintin says:

    I’m late to the party here, but this post makes excellent points. It’s my impression there are two additional motives for the divisive privilege shaming that occurs. When done by People of Color, I think it is often done for emotional, sometimes spiteful (rather than discursive) reasons. People of Color have plenty of good reasons to be angry, but when it results in the accusation of “privilege” (as a substitute for “ignorant”), anyone expect resistance and rejection from working class white people. Insults rarely gain allies. When wealthy liberals make the accusation of “privilege”, they are frequently playing a game of “I’m woke, you’re not”. This game results in the wealthy liberal taking refuge behind the facade of being more “evolved” than the lowly, less enlightened fellow whites he or she is self-righteously calling out. What’s their motive? I think the need of wealthy whites to call out other whites is frequently driven by a need to cleanse their own guilt. They know they are sitting on economic advantages gained through a corrupt system, so rather than address that fact, they focus on identity politics. They set themselves apart from their own racial privilege by acting as if their being “woke” absolves them of it, and they focus on identity because it shields them from having to address the guilt of their own relative advantages.


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