Posts Tagged ‘Class Privilege’

The changing meaning of ‘privilege’

September 13, 2018

The following is from an exchange of e-mails with a friend of mine about an essay by Matthew Crawford, a writer I admire, on the topic of “Privilege.” 

Hello, [Friend]:

    “Privilege” has always been a fraught word for me.  I was brought up to believe that I was a privileged person, and that I had obligations beyond the ordinary to “give back” to society.

    In the high school I attended, a large fraction of students dropped out when they reached the age of 16 because their families wanted them to get jobs.

     In those days, graduation from college was not a universal ambition.  Staying in high school long enough to graduate was considered an achievement.  Very few of us went on to college.

     I was one of the few—predestinated because of the choices of my parents—and therefore in those days (the 1950s) assured of a comfortable middle-class life.  I have been aware throughout my life that I did nothing to deserve having a better fate than my classmates who dropped out of school.

     I was taught from a young age by my parents, teachers and Sunday School teachers that prejudice and discrimination against Negroes (as they were called then), Jews and Catholics was morally wrong.  I came to understand the evils of male chauvinism, homophobia and prejudice against transgendered people about the same time as most liberal education straight white men did.

     I never thought of immunity from prejudice and discrimination as a “privilege.”  I thought of it as something that everyone should enjoy.  The fact that I can drive at night through [a certain suburb] without fear of police harassment does not necessarily mean that some black person has to suffer police harassment in my place.

     It is true that what you call “presumption of competence” is a kind of privilege.  I hadn’t thought of it in exactly that phrase.  But, yes, it true, in competition for scarce resources, such as jobs, I as a straight white Anglo cisgendered male enjoy an unearned advantage over someone who is  gay, black, Hispanic, transgendered, female or some combination.

    Of course such privilege I enjoy is much less than the privilege the privilege of those born to inherited wealth and legacy admissions to elite universities – people such as George W. Bush, Mitt Romney and Donald J. Trump.   They begin life from a position of wealth and power that was out of reach for most people after a lifetime of effort.    The chief means by which people are sorted into social and economic classes are (1) inherited wealth and (2) educational credentials.

     For at least 40 years, a tiny minority of people at the top of the economic and social pyramid have been leveraging their advantages to amass wealth and power at the expense of everybody else.  Most (not all] members of this group are white males, but the vast majority of people, including white males, do not benefit from this group’s privileges.

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Sabbath observance as a class privilege

September 6, 2015

I attend church almost every Sunday morning.  Not everybody is able to do this.

Nowadays many people are forced to work on Sunday mornings or work on flextime schedules so that they don’t know whether their Sunday mornings will be free or not.   And even more are unable to have an old-fashioned Sunday dinner with family or spend Sundays visiting relatives and family friends.

Closed-on-SundayI hadn’t given much thought to this until it was pointed out this Sunday morning by Peter House, who serves as summer minister at First Universalist Church of Rochester NY.

Peter grew up in one of those families of whom members say later, “We were poor, but we were happy, because we didn’t know we were poor.”  His mother was a poor widow who supported the family by working in a retail store.

When he was a boy, Sundays were spent going to church, visiting relatives, paying respects at the cemetery to deceased loved ones, and eating family meals.

This started to erode when he was in his early teens, with the repeal of the Sunday blue laws and the coming of big box retail stores.   Churches adapted by holding multiple Sunday services and even Saturday evening services, but it was no long possible for his family to count on all being together at the same time on Sunday.  His mother was sometimes free on Sunday mornings, but no longer could be sure of knowing when.

Traditional holidays are being broken down as well.  Black Friday means that store employees have to cut short their Thanksgiving in order to be read to open at 5 a.m. or even midnight.  Now Walmart opens all day on Thanksgiving.

Peter’s weekday job is teacher of special needs children.  As part of an effort to teach social skills to children, he once talked to six of his students about Thanksgiving.  Five of the six had mothers who had to work on Thanksgiving Day.   Some of them didn’t know what a traditional Thanksgiving meal consisted of.  One thought Thanksgiving dinner was hot dogs cut up into macaroni and cheese.

The teachers’ aides at his school, many of them women of color, have to moonlight at other jobs, often big-box retailers.   Many miss not being able to cook holiday meals for their families.  But the reality of employment in 21st century America is that they can’t.

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