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Wednesday 29 January 2003

Wealth, Class, and Success

I have come across a discussion of why American blacks and whites of the same income levels do not succeed (go to college, get good grades, get good jobs, etc.) at the same rates.

Apparently a Yale sociologist has written a book in which he shows a correlation between parental wealth (i.e., household net worth) and achievement that does not seem to be affected by skin color.

Well, obviously. But I think that this analysis mistakes “wealth” for “class”, something that happens a lot in the United States. Your social class in America is determined almost entirely by your wealth, but it’s really much more subtle.

MTV Cribs is quite valuable for observing this. Cribs is a kind of MTV Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous where every week viewers are treated to tours of houses of movie stars, celebrity musicians, athletes, etc. Everyone on the show has a high income, and most of them have had that high income for long enough to accumulate a good deal of wealth. But the choices most of these people make as to how to spend their money — bling-bling lifestyle accessories, Rolls-Royces with gold wheels, gold-plated tableware, gold bathroom fixtures, swimming pools with giant lucite dollar signs in the middle (really), incredibly ugly ‘antiques’ covered with gold leaf, etc. — expose them as low-class, whatever their wealth. If you’ve never seen MTV Cribs, Graceland and, in fact, Elvis in general also illustrate the phenomenon. (Curiously, professional athletes seem to do much better, class-wise, than hip-hop stars, at least to judge from their houses.)

There are suggestions in the Yalie’s book (see his synopsis at the bottom of this page) for class-based affirmative-action policies, policies that would encourage “minority propety accumulation”.

The question is: does accumulation of property tend to raise one’s social class, or does one’s internalization of higher-class values result in behavior that results in the accumulation of property? My strong suspicion is that it’s the latter. What the lower class needs, if it’s to succeed, is some way of learning and assimilating, on a large scale, the values of the middle class.

This is a tricky proposition, to say the least. In the U.S., efforts to get poor people to adopt middle-class habits and values would almost certainly be denounced as racism, and an attempt to “destroy” minority communities. Most of the highly-visible poverty in this country is among African-Americans, and there is a certain type of very noisy activist who is ready to denounce any exhibition of middle-class values among a resident of the ghetto as Uncle-Tomism. If you follow the logic, it appears that the denouncers regard the authentic African-American lifestyle to be one of multigenerational poverty, ignorance, and petty crime — not what I think they intend to say.

In any case, this kind of thing tends to meet with resistance even without the racial bugaboo that stalks nearly everything in American society. In 1937, George Orwell, in The Road to Wigan Pier, wrote:

In some districts efforts are not being made to teach the unemployed more about food-values and more about the intelligent spending of money. When you hear of a thing like this you feel yourself torn both ways. I have heard a Communist speaker on the platform grow very angry about it. In London, he said, parties of society dames now have the cheek to walk into East End houses and give shopping-lessons to the wives of the unemployed. He gave this as an instance of the mentality of the English governing class. First you condemn a family to live on thirty shillings a week, and then you have the damned impertinence to tell them how they are to spend their money. He was quite right — I agree heartily. Yet all the same, it is a pity that, merely for the lack of a proper tradition, people should pour muck like tinned milk down their throats and not even know that it is inferior to the product of the cow.

We must learn to either hold our noses and live in a society where the poor are given shopping-lessons, though, or accept that the mass of them are going to continue drinking tinned milk.

Posted by tino at 21:23 29.01.03
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Good one

Posted by: Bryon at January 31, 2003 03:20 PM