Universal Translator

Friday, May 13, 2011

"Status" Turns Race Relations Into a Zero-Sum Game

Angry Black Lady has a post up about a recent study that seems to indicate that for a lot of white people, race relations is a zero-sum game:  as more and more progress is made to achieve race equality in American society, a not insignificant number of whites apparently feel that any gain by black Americans comes at the expense of whites.

As ABL points out, this seems quite insane on its face.  The fact that black people aren’t facing as wide-spread discrimination as they have before doesn’t mean that white people are now being discriminated against, no more than allowing same-sex marriage has any impact on heterosexual marriage.

Except, y’know . . . while I agree with this statement I think it is incomplete.  Specifically, I think ABL’s quick post ignores something very basic about the way humans view themselves and their society.  It ignores the very important but non-material question of relative status.

* * *

I wouldn’t say that I am a hard-core believer in evolutionary psychology, the idea that human behavior is largely the result of evolved adaptations.  But I’ve read a few books on the subject and that reading has made me think about some of the universal things we do and are concerned with as a species.  One of the big organizing factors in tribal hominids such as ourselves is the idea of relative status – where we rank in the tribe, village, organization, society, etc.

And this very much is a zero-sum game.  Clearly defined hierarchical rankings means that if someone below you climbs in status, then even if nothing in your actual circumstances have changed – if you still have the same perks, the same assets, the same food, the same mate – your perceived status has declined.  You are now perceived to be less well-off than you were, because and only because someone who was ranked lower than you has now climbed to your same level or above. 

This is why we care about stupid shit like “keeping up with the Joneses,” and why some people’s first reaction when invited to their neighbor’s house to watch the big game on the brand-new big plasma screen is not to thank their friend for the invite, but to curse their own now clearly insufficient 48” tube TeeVee.  “Status” is a large part of why we have envy.

Here’s a personal example of how hierarchical rankings can mean you can lose a little in any society or organization, even if nothing in your personal circumstances change.  Years ago, I was the Senior Associate at a small law firm.  Our firm had grown over the years, and at some point we decided we needed to bring in a new associate who was about the same number of years out of law school as I was; of course, I had been with the firm since its founding. But all of the other associates' offices were occupied and we needed space for this new guy and so we decided to turn our small conference room into a new office.  It would be bigger than any existing associate office, and I was offered the right of first refusal.  I thought this was a minor thing and I was comfortable with where I was, so I turned the offer down.  (I was also concerned that changing offices when I didn't have to, merely to take the bigger office, might be seen as a little petty.)

The new guy then took the new, larger office and in a very short span – a month or two at most – I suddenly noticed that the staff, who had worked with me for years, deferred to this new guy and his needs whenever they conflicted with mine.  Nothing had changed with respect to my actual, material status, but now this guy had surpassed me in perceived ranking simply by being given a larger office.  And because he had risen in perceived ranking, now he actually did seem to have things a bit better:  his work would get completed before mine.  (This state of affairs lasted only until we moved to a new building about a year later and I claimed the Big Office there, but this simple lesson in stupid group dynamics was never lost on me.)

* * *

Unfortunately, this country has a long history of sorting people into social rankings based on nothing more than skin color, gender, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, etc.  And, of these, skin color has been the most significant sorting factor by far.  (I recognize that black men were given the right to vote before white women, but (i) that right was pretty much routinely denied for about a century thereafter, and (ii) white women – as bad as their situation may have been at times and in parts of this country – were never subject to routine beatings, lynchings and being sold off at auction.  So if we’re comparing horribles, I’m going to go with racial discrimination for the win.)

This isn’t even really subject to debate.  It is well known.  Chris Rock has a whole bit about it on one of his albums, where he basically points out that for the longest time no matter how poor, how ignorant, how dirty, how white-trash you were . . . at least you weren’t black.  No matter who you were, if you were white then at least you had that going for you.

And so for the lizard brains who still dwell among us, every time black people (or women, or gays, or Muslims, etc., etc.) are perceived as getting closer in equality status to “real Americans” – you know . . . straight, white Christian men – then for the lizard brains straight, white, Christian men must be losing.

And the truly sad thing about this is twofold.  First, analogous to the personal example I provided above, a perceived difference in social ranking is to some extent self-perpetuating.  If black Americans are widely perceived to be of lesser rank then you can expect them, in comparison to white Americans, to receive lesser service (in restaurants, for example), lesser attention (from the police when making a complaint, for example), less benefit of the doubt (when in court, for example), etc., etc., etc.  And the more wide-spread this type of "soft" discrimination is, the more it fuels continued perception of lesser status.

The second and probably more significant pernicious effect is that whenever large groups of people are considered as of "lesser rank" than others, then some or a lot of the contributions these large groups might otherwise make to our society as a whole will be lost to us all. 

Which is why our instinctive perception of social status rankings as a zero-sum game is so destructive.  Trying to engineer a society that provides equality of opportunity for all doesn't mean that those who before were relatively privileged will now be less absolutely privileged; what it means is that the largest asset our society has -- its people -- can be more efficiently utilized.  That isn't zero-sum, that's win-win.

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