Check your wealth: Economics left out of discourse on privilege

By Simon Brown / Columnist

In the past year or so, the term “privilege” has become common currency in social media outlets and online think pieces. The complex and readily misused term provokes passion from most who encounter it. 

The various bloggers and Tumblr users who invoke the term “privilege” do so to underline the differences in daily experience between demographic groups, usually as a result of racial or sexual prejudice. 

However, one measurement of privilege is still glaringly absent from the conversation: wealth. The fact that socio-economic difference finds no place in this discussion speaks to just how deeply the gap runs throughout our national institutions, specifically, universities.   

The idea of ‘privilege’ itself can be hard to stomach for anyone maintaining a belief in racial and sexual equality of opportunity. To press the importance of difference between black and white, male-identifying and female-identifying or straight and queer, may seem to undo the progress in civil rights over the past half century. 

Yet the abolition of explicit legal barriers should itself lead to equity. For one to tear down these obstacles, one must bean insistent on the fundamental equality of minority groups, but to press the deep-seated cultural differences between said minority groups, may seem detrimental to the project by others.

Still, it requires a good deal of delusion to think that in progress in the civil rights of women, people of color and the LGBTQA community has reached the groups’ objectives. To try to list here the metrics that illustrate lower salaries, diminished graduation rates and higher incidence of sexual violence, would do injustice to their vastness. 

The proliferation of discussions of “white privilege,” “male privilege” and “straight privilege,” prove encouraging. The notion gives a language for people in marginalized communities to communicate how their experiences differ from those of their peers outside them. It helps instill a sense of community. 

But the experiences of lower-income and working-class people rarely find expression through the language of “privilege.” Nowhere is that fact more evident than on the college campus, where the discussion of diverse identities is supposed to be most free. 

To be sure, those near the bottom of the socio-economic scale draw from a common pool of experiences, just as they are also denied experiences. They have less opportunity to socialize in bars and restaurants, travel around the world or perform volunteer outreach. They feel more pressure to earn money while in high school and college and to study for a future profession that will help them pay off student loans.

Nevertheless, the kind of open discussions about race and gender, which can take place among students, rarely touches wealth. This may result from an inherited national belief in the “American Dream” — that regardless of familial background, one can attain any level of economic success through personal responsibility. This sentiment remains alive and well among the American populace — 66 percent of whom recognize widening economic inequality, while only 47 percent recognize it as a problem, according to Pew Research Center study from 2013.

Another reason for the discussion of privilege to disregard  economic differences may be found in the identity of  “poor” or “working-class” people itself. This identity isn’t like “black,” “Latino/a,” “queer” or “woman.” For one, wealth seems to be a much more fluid metric than these others. 

But that is not to say that race, gender and sexual orientation are clear-cut binaries. Rather, social perceptions usually force these more sophisticated identities into binary oppositions. For example, even though the LGBTQA umbrella covers many identities, the community unites them in common dialogue about shared experiences, but one is still either part of that general community or is not. The same could be said for people of color.  

The same is not true for less wealthy people. The proliferation of polite euphemisms, from “lower-income”  to “under-resourced” indicates just how nebulous the concept can be. This, coupled with the faith in social mobility out of their condition, makes the possibility of students forming “lower-income support groups” or touting “Poor Pride” largely unthinkable. 

These explanations, however, miss a fundamental barrier to open discussions of wealth: the college itself. 

If students first find honest conversations about different identities in seminar rooms and freshman lounges, then discussions about wealth will find little place at the table, because there are few seats for poor students to begin with. Among the “most competitive colleges,” 74 percent of students come from families with an income in the highest quartile of American households. Only three percent come from the bottom quartile.

Students within the universities can have very productive conversations on the differences and intersections of their identities, but they won’t consider economic differences if there are no low-income students to share their experiences with in the first place. 

Therein lies the very privilege of an academic environment in which peers and professors can openly discuss privilege itself.

Write Simon at [email protected]