The Culture of Inequality

This month, we have had two reminders of the ways in which culture and cultural assumptions shape notions of equality.

For the first time ever in the United States, a woman was nominated for the Presidency by a major political party. And in much of the country, Pride Week was celebrated in June—a time for public celebrations of the LGBT community’s movement toward civic and legal equality.

When Americans talk about the social marginalization of a group of people based upon their identity, we tend to think in terms of individual rights and fundamental fairness. Those of us supporting civic inclusion and legal equality point—justifiably—to the importance of treating people as the individuals they are, judging people on their personal merits and not dismissing (or elevating) them on the basis of their group identity.

Those opposed to equal treatment for members of minority populations often justify disparate treatment on religious grounds (“the bible says”), or—like a certain deceased Supreme Court Justice—on the stabilizing effect and social importance of tradition. (These tend to be white heterosexual men who have been socialized to see women, blacks, gays, Jews, Muslims, etc. as “other;” as members of a class enjoying more privileged status, they see no reason to disturb a status quo that benefits them.)

What sometimes gets lost in these discussions are the very practical, very tangible economic consequences of membership in a disfavored minority.

The economic gap between whites and blacks has been too pronounced to ignore, of course; the legacy of slavery, the oppression of Jim Crow and the more subtle but no less devastating results of the “new Jim Crow”—the drug war—are vivid examples of what happens to people when you make it difficult or impossible for them to compete on a level playing field. Only people determined to ignore reality refuse to recognize the economic consequences of that degree of systematic oppression.

That economic inequality is also a consequence of the marginalization of women and LGBT citizens, however, is less widely appreciated.

When women point out that they make 78 cents for each dollar a man earns, those defending the status quo point to the fact that women disproportionately “choose” lower-paying professions, or take time out of the workforce to raise families. The conversation rarely considers the role culture plays in constraining women’s “choices” or shaping employers’ expectations. Occasionally, an academic study will compare women’s status in countries where the cultural assumptions facilitate government provision of day care and other safety-net supports for working women. (Not so coincidentally, several of those countries elected women to high office years ago.)

Because LGBT employees are not immediately recognizable, there is an assumption that they do not face the same sorts of employment discrimination as women or African-Americans. That, of course, is true only for those who remain in the closet. In many states, including my own Indiana, LGBT people are not protected by civil rights laws, so the decision to come out can be risky. When your continued employment and/or promotion depends upon the goodwill of your boss rather than your legal entitlements, your economic situation is precarious. As American cultural norms have changed, and bias against LGBT people has diminished, more companies have instituted anti-discrimination policies, and more states have expanded their civil rights protections, but it is still a work in progress.

Bottom line: social inequality is almost never only social. It translates into fewer job opportunities, a reduced likelihood of promotion, less access to credit and the kinds of networks that work to the benefit of privileged populations—all of which means greater economic insecurity.

In a society where some are more equal than others, some will be more economically secure than others. A culture that treats individuals equally, no matter what their gender, race, religion or sexual orientation, is a society that is more likely to offer employment security and equal pay for equal work.

Of course, a culture that values all of its citizens is also unlikely to countenance a huge disparity between the rich and the rest. But that’s a post for another day.


  1. AgingLGrl – Good morning! In my 5:05pm comment yesterday I left a question for you.

  2. This was frustrating – I wrote a few thoughts about today’s blog subject but lost the internet connection while trying to post it and it disappeared. Guess that I was not supposed to comment about it, so I will enjoy everyone else’s comments.

  3. I have been a member of a little known “…Culture of Inequality” group since high school in the 1950’s. Openly being friends with “colored kids”, a few foreign students and two known lesbians at Tech High School turned some kids away from possible friendship. As I matured, and my lack of understanding of racism, xenophobia and homophobia (those last two terms didn’t exist in our vocabulary in the 1950’s) matured; family and childhood friends began moving away from me lest they become viewed as my friend. As an adult I was called “N….. lover” and also thought to be one of “them”, the lesbians, but there has never been a name for the minority group of which I am still a member.

    Fortunately, not for me because I learned to ignore the name-calling, what was once a “minority group” in and of itself has grown to become a greater proportion of the population and we are fighting together for equality for all. Having always been a member of “the rest” in Sheila’s terminology “the rich and the rest”; I anxiously await the day that post appears to see if there is hope for “the rest” of that group to gain any ground. I won’t hold my breath.

    “Bottom line: social inequality is almost never only social. It translates into fewer job opportunities, a reduced likelihood of promotion, less access to credit and the kinds of networks that work to the benefit of privileged populations—all of which means greater economic insecurity.”

    This election year, in all states and at all levels, is vital regarding more than the presidency although it is of utmost importance. The racists, bigots, homophobes, xenophobes and primarily the super rich proponents must be voted out of office. We harp, moan and grown, bitch and complain about existing conditions and sitting elected officials but will we go to the polls on November 8th to “put our money where our mouth is”? Remember; “The dogs bark but the caravan moves on.”

  4. I heard a podcast a few months ago that suggested one of America’s problems in this area was its inability to talk about social class. Yes, the U.S. has problems with race, but when you talk about race without also talking about social class, you run into a lot of special pleading. The intersection of minority race and lower social class is where you run into some of the most formidable discrimination.

    But, if you just talk about race without talking about class, the economically struggling white people are going to point to upper class minorities as having things better than they do and attempt mightily to conclude that race isn’t an issue. (Class is not just about having money was another thing the podcast pointed out, but money is definitely part of it.)

  5. Sheila, you have network hiccups/slowdowns on your page today. Third time I’ve loaded this page and it took forever.
    For your son – DNS problems? Also facebook hiccups too. Didn’t see her FB posts but then yesterday, it loaded 3 or 4 all at once. fyi

  6. It becomes more real to me as I get older, how much my membership in a minority group has impacted my life, my choices, my realities all of my life. I had a job that I liked (I was working there since I was a kid – and dreamed of buying it when the owner retired) but the others in the company made life intolerable for me. I got involved in politics. My workers were sure they could run ME for congress and win. (I think they were right) They did not know about the secret that would blow up when we least expected it. I could not do that either. I saw an excellent teacher in my town loose his job when his secret self was revealed. That is damaging to the emotional life of a person. Even as an independent businessman, I know it was used against me. Being different is not easy in this country. Probably not in any country. I sure hope it is better for the young people. It LOOKS like it is but when I speak with you people who grow with parents who are “Rushies” and Church ladies, it does not sound much different than life in the 50’s or 60’s. Interesting topic for me. Thank you Prof K.

  7. AgingLGrl – Thanks for telling us what country you are living in. And thanks for posting about the hiccups with Sheila’s blog today. I thought it was her blog, but wasn’t sure.

  8. As a Boomer I have witnessed the huge improvements in our society since the Little Rock integration in the late 1950’s. So very sad that George Wallace, Ross Barnett, Strom Thurmond, and Jesse Helms failed to perform serious soul searching and supported Civil Rights Legislation and it’s spirit. Sad also that Barry Goldwater took the State’s Right’s approach on the implementation of Civil Rights. So much damage has been inflicted on the USA because of the people I mentioned and scores of other political leaders who failed to see the equality invested in every human being.
    Their intransigence has echoed into decades of suffering and spawned hatred in succeeding generations.

  9. While the quantification of the cost of ignorance is interesting it’s irrelevant to the fact that simply put I am no better than you. Or as brother Earl put it late yesterday, “Arrogance is only narcissism unbridled. (Narcissism is the decease (sic) and arrogance is the spawn.) ”

    We can quantify all we want but until we just know and accept that we are all different and the same we will suffer.

    The Universe regards us collectively as one example of life which is one way that Her matter and energy can choose to combine within a narrow slice of spacetime. Full stop. BFD.

    If we have anything interesting at all it’s our collective ability to describe Her at some level of of detail as abstractions, thoughts. Of course that’s severely hampered by the fact that we get things wrong as often as right.

    So whenever someone says that my particular combination of Universal matter, energy and spacetime came out superior to yours know in your heart that it’s delusion.

  10. Liberté, égalité, fraternité.

    AG, I worked in Friburg for awhile. Are you familiar with it? Wonderful city and area and country.

    I am officially jealous of you.

  11. We learn or at least are around learners who all are human individuals, all there is of humans Earth around. Earth is all there is as a single habitat for all there is of anything at all of Earth elements, including “climate” and”weather” as also all there has been to now. All men are created equal is like all climate of June 29, 2016 Earth around is all there is to observe, witness, record into history of one day’s constant motion, turning, tilting, progressing only through one Earth passage in accord with other planets with equal orbital new years recorded here, too. So equality is the standard for inequality as the starting spark of all men, or as we know all men’s sparks.

  12. Apparently the human tendency is to hold on to a delusion that supports a foregone conclusion that that’s been made, rather than grab onto a new fact that is counter to it.

    Boy does that make it hard to learn!

  13. Pete, the Pride festival was last Saturday and we got rained out from attending it but I will get there one of these days. I am grateful to live in a country that has a democracy that trusts the people to govern. They voted down the ‘basic income’ not too long ago but I can’t complain about our living conditions. Everything (except restaurants, museums and gas stations) are closed on Sundays and they observe family time and quiet time. No lawn mowers, no vacuums, no leaf blowers or construction allowed. Every once in a while they have a weekend construction jobs on the roads but I’ll give them that considering that not everyone here drives and public transportation is the envy of the world. I see they were voted most educated in the world recently as well. The biggest problem we have here is how damn expensive it is. Everything is 3 times what we pay in the US, Germany or France so I go there often to shop for essentials. Housing, health care, FOOD, and eating out is way too expensive and the value for money isn’t there. Thankfully, we live close to the border so we can cross over and eat cheaper and enjoy it when we can.

  14. AG, my experience there was that Zurich, Geneva, St Moritz, Gastaad, etc were outrageously expensive but the Canton of Fribourg not so much. I guess that in the expensive place you’re competing with the richest in the world for some of the nicest places in the world and they haven’t heard about Fribourg yet, yet being operative.

  15. How wonderful these foreign countries sound. I went to Korea once but it wasn’t much.

  16. It’s very sad that much discrimination is perpetrated by selective use of religion. Slavery, sexism, racism, homophobia all have roots in religion. Interestingly Muslim, Jewish, and Christian religions (and perhaps others) put great emphasis on hospitality to strangers and helping the disadvantaged. It’s hard to imagine a religious basis for xenophobia and bashing the poor and disabled. (Donald Trump – are you listening?)

    Especially in reaction to terrorist attacks, it is easy to retreat into our own shell of similar folks for a sense of security. It is probably normal to treat those who are different from ourselves as different, but we need not treat others as inferior.

    When I was a child, I was very envious of classmates who had the LARGE box of crayons with 48 marvelous colors when mine had a mere two rows of the old basic colors. In life, I’m still reaching out to all ‘colors’ and variations of humanity and embracing, enjoying, and learning from every one.

  17. Nancy, wonderful metaphor. I think that I was Crayola deprived also. It was a bigger deal back then. I hardly ever think of it anymore.

    Of course that pain has been replaced by having only a 42″ TV screen.

  18. Discrimination against unions is a Jim Crow thing in the South for fear that the social order there will be upset should minorities make living wages.

  19. When I say value for money, I mean that a head of broccoli shouldn’t be 5 chf in Switzerland when you can get one for .99 euros across the border. (Swiss francs are 1:1 vs dollar). Can you say sticker shock? Even if you live in San Francisco or NYC, you can find cheap meals if you want. The problem here is that you can’t find a cheap meal. Sunday, I did something I haven’t done in decades. I asked to stop at McDonalds for a medium fry. It was 3.90 for the fry and 20 cents for the (one) package of ketchup. Fries are the only thing I’ll eat at Micky Ds so it was shocking but it was the cheapest snack we could find in town out on our walk.

Comments are closed.