White Upper Class Held To Lower Standard
In California, ex-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger destroys his family by revealing that he had a love child with the housekeeper. In New York City, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, is arrested for an alleged sexual assault on a hotel maid. In Washington, D.C., Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich runs up a six-figure bill at Tiffany & Co. buying bling for his third wife, who also happens to be his former mistress.
Sounds like the lineup for an episode of The Jerry Springer Show! Has the time finally come for social scientists who blame the so-called culture of poverty for the lowly status of the black underclass to start focusing on the equally pathological culture of the wealthy, powerful — and, not coincidently, virtually all-white elite? Will conservative white politicians like Gingrich finally stop lecturing the black poor about their “bad habits” and start cleaning up their own acts?
If only it were so.
I’m not arguing that the self-destructive conduct of many of the black poor isn’t one of the major causes of their problems. Only a fool would assert such a ridiculous idea.
But as these incidents torn from this week’s headlines make clear, while the sort of self-destructive, irresponsible and slothful attitudes and behaviors that we impute to the poor souls stuck at the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder are also common at its pinnacle, we treat those at the top very differently.
For one thing, society does not tend to judge all rich white people by the standard of, say, Bernie Madoff or Paris Hilton. Their failings are seen as flaws resulting from their individual characters, not as manifestations of the inherent characteristics of members of their entire class. The black poor, on the other hand, are routinely subjected to blanket condemnation when some member of their group behaves deplorably.
More important, with a nod to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous observation, influential whites are different than you and me: When they exhibit the exact-same sort of immoral, anti-social conduct that we find so abhorrent among the black poor, they don’t have to pay the same price.
Being an unwed teenage mother without a high school diploma did not ruin Bristol Palin’s life, as it almost certainly would have if she had been a poor girl from the ghetto. Nor did it stop her mother from becoming a major political figure based largely on her image as an avatar of born-again Christian family values.
A history of drug addiction did not land radio schlock slinger Rush Limbaugh in the slammer or deprive him of the right to vote, as it has multitudes of black young men. The litany of white evangelical hucksters, including Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker, caught up in sexual peccadilloes while condemning immorality from the pulpit speaks for itself.
The list goes on and on and extends far beyond the realm of personal morality and drug addiction. As the dire state of the economy eloquently testifies, the bad habits of the wealthy elite include a willingness to bend the law to create a phony real estate boom that wiped out the life savings of millions of people when it crashed. Their crimes, I would contend, did far more damage to society than those of the hundreds of thousands of black young men who are now languishing in prison for minor drug offenses. Yet they do not fall.
None of this is to say that members of the black underclass should be excused for their self-destructive behavior. It’s their responsibility to do all they can to lift themselves up while society — including government — does everything it can to help them out.
But as we go about the monumental task of creating more opportunity for upward mobility, we need to stop acting as though the poor deserve their plight just because they are bad people behaving badly. It’s much more complicated than that. If being a moral screw-up were the cause of being poor, some of the wealthiest and most powerful white folks in the world would be on skid row.