Categorically Unequal

››› ››› ERIC ALTERMAN

I need to re-ease into this blogging thing, what with getting up in the middle of the night on Italian time and coming home to a president who, after seven years of being the worst president ever, manages to get even worse, somehow. I'm at a loss as to whether to be more horrified at the new rules (issued at 7:30 p.m. on a Friday) designed to ensure that more poor and working-class children suffer and die from a lack of medical care that their states are eager to provide for reasons he admits are purely ideological or at the fact that he wants to relive Vietnam, continuing to throw live American soldiers after dead ones, good billions after bad, hatred not yet earned after hatred already earned in pursuit of a goal that was itself a tissue of lies from the start, for reasons -- well, can anyone even explain what they might be anymore?

But of course, moral outrage is boring, even to me -- which is one of their secret weapons. What's more, I spent the last two weeks with some academics who say, unabashedly, without warning, that Bush and Cheney and Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld are "just as bad as Hitler" and wanted to know what I thought the likelihood of war-crimes trials were. I get awfully depressed about the future of my country at such moments.

(Plus, Grace Paley died, and she was not only an incredibly knowing writer but also a really warm and wonderful person.)

Thanks so much to Eric, Eric -- don't know why that is -- Bob, and Siva for the excellent Altercating in my absence.

Anyway, I'll be teaching two 2.5 hour classes on Mondays, beginning today, so Monday blogging will have to adjust at least until I'm able to find a brilliant assistant. Fortunately, I planned for today by securing a special contribution from the brilliant sociologist Doug Massey, which is borrowed from his important new book Categorically Unequal: The American Stratification System (Russell Sage, 2007).

A Short Treatise on American Stratification

Douglas S. Massey

Since the mid-1970s, the United States has become a vastly more stratified society. Among the world's developed nations, it has by far the highest inequalities of income and wealth. The rise in inequality has been attributed to a variety of factors, including globalization, technological change, and market segmentation. Nonetheless, all countries compete in the same global economy and face the same technological and market conditions, yet the United States is unique among advanced nations in the degree to which it allows these large, macro-level forces to generate inequality.

Such a high level of inequality doesn't just happen. It is produced by specific arrangements in society that enable exploitation and exclusion along the categorical lines of social class. An effective system of social stratification requires three basic things: a social structure that divides people into categories on the basis of some combination of achieved and ascribed traits; the labeling of certain of these categories as out-groups containing people who [are] not likeable and not competent as human beings; and the existence of one or more social mechanisms that reserve resources for ingroup members while extracting other resources from out-group members without full remuneration.

Human beings are cognitively programmed to form conceptual categories and use them to classify the people they encounter. The definition[s] of categorical boundaries and content are not automatic, however. They are learned through instruction and modified by experience. As social beings, people constantly test, extend, and refine the social schemas they carry in their heads, typically through interactions and discussions with other people. Whenever a person works to convince others in society to accept a particular categorization of social reality, the process is called framing.

People are naturally prone to favor conceptual frames that advantage them and privilege their own access to material, symbolic, and emotional resources. Although everyone may prefer a framing of social reality that serves their interests, people with power and resources have more influence than others and their frames are more likely to be accepted and used in society. Within any social setting, the definition of boundaries and the content of social categories [are] disproportionately influenced by people at the top of the socioeconomic hierarchy. Although people at the bottom may challenge and resist categorical frames that work against their interests, their ability to control the definition of social reality is constrained by the fact that they have little to offer others to accept their preferred framing.

Any set of socially constructed categories yields a set of social identities that encompass many different attributes and characteristics. Despite this complexity, social groups can be classified along two fundamental dimensions that define the conceptual space of social cognition: warmth and competence. People naturally frame themselves and others like them as both warm (likeable, approachable, trustworthy) and competent (efficacious, capable, astute). People perceived in this way are seen as ingroup members, or at least as members of groups that are very similar to the ingroup. People who are framed as lacking either warmth or competence are socially defined as out-groups -- others who are not perceived as "people like us."

Social actors who are seen as warm but not competent fall into the category of pitied out-groups, common examples of which are the sick, the disabled, and the aged. In contrast, people perceived as competent but not warm fall into the category of envied out-groups, the classic examples of which are middleman minorities such as the Chinese in Malaysia, Indians in East Africa, or Jews in Medieval Europe. Under normal circumstances, neither of these two out-groups make good candidates for exploitation. Pitied out-groups are not readily exploited because people feel sorry for them, and envied out-groups are not exploited because they usually occupy positions of power and authority by virtue of their competence.

For exploitation to occur smoothly and seamlessly, people in out-groups must be framed as neither competent nor warm -- people who are not likeable, approachable, or trustworthy and not efficacious, capable, or astute, such as criminals, drug dealers, and the homeless. The relevant emotion toward out-groups lacking either warmth and competence is contempt. People in such groups are despised and perceived as less than fully human at the most fundamental neural level. As a result, they lend themselves to exploitation with relative impunity. Because they are socially despised, they encounter few defenders in society; and because they are perceived as despicable, victimizing them is unlikely to trigger countervailing emotions such as pity or fear.

Paralleling the work of framing in the conceptual realm is the work of boundary definition in the social realm. Boundary work involves actions and behaviors undertaken to differentiate people socially, publicly labeling them as members of an in- or out-group and thus embodying the social traits associated with that category of people. Labeling may occur through informal mechanisms such as gossip, ridicule, shaming, ostracism, praise, or harassment that serve to "put people in their place," or it may be effected formally through regulations and laws such as the "one drop rule" and anti-miscegenation laws enacted throughout the South before the civil rights era. Boundary work distinguishes people from one another socially by highlighting interpersonal differences across categorical lines.

Once social groups are created conceptually through framing and reified socially through boundary work, then stratification -- the unequal allocation of material, symbolic, and emotional resources among social categories -- is easily accomplished by establishing social mechanisms that operate according to one of two basic templates: exploitation or opportunity hoarding.

Exploitation is the expropriation of resources from an out-group by members of an ingroup, such that out-group members receive less than full value for the resources they give up. Opportunity hoarding is the monopolization of access to a resource by in-group members, allowing them to keep it for themselves or charge rents to out-group members in return for access. In contemporary American society, the most common form of exploitation is discrimination within markets and the most common form of opportunity hoarding is exclusion from markets and resource-rich social settings. Once established, and in the absence of any countervailing social force, mechanisms of discrimination and exclusion will tend to persist over time to generate and reproduce inequality.

Since the mid-1970s, mechanisms in the American political economy that were enacted in the 1930s to limit stratification and promote equality have been dismantled and replaced with new mechanisms that institutionalize exploitation and opportunity hoarding on the basis of class. The Democratic Party's support for the civil rights movement and its attempt to deracialize the welfare state created an opening for conservatives to reverse ideological trends set in motion during the 1930s. The decision by the Democratic Party to embrace civil rights in the 1960s promoted a mass exodus of Southerners from the party and the estrangement of blue collar voters in the North, putting an end to the New Deal coalition.

On the heels of this realignment, the rules of the American political economy were rewritten to favor the rich at the expense of the middle and lower classes. Unions were weakened, entry level wages reduced, access to social protections curtailed, anti-poverty spending cut back, and taxes on lower income families were raised while those on upper income families were reduced, yielding a sharp reduction in the size of the welfare state and a significant decline in the social well-being of most Americans. As millions of Americans resorted to borrowing in a vain attempt to maintain living standards, the real interest on credit card debt was increased and bankruptcy laws tightened.

The new choreography of rising income inequality and increasing political polarization was reinforced by the emergence of a new geography of inequality characterized by greater class segregation and the spatial concentration of both affluence and poverty. Increasingly the poor have come to live apart from the affluent in communities and neighborhoods inhabited primarily by other poor people, while affluent families have come to separate themselves from the poor within communities and neighborhoods inhabited by other affluent people.

That there is nothing inevitable about the high level of inequality prevailing in the United States is suggested by a cross-national comparison of income inequality before and after taxes. Before taxes, U.S. income inequality is by no means exceptional compared with other developed nations. Indeed, it is roughly the same as in Sweden and Germany and considerably less than in Belgium and France.

Taxation works to redistribute income in all countries, but the extent of the redistribution is much less in the United States. After taxes and transfers, income inequality in Belgium, France, Germany, and Sweden drops to low levels. It drops in the United States too -- just not nearly as much. It is only after taxes that America emerges as the most unequal of all developed nations, with a level of income inequality that is 50% greater than in Belgium and 33% greater than in France. Thus inequality in the United States is not an axiomatic result of globalization or technological change. It is a result of specific political choices that we, as a society, have made.

Douglas S. Massey is professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton University. For more, go here.

We've changed our commenting system to Disqus.
Instructions for signing up and claiming your comment history are located here.
Updated rules for commenting are here.