During the 2004 presidential election campaign, John Kerry’s running mate John Edwards made a memorable speech about “the two Americas,” one for the rich and privileged and the other for the rest of us. It would have started a long-overdue conversation about wealth inequality. But then we learned that he’d been dipping his wick in another woman while his wife was dying of cancer, and that was it for his political career. The two Americas meme faded away until it was reignited by the Occupy movement in 2011.
For decades we’ve been fed that Horatio Alger pabulum that anyone can succeed if they just work hard enough. Yes, working hard never hurts, but it presupposes that everyone has the same opportunities, and that just isn’t true. A poor black kid growing up in the inner city does not have the same opportunities as a rich white boy in Beverly Hills. Since the Reagan years we’ve seen wealth inequality explode, so that today the richest few hundred people own the same wealth as the bottom half of the nation, which has virtually no wealth whatever. Rich privilege is something taken for granted by the rich; they feel entitled to it. If one of their children gets in trouble, like the rich kid in Texas last year who was driving drunk and killed several people. No jail time for this guy; he has to spend a year (cost — $400,000) at an elite rehab center in California. It used to be that people robbed banks, and some still do. These days it’s more likely it’s the banks that are robbing people. All the big boys, CitiGroup, Wells Fargo, Chase, and Bank of America have been found to be engaged in fraudulent mortgages or robo-signing fraudulent foreclosure forms. No one goes to jail or is even indicted. The bank is fined several million dollars, basically pocket change.
It’s a quite different America for the poor. The granddaughter of a friend was driving some boys around one night, unaware that one of them had just shot some guy. Her family didn’t have the exorbitant bail money, so she ended up in the county jail for seven months before she was released, and then only after one of the other guys did a plea deal. Yes, you are guaranteed a public defender, but they’re a vanishing breed due to budget cuts, and the one you get may have a caseload of a hundred or more, and can only spend fifteen minutes with you. Because you can’t make bail you sit in the can for a couple months before your first meeting with them, and maybe a few more months until the trial. Oh and by the way, more and more cities are charging defendants fees for not only their public defender but also their jail cells! If you’re poor enough, not only can you never get out of debt, you may never get out of jail, and for something as trivial as a traffic violation. So no matter how hungry you and your family might be, you better not get caught stealing that loaf of bread.
Another granddaughter of another friend just got a loan to pursue post-graduate work. She had to pay 11% interest. When the big banks borrow from the Federal Reserve, do you know what they pay in interest? A measly .75% Yes, three-quarters of one percent.
There are different Americas, one for us whites, and one for the others. White privilege is something most white people are never even aware of. We can go walking at night alone, and most likely no cop is going to stop and hassle us. When we get turned down for a job, or a loan, I doubt white people ever wonder if it was because of their skin color. Hell, if you’re white you can carry a gun in plain sight damn near anywhere you want to go, like a McDonald’s or Starbucks. Can you imagine what would happen if some black guy came into one of these places with an AR-15 strapped to his shoulder? He’d end up with more holes than a pasta strainer.
Any white cop can shoot any black man just about any time he feels like it. It happens all the time, as it did to Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, recently. They’re protected both by their union and the department. It’s even worse in “Stand Your Ground” states. The law says you have to be in fear for your life, then you can go ahead and plug away. But you don’t even have to be afraid, you just have to say so at the trial, and off you go. You don’t have to be a police officer either; just being white is enough. And unlike fish or game, there’s apparently no limit. If you’re black, though, you can get shot anytime, even without a gun. As we saw with Trayvon Martin, just a bag of skittles and an Arizona Iced Tea can get you killed. These two Americas are by far the most visible today. Having a black President hasn’t made things better for black Americans, as his election seems to have lanced some sort of boil on the American psyche, and the poison is oozing out all over the place.
We’ve looked at rich privilege and white privilege, but there’s also male privilege, the father of all bigotries, and it goes all the way back to the Old Testament. Despite the strides made in the last fifty years, women in America are still second class citizens. It’s not to the extent of, say, Saudi Arabia, but the prejudice is as deeply rooted. Keep in mind that women didn’t get the vote until fifty years after black people did. In most heterosexual marriages today the woman still customarily takes the husband’s last name. Because of my male privilege, I was surprised by my friend the other day. She said, “Think of it. A woman has never had her own name. Her last name is her father’s, and she drags that name around with her till she gets married and takes some other guys’ name.” It shows in pay disparities, like women being paid about 77 cents for each dollar a man makes. Everything men take for granted is harder for women, and that’s aside from being given the responsibilities for raising the children, and then being undervalued for that. But nowhere does it show more than in rape and violence towards women, and its almost tacit acceptance as the status quo.
A woman in America has a one in five chance of being raped in her lifetime, and a greater chance of harassment or even assault. As the problem has increased in the colleges and universities, there are more rape awareness seminars, lectures, and brochures. They usually center on ways for women have to box themselves in, if they want to be safe. I’d like to know where are all the lectures and brochures telling men not to be such jerks. A man never has to be told not to go out walking alone at night, or not to dress too provocatively. I don’t know what it is about us. It’s something about control, conquest, domination. We see it in war, the ultimate expression of the most negative aspects of the masculine principle. That is a form of rape, too, as is the pillage of the environment. It’s all the same.
There is a separate America for LGBT people too, as it is for Native Americans, Muslims, and everyone else who’s not in the elite. I don’t mean the 1%, I mean the .001%, the rulers. As Senator Elizabeth Warren has said, the system is rigged. It’s a top-down, patriarchal, authoritarian-based system. While we may prefer to think of these people as evil, we should also consider that many of them really believe the most stable kind of society is the rich ruling elite — nearly all rich old white men — and the rabble. I call it a Futile System, and it’s incompatible with democracy. It is by every definition an abusive relationship. I could quote you piles of statistics, but you’ve heard all that. The only weapon with which to defend ourselves is our prodigious numbers. Voting may seem ineffectual, but to have effect we need an 80% turnout, not something around 50. Or Chris Hedges may be right when he says that massive civil disobedience may be the only course left to us. The power structure knows this, and that’s why police departments from coast to coast are starting to resemble combat units. They’re getting ready.
Every cloud, as they say. Wherever you look in nature there are cycles. Everywhere. That goes for social movements as well. The robber-baron age of the 1880s – 1890s was followed by an era of progressive Republicans (believe it or not!) like Teddy Roosevelt. The excesses of wealth and privilege that led to the Great Depression was followed by FDR and the New Deal. This time the system is even more deeply entrenched, and our corporate masters have successfully kept us at each others’ throats, in order to distract us from their chicanery. First we need to break free of our collective Stockholm syndrome, where we’ve become sympathetic to our abusers. And we’ll need to find common ground with political factions we normally disagree with and unite, if we expect anything to change. We’d better buckle up, as Bette Davis famously said in one of her films, it’s gonna be a bumpy ride.