Inequality.org

A project of the
Institute for Policy Studies

Social Inequality: Seldom Only Social

We need to keep in mind the tangible and ever-present economic consequences of membership in a disfavored minority.

This week has brought us two reminders about how culture and cultural assumptions shape notions of equality.

For the first time ever in the United States, a woman has become the presumptive Presidential nominee of a major political party. Meanwhile, in much of the country, this past week has been Pride Week, 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.

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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 — as members of a class enjoying more privileged status — 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.

The reality that economic inequality is 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. 

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.

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