Thoughts on Tim Wise: Part 3, Meritocracy and Coping

One of the more interesting and provocative observations made by Tim Wise during both his faculty luncheon and evening presentations had to do with how privilege and meritocracy affect us when life gets difficult.

Take, Wise suggests, how the different ethnic groups have responded to the current economic downturn. Which demographic groups are freaking out the most? Curiously, although the black and brown populations have been hardest hit with unemployment, underemployment, home foreclosures, and a lack of health care they have been, collectively speaking, relatively calm in the face of the recession. Whites, by contrast, seem to be boiling over. Why?

Wise argues that white privilege and meritocracy have conflated to leave many Americans ill-prepared to handle, psychologically speaking, the current economic crisis. To start, consider meritocracy, the heart of America's social gospel. You believe that hard work and virtue should pay off. But, suddenly, it isn't. You no longer have a job. Who is to blame for this?

The odd thing is, meritocracy has always been a bit of an illusion. We all know people who work hard, go to church, and pay their taxes who get laid off or lose their homes or heath care. Life doesn't always reward the virtuous and hardworking. So why would we buy into this illusion? Wise suggests that privilege has a lot to do with this. Privileged groups, due to their privilege, are somewhat more protected from the fluctuations of fortune. And this protection props up the illusion that life, at root, is fair and that meritocracy works.

But this illusion bursts when 401K's tank and we hit double digit unemployment. Suddenly the world comes crashing down. And people take to the streets in angry mobs.

But what if, as is the case with people of color, your demographic group has chronically lived with double-digit unemployment? Well, today's unemployment numbers are less of a shock to your worldview. You've never been wholly convinced that merit is all there is to success. Fortune and luck (e.g., what color your skin is) have always been at work in your worldview. So when things get bad you are, collectively speaking, better situated to cope.

Wise uses the illustration of the Great Depression. What demographic group jumped from buildings on Black Tuesday in 1929? It was rich, white males. Poor people and people of color were less suicidal that day. Why? Collectively speaking they were more immune to the psychic shocks coming from Wall Street and the soup lines. The poor and colored had more communal and psychological resources available to help them cope during economic downturns.

In short, Wise argues that the social gospel of meritocracy and white privilege have ill-served the white community. These forces combine to create a false sense of security that can shatter during economic crises. And lacking internal and communal coping mechanisms the white population externalizes their anger, blaming immigrants or "big government." But over the long haul a damaged self-image can result. Because if you have internalized the American social gospel blaming the government or "those people" can eventually give way to the nagging sense that you are broken and worthless. A failure. After all, if you work hard and pay your taxes life will reward you. Right? That is how the game works, isn't it?

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One thought on “Thoughts on Tim Wise: Part 3, Meritocracy and Coping”

  1. You presume that people of color have not already become demoralized by their "station in life". So, should we all become demoralized because of the "common good"? Should we have another Great Depression so that the lesson will stick to the "white priviledged"? That there is "more to life", or that all people are equal when it comes to material needs? Will an economice crisis help build the world "community" or will it bring about revolutions?

    I know how the unions work as I have some people close to me that have worked for them for years. And though they promise equal opportunity, as a a collective "power" toward the "evil" corporation or business executive, they do not pay on "pay day", always...

    The people I am talking about have already declared bankruptcy and my husband and I as well as others have tried to 'rescue them" from foreclosure on their home. These have been declared disabled, but they are fighting for back pay, disability, etc.!! And they have become demoralized as they thought that they were protected as a working class from these Problems...So, I don't believe class envy does anything to alleviate the problem. Economics is the basis for such discussion, when one talks about "priviledge"...isn't it?.

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