CHAPTER 4. THE UNITED STATES AS THE SOUTH

 

 

This and the next chapter apply the sociological model of the South to the United States. The model stresses that social structure comes first and largely determines values and ideas. Values and ideas in turn reinforce the social structure. In the United States both the social structure and its associated values and ideas are racist.

What the Southern Analysts Missed

The South, currently stripped of its ideology of biological racism, has had to fall back on the real American justification for racism that has always existed in both North and South: equality-of- opportunity racism. This justification goes to the heart of America itself. Lurking underneath all the theories of blacks as heathens or as inferior biological beings was a basic and important philosophy that supported racism. An equality-of-opportunity racism always underlay the biological racism and was always more invidious than biology. And this sociological or socioeconomic racism developed from the theory of laissez-faire economics.

Laissez-faire economics maintains that in a market economy the markets are free and open with no restrictions placed on them by politicians or society. In the market economy goods are distributed on the basis of rational criteria such as education, talent, and initiative. Each individual works for his or her economic self- interest; the end result of working for one's own selfishness is that the society reaches a wonderful equilibrium or balance that is optimal in fairness and rationality. Those not prospering under these conditions have only themselves or personal circumstances to blame.

This philosophy is perfectly adapted to an equality-of-opportunity racism. After all, as long as there is equality of opportunity in the society, all will reach their deserved positions. Even more conveniently, this philosophy relieves the true believers of any responsibility for the outcomes of the society, for the outcomes are the end result of a fair and just society. Therefore, in a free- market economy, if black Americans do not prosper, they have only themselves to blame. Furthermore, white Americans have no responsibility to improve the overall situation of black Americans.

As a theory of social stratification, this belief obviously flies in the face of reality. The primary reason for the privileged positions of the upper and middle classes is not hard work but the riches of their families (Pessen 1973: chapter 5). Nevertheless, if a majority of U. S. citizens insists on believing in the laissez- faire version of society, the ethic will be the dominant philosophy regardless of its inadequacies. This chapter investigates in detail how this equality-of-opportunity thesis came to be adopted in the United States.

Equality of Opportunity and Social Classes

In all societies those at the top of the economic hierarchy need a belief system that justifies their having more of the better things of life. The nobility culture in Europe provided such a justification for the position of the Old World upper classes. What belief system did the upper class in America adopt to justify its position? This upper class wholeheartedly accepted the laissez- faire and associated equality of opportunity philosophies. Under equality of opportunity, the justification for vast wealth was that the elite had obtained its position through hard work. By fairly winning the economic race, the elite deserved its wealth. The more fortunate had shown their superiority in the economic game, and no one should criticize them in a society based on individual effort and not on nobility. As long as the game was "fair," then no criticism should apply to the winners of the game.

The attraction of this approach was that the elites of all three regions of the thirteen colonies could apply the theory to themselves. It was so flexible that New England merchants, mid-Atlantic lords of the manor, and southern plantation owners could use it to justify their privileged positions.

Of course, the workability of the equality of opportunity thesis depended on the consent of the less fortunate. The key question here is why the white middle class agreed to a theory that basically declared the system a fair one; that everyone's position in the society was due to his or her own efforts; and that the status quo of the unequal distribution of wealth should be accepted. In short, the most interesting question was not that the upper classes adopted the equality-of-opportunity philosophy, but that the middle class also accepted it.

Why would nonentrepreneurial Americans, small farmers, and industrial and service workers accept a capitalist ethic as their dominant ethic? There have been a number of traditional answers to this question. One of the most popular is that the American middle class was wealthy. This is relatively true if one compares the American middle class with that of the European middle class, but workers primarily compare themselves to others in their own work environment, not with workers in foreign countries. Most Americans in colonial times would have had no conception of European wages. But Americans certainly knew in general how much the important people in their immediate surroundings earned. The middle-class- wealth theory is just not a satisfactory answer, especially since the American middle class was not objectively well-off compared to the upper class.

Another traditional explanation is that the middle class was made complacent because they could move into the upper class. The greater social mobility explanation does have some validity. It is true that, compared to the situation in Europe, the chances for moving upward were greater in America and this obviously impressed the white middle class (see Pessen 1973:81). But this difference in mobility is a difference in quantity, not in quality. Such small differences in mobility would never have resulted in the building of the American myth of the classless society. American society was very unequal, despite all the talk of equality. (There is something very troubling about the studies of mobility used to support this contention. These studies usually exclude blacks and compare the social mobility of white Americans to Europeans. The end result is a very biased picture that misleads social scientists. One cannot ignore the existence of blacks if one is to understand American society.)

One would think that if Americans were so entranced with equality and with a powerful middle class that they would have pushed for more equality of results, rather than settle for equality of opportunity. But they did not. Why did they accept equality of opportunity when this obviously meant that the middle class would find it hard to gain greater equality between themselves and the upper class?

The key to the explanation is that the American colonies were racial tripartite societies. At the top was the upper class, accompanied by a large white middle class; finally, at the bottom, were slaves and freedmen. The result was that American society had two elites that felt they had to protect their positions. The white middle class had to justify its disproportional enjoyment of the better things in life and the great gap between themselves and the lower caste. They accepted the equality of opportunity thesis because they were themselves a privileged elite. (In this analysis, the white working class in included in the white middle class. Objectively, the working class is more liberal than the middle class on economic issues. But, overall, the working class is still very conservative, which justifies treating it as part of the middle class.)

If it was important for those in the American upper class to say they obtained their positions through hard work and therefore deserved these positions, it was just as important for average white middle-class Americans to prove that they deserved their relatively privileged position, especially when compared to blacks. Thus, the two privileged classes in America used the theory of equality of opportunity to justify their positions.

Early European writers waxed eloquent on how little class consciousness there was in America. The United States was not as class conscious as Europe, because U. S. citizens were primarily caste conscious. The middle class had its eyes on those lower than themselves, not on those higher. After all, there were many more members of the caste system than of the upper class, and members of the caste system were so horribly treated that they represented a fearsome thing. The more blacks there were, the more frightened were the whites (see V. O. Key, Jr. 1984, for support of this correlation).

The upper class also worried about the caste, but could rely on the middle class to enforce the barriers. This alleviated any pressure on the upper class to help the less fortunate through social and economic reforms. It also saved the upper class a great deal of money, for the anxiety of the middle class toward the lower groups ensured that the upper class would not have to spend large sums in caring for the less fortunate.

The strongest support for the racial tripartite thesis comes from the modern attitudes and voting behavior of the American white middle class. Certainly in today's America few people would argue that, compared to Europeans and the Japanese, the middle class is richer and has more access to social mobility. And yet racism extends throughout today's white American middle class (see Lane 1970, Schumann et al. 1985; Wellman 1985). Today's racism is discussed at length when describing the modern era in American history. Suffice it to say that the dethronement of biological racism has not fundamentally altered the racial situation in the United States. Equality-of-opportunity racism reigns supreme and will be the hardest racial justification theory to overthrow.

The Lower Caste and Equality of Opportunity

Those trapped in the caste system obviously are cynical of the theory of equality of opportunity because this group is largely excluded from economic competition. They know that equality of opportunity ignores the overwhelming role of blatant discrimination in enforcing the caste system and that the whites use it as a justificatory theory.

This does not mean that blacks are completely disenchanted with the equality-of-opportunity doctrine. Blacks continue to have hope in America because they believe that one day they will be allowed to play in the equality-of-opportunity ball game, whites always hold out that hope in order to soothe black feelings of victimization.

The Narrowness of Equality of Opportunity

The laissez-faire version of equality of opportunity has been the dominant and central core of the "American way." This belief has existed throughout the nation's history down to the present. That some observers have failed to recognize this is partly the result of calling the philosophy by different names. In the antebellum period it was called states' rights. Social Darwinism was its name after the Civil War. In sociology it became the theory of structural functionalism. And in the 1980s it was called Reaganism. But these are all restatements of the classic laissez-faire philosophy. A more important reason is that liberals accept the equality- of-opportunity thesis, although in a liberal, not conservative, version. Yet American liberalism is tainted, like everything else in our society, by racism.

The philosopher John Schaar (1976) has criticized the concept of the equality of opportunity for being a very conservative doctrine. He notes that virtually everyone in the United States so completely accepts the doctrine that most people are not even aware of the radical democratic conception of equality of results. The problem with equality of opportunity is that it rewards only the socially valued talents at any given time in any particular society. Obviously, there are many other valuable talents, despite the fact that materialist cultures choose to reward monetary ones.

One of the many disadvantages of an equality-of-opportunity system is that it tends to be mean-spirited. There is greater overall misery in such a society compared to one based on equality of results because there is little governmental assistance for the disadvantaged. Blaming the unfortunate for their situation tends to enable wealthier citizens to turn their backs on the less fortunate. Moreover, equality of opportunity does not take into account any of the economic inequalities resulting from biological or accidental sources. A substantial proportion of any people suffer from physical and mental disabilities that are congenital, naturally occurring after birth, or acquired through accidents. In addition, many people have low intelligence quotients. For these people, is it fair or just to have great discrepancies in real equality in the name of the equality of opportunity?

The advantage of nobility cultures is that almost everyone knows the system is unfair. After all, nobles are born, not made. This enables citizens of these nations to seek more increases in equality of results. (Because of racism, whites cannot admit that the system is unfair. Indeed, if it were not for racism, most Americans would probably be willing to trade their chance of being Donald Trump for a more just and equal society.)

Second Thoughts About Equality-of-Opportunity Versus Equality-of-Results

The problem with equality-of-results is that it opens up the door to too many exceptions to the rule of basis promotions and recognition on merit.  Many of the examples come from the opponents of the affirmative action program.  The Vernon Johns Society is not opposed to affirmative action, but it realizes its inherent limitations.  It is too conservative and too narrow of a concept on which to build a third civil rights movement.  It is too often seen by its proponents as an end in itself and its proponents lose sight of the larger goal of working for the long run -- working for an non-racist society, not a society that settles for an racially unequal society that uses affirmative action to help a small proportion of  blacks.  

On second thought, it looks as though we may have to stay with the equality-of-opportunity thesis, realize that it is often used to justify inequality, emphasize that the United States is falling fall short of its goal of equality-of-opportunity, and use this more radical interpretation of the equality-of-opportunity thesis to work for a more just society.  

 

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