Compared to the less powerful, more powerful people feel more entitled to be treated fairly, are quicker to identify an instance in which they are mistreated, and more likely to take action in response.
These are the findings of a new study by social psychologist Takuya Sawaoka and colleagues. They defined power as “disproportionate control over other people’s individuals’ outcomes.” I imagine someone who is a boss, perhaps, or a police officer, professor in a classroom, or patriarch of a family, or even just people who are wealthy and can pretty much pay people to do anything they want.
The scholars review the literature showing that people with power are entitled to a disproportionate share of resources and more likely to cheat, steal, and lie. They hypothesize that this “individual variability in entitlement shapes people’s reactions to injustices that they experience” and designed a series of studies to test it.
In the first study, participants were primed to feel either powerful or powerless by being asked to write about and reflect on a situation in which they felt they had power over someone else or, alternatively, someone had power over them. They were then instructed to play a game with a confederate (unknown to them) who had ten tokens that they could divide up however they pleased. Participants who had been primed to feel low power expected to get less than half the tokens, but participants who had been primed to feel powerful expected a fair outcome.
They then tested individuals’ sensitivity to unfairness. They showed people primed to feel powerful and powerless distributions of tokens that looked liked this, but with varying amounts, and asked them to indicate whether the distribution was fair or unfair.
Their measure of sensitivity was how quickly the person identified the distribution as unfair. Their findings showed that, when they were the victim of unfairness (see the second pair of columns from the left), people feeling powerful were quicker to identify it as unfair (a lower bar = faster) than were people feeling powerless.
But, when they benefited from unfairness (see the pair of columns on the far right), people feeling powerful were slower to identify it as unfair than when they were the victims and slower than people who felt powerless.
They had similar findings when people primed to feel powerful didn’t directly benefit, but simply observed other people being treated unfairly. And, they tested whether their findings extended to interpersonal justice, too, by asking how people responded to being socially excluded. They found the same pattern.
Finally, they found that, when being treated unfairly, participants primed to feel powerful were quicker to take action than those primed to feel powerless. The two columns on the left below show that high power people quickly left a hypothetical employer for a different one if they were treated unfairly.
So, to conclude, people who are primed to feel powerful feel entitled to fair treatment — both economically and socially — and are quick to recognize and correct it when they are treated unfairly, but they are significantly less likely to notice or care when the less powerful are injustice’s victims.
Prior to the 1850s, writes cultural studies scholar Matthew Brower, men in America didn’t hunt. More specifically, they didn’t hunt for leisure. There was a hunting industry that employed professionals who hunted as a full time occupation, and there was a large market for wild animal products, but hunting for fun wasn’t a common pastime.
This changed in the second half of the 1800s. Americans were increasingly living in cities and being “citified.” Commenters worried that urban life was making men effeminate, effete, overly civilized, domesticated if you will. Cities were a threat to manliness and nature the salve.
Hunting trophies, taxidermied remains of wild animals, served as symbolic proof of one’s “hardiness.” Unlike the animal parts bought at market — whether for food or furs, as feathers on hats, or the then-popular elk tooth watch chain — animals a man killed himself reflected on his skill and character.
Nothing adds more to a hall or a room than fine antlers when their owner has been shot by the hunter-displayer, but always there is an element of the absurd in a room furnished with trophies of the chase that the displayer has acquired by purchase.
New, elite recreational hunters castigated both lesser men, who purchased animal parts for display, and women who bought them purely for fashion.
This was the origin of the idea that hunting is a contest, as opposed to an occupation or necessity. To paraphrase Brower, a trophy can’t be bought, it must be earned. Thus, the notion of “sportsmanship” as applied to the hunt. If a kill is going to indicate skill, then the hunted must have a “sporting chance.” Thus, recreational hunters developed an etiquette for sportsmanlike hunting, spread through new hunting magazines and periodicals.
Not only did this allow men to claim manly cred, it allowed wealthy men to claim class cred. Brower writes:
Both subsistence and market hunters, the majority of hunters, were placed outside the purview of the sportsman’s code. Those who hunted out of necessity or for profit never could obtain the aesthetic detachment necessary to be considered sportsmen.
In fact, wealthy recreational hunters claimed that only they were “real hunters” and even organized against people who hunted for food and money. For example,
[Roosevelt himself] blamed the decline of game on market hunters, who he argued, had “no excuse of any kind” for the wanton slaughter of animals.
Trophy hunters successfully enacted statutes limiting other types of hunting, so as to preserve game for themselves.
The rarer and larger the animal, the more exquisite the specimen, and the more a man has killed, the better the animals speak to a his manliness and his elite economic and social class. This is perhaps the attraction of international trophy hunting today: the seeking of more exotic and elusive game to bring home and display. And it is perhaps why some people pay $50,000 to travel across the world, kill a lion, cut off its head, then post it on Facebook.
D'Lane Compton PhD and Tristan Bridges PhD on December 26, 2015
“Lumbersexual” recently entered our cultural lexicon. What it means exactly is still being negotiated. At a basic level, it’s an identity category that relies on a set of stereotypes about regionally specific and classed masculinities. Lumbersexuals are probably best recognized by a set of hirsute bodies and grooming habits. Their attire, bodies, and comportment are presumed to cite stereotypes of lumberjacks in the cultural imaginary. However, combined with the overall cultural portrayal of the lumbersexual, this stereotype set fundamentally creates an aesthetic with a particular subset of men that idealizes a cold weather, rugged, large, hard-bodied, bewhiskered configuration of masculinity.
Similar to hipster masculinity, “lumbersexual” is a classification largely reserved for young, straight, white, and arguably class-privileged men. While some position lumbersexuals as the antithesis of the metrosexual, others understand lumbersexuals as within a spectrum of identity options made available by metrosexuality. Urbandicionary.com defines the lumbersexual as “a sexy man who dresses in denim, leather, and flannel, and has a ruggedly sensual beard.”
One of the key signifiers of the “lumbersexual,” however, is that he is not, in fact, a lumberjack. Like the hipster, the lumbersexual is less of an identity men claim and more of one used to describe them (perhaps, against their wishes). It’s used to mock young, straight, white men for participating in a kind of identity work. Gearjunkie.com describes the identity this way:
Whether the roots of the lumbersexual are a cultural shift toward environmentalism, rebellion against the grind of 9-5 office jobs, or simply recognition that outdoor gear is just more comfortable, functional and durable, the lumbersexual is on the rise (here).
Many aspects of masculinity are “comfortable.” And, men don’t need outdoor gear and lumberjack attire to be comfortable. Lumbersexual has less to do with comfort and more to do with masculinity. It is a practice of masculinization. It’s part of a collection of practices associated with “hybrid masculinities”—categories and identity work practices made available to young, white, heterosexual men that allow them to collect masculine status they might otherwise see themselves (or be seen by others) as lacking. Hybridization offers young, straight, class-privileged white men an avenue to negotiate, compensate, and attempt to control meanings attached to their identities as men. Hybrid configurations of masculinity, like the lumbersexual, accomplish two things at once. They enable young, straight, class-privileged, white men to discursively distance themselves from what they might perceive as something akin to the stigma of privilege. They simultaneously offer a way out of the “emptiness” a great deal of scholarship has discussed as associated with racially, sexually, class-privileged identities (see here, here, and here).
The lumbersexual highlights a series of rival binaries associated with masculinities: rural vs. urban, rugged vs. refined, tidy vs. unkempt. But the lumbersexual is so compelling precisely because, rather than “choosing sides,” this identity attempts to delicately walk the line between these binaries. It’s “delicate” precisely because this is a heteromasculine configuration—falling too far toward one side or the other could call him into question. But, a lumbersexual isn’t a lumberjack just like a metrosexual isn’t gay. Their identity work attempts to establish a connection with identities to which they have no authentic claim by flirting with stereotypes surrounding sets of interests and aesthetics associated with various marginalized and subordinated groups of men. Yet, these collections are largely mythologies. The bristly woodsmen they are ostensibly parroting were, in fact, created for precisely this purpose. As Willa Brown writes,
The archetypal lumberjack—the Paul Bunyanesque hipster naturalist—was an invention of urban journalists and advertisers. He was created not as a portrait of real working-class life, but as a model for middle-class urban men to aspire to, a cure for chronic neurasthenics. He came to life not in the forests of Minnesota, but in the pages of magazines (here).
Perhaps less obviously, however, the lumbersexual is also coopting elements of sexual minority subcultures. If we look through queer lenses we might suggest that lumbersexuals are more similar to metrosexuals than they may acknowledge as many elements of “lumberjack” identities are already connected with configurations of lesbian and gay identities. For instance, lumbersexuals share a lot of common ground with “bear masculinity” (a subculture of gay men defined by larger bodies with lots of hair) and some rural configurations of lesbian identity. Arguably, whether someone is a “bear” or a “lumbersexual” may solely be a question of sexual identity. After all, bear culture emerged to celebrate a queer masculinity, creating symbolic distance from stereotypes of gay masculinities as feminine or effeminate. Lumbersexuals could be read as a similar move in response to metrosexuality.
Lumbersexual masculinity is certainly an illustration that certain groups of young, straight, class-privileged, white men are playing with gender. In the process, however, systems of power and inequality are probably better understood as obscured than challenged. Like the phrase “no homo,” hybrid configurations of masculinity afford young straight men new kinds of flexibility in identities and practice, but don’t challenge relations of power and inequality in any meaningful way.
The authors would like to thank the Orange Couch of NOLA, Urban Outfitters, the rural (&) queer community, and Andrea Herrera for suggesting we tackle this piece. Additional thanks to C.J. Pascoe and Lisa Wade for advanced reading and comments.
It seems certain that the political economy textbooks of the future will include a chapter on the experience of Greece in 2015.
On July 5, 2015, the people of Greece overwhelmingly voted “NO” to the austerity ultimatum demanded by what is colloquially being called the Troika, the three institutions that have the power to shape Greece’s future: the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund, and the European Central Bank.
The people of Greece have stood up for the rights of working people everywhere.
Greece has experienced six consecutive years of recession and the social costs have been enormous. The following charts provide only the barest glimpse into the human suffering:
While the Troika has been eager to blame this outcome on the bungling and dishonesty of successive Greek governments and even the Greek people, the fact is that it is Troika policies that are primarily responsible. In broad brush, Greece grew rapidly over the 2000s in large part thanks to government borrowing, especially from French and German banks. When the global financial crisis hit in late 2008, Greece was quickly thrown into recession and the Greek government found its revenue in steep decline and its ability to borrow sharply limited. By 2010, without its own national currency, it faced bankruptcy.
Enter the Troika. In 2010, they penned the first bailout agreement with the Greek government. The Greek government received new loans in exchange for its acceptance of austerity policies and monitoring by the IMF. Most of the new money went back out of the country, largely to its bank creditors. And the massive cuts in public spending deepened the country’s recession.
By 2011 it had become clear that the Troika’s policies were self-defeating. The deeper recession further reduced tax revenues, making it harder for the Greek government to pay its debts. Thus in 2012 the Troika again extended loans to the Greek government as part of a second bailout which included . . . wait for it . . . yet new austerity measures.
Not surprisingly, the outcome was more of the same. By then, French and German banks were off the hook. It was now the European governments and the International Monetary Fund that worried about repayment. And the Greek economy continued its downward ascent.
Significantly, in 2012, IMF staff acknowledged that the its support for austerity in 2010 was a mistake. Simply put, if you ask a government to cut spending during a period of recession you will only worsen the recession. And a country in recession will not be able to pay its debts. It was a pretty clear and obvious conclusion.
But, significantly, this acknowledgement did little to change Troika policies toward Greece.
By the end of 2014, the Greek people were fed up. Their government had done most of what was demanded of it and yet the economy continued to worsen and the country was deeper in debt than it had been at the start of the bailouts. And, once again, the Greek government was unable to make its debt payments without access to new loans. So, in January 2015 they elected a left wing, radical party known as Syriza because of the party’s commitment to negotiate a new understanding with the Troika, one that would enable the country to return to growth, which meant an end to austerity and debt relief.
Syriza entered the negotiations hopeful that the lessons of the past had been learned. But no, the Troika refused all additional financial support unless Greece agreed to implement yet another round of austerity. What started out as negotiations quickly turned into a one way scolding. The Troika continued to demand significant cuts in public spending to boost Greek government revenue for debt repayment. Greece eventually won a compromise that limited the size of the primary surplus required, but when they proposed achieving it by tax increases on corporations and the wealthy rather than spending cuts, they were rebuffed, principally by the IMF.
The Troika demanded cuts in pensions, again to reduce government spending. When Greece countered with an offer to boost contributions rather than slash the benefits going to those at the bottom of the income distribution, they were again rebuffed. On and on it went. Even the previous head of the IMF penned an intervention warning that the IMF was in danger of repeating its past mistakes, but to no avail.
Finally on June 25, the Troika made its final offer. It would provide additional funds to Greece, enough to enable it to make its debt payments over the next five months in exchange for more austerity. However, as the Greek government recognized, this would just be “kicking the can down the road.” In five months the country would again be forced to ask for more money and accept more austerity. No wonder the Greek Prime Minister announced he was done, that he would take this offer to the Greek people with a recommendation of a “NO” vote.
Almost immediately after the Greek government announced its plans for a referendum, the leaders of the Troika intervened in the Greek debate. For example, as the New York Timesreported:
By long-established diplomatic tradition, leaders and international institutions do not meddle in the domestic politics of other countries. But under cover of a referendum in which the rest of Europe has a clear stake, European leaders who have found [Greece Prime Minister] Tsipras difficult to deal with have been clear about the outcome they prefer.
Many are openly opposing him on the referendum, which could very possibly make way for a new government and a new approach to finding a compromise. The situation in Greece, analysts said, is not the first time that European politics have crossed borders, but it is the most open instance and the one with the greatest potential effect so far on European unity…
Martin Schulz, a German who is president of the European Parliament, offered at one point to travel to Greece to campaign for the “yes” forces, those in favor of taking a deal along the lines offered by the
On Thursday, Mr. Schulz was on television making clear that he had little regard for Mr. Tsipras and his government. “We will help the Greek people but most certainly not the government,” he said.
European leaders actively worked to distort the terms of the referendum. Greeks were voting on whether to accept or reject Troika austerity policies yet the Troika leaders falsely claimed the vote was on whether Greece should remain in the Eurozone. In fact, there is no mechanism for kicking a country out of the Eurozone and the Greek government was always clear that it was not seeking to leave the zone.
Having whipped up popular fears of an end to the euro, some Greeks began talking their money out of the banks. On June 28, the European Central Bank then took the aggressive step of limiting its support to the Greek financial system.
This was a very significant and highly political step. Eurozone governments do not print their own money or control their own monetary systems. The European Central Bank is in charge of regional monetary policy and is duty bound to support the stability of the region’s financial system. By limiting its support for Greek banks it forced the Greek government to limit withdrawals which only worsened economic conditions and heightened fears about an economic collapse. This was, as reported by the New York Times, a clear attempt to influence the vote, one might even say an act of economic terrorism:
Some experts say the timing of the European Central Bank action in capping emergency funding to Greek banks this week appeared to be part of a campaign to influence voters.
“I don’t see how anybody can believe that the timing of this was coincidence,” said Mark Weisbrot, an economist and a co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington. “When you restrict the flow of cash enough to close the banks during the week of a referendum, this is a very deliberate move to scare people.”
Then on July 2, three days before the referendum, an IMF staff report on Greece was made public. Echos of 2010, the report made clear that Troika austerity demands were counterproductive. Greece needed massive new loans and debt forgiveness. The Bruegel Institute, a European think tank, offered a summary and analysis of the report, concluding that “the creditors negotiated with Greece in bad faith” and used “indefensible economic logic.”
The leaders of the Troika were insisting on policies that the IMF’s own staff viewed as misguided. Moreover, as noted above, European leaders desperately but unsuccessfully tried to kill the report. Only one conclusion is possible: the negotiations were a sham.
The Troika’s goals were political: they wanted to destroy the leftist, radical Syriza because it represented a threat to a status quo in which working people suffer to generate profits for the region’s leading corporations. It apparently didn’t matter to them that what they were demanding was disastrous for the people of Greece. In fact, quite the opposite was likely true: punishing Greece was part of their plan to ensure that voters would reject insurgent movements in other countries, especially Spain.
And despite, or perhaps because of all of the interventions and threats highlighted above, the Greek people stood firm. As the headlines of a Bloomberg news story proclaimed: “Varoufakis: Greeks Said ‘No’ to Five Years of Hypocrisy.”
The Greek vote was a huge victory for working people everywhere.
Now, we need to learn the lessons of this experience. Among the most important are: those who speak for dominant capitalist interests are not to be trusted. Our strength is in organization and collective action. Our efforts can shape alternatives.
I don’t have much to add on the “consensus plan” on poverty and mobility produced by the Brookings and American Enterprise institutes, referred to in their launch event as being on “different ends of the ideological spectrum” (can you imagine?). In addition to the report, you might consider the comments byJeff Spross, Brad DeLong, or the three-part series by Matt Bruenig.
My comment is about the increasingly (to me) frustrating description of poverty as something beyond simple comprehension and unreachable by mortal policy. It’s just not. The whole child poverty problem, for example, amounts to $62 billion dollars per year. There are certainly important details to be worked out in how to eliminate it, but the basic idea is pretty clear — you give poor people money. We have plenty of it.
This was obvious yet amazingly not remarked upon in the first 40 minutes of the launch event (which is all I watched). In the opening presentation, by Ron Haskins — for whom I have a well-documenteddistaste — started with this simple chart of official poverty rates:
He started with the blue line, poverty for elderly people, and said:
The blue line is probably the nation’s greatest success against poverty. It’s the elderly. And it basically has declined pretty much all the time. It has no relationship to the economy, and there is good research that shows that its cause at least 90% by Social Security. So, government did it, and so Social Security is the reason we’re able to be successful to reduce poverty among the elderly.
And then everyone proceeded to ignore the obvious implication of that: when you give people money, they aren’t poor anymore. The most unintentionally hilarious illustration of this was in the keynote (why?) address from David Brooks (who has definitely been working on relaxing lately, especially when it comes to preparing keynote puff-pieces). He said this, according to my unofficial transcript:
Poverty is a cloud problem and not a clock problem. This is a Karl Popper distinction. He said some problems are clock problems – you can take them apart into individual pieces and fix them. Some problems are cloud problems. You can’t take a cloud apart. It’s a dynamic system that is always interspersed. And Popper said we have a tendency to try to take cloud problems and turn them into clock problems, because it’s just easier for us to think about. But poverty is a cloud problem. … A problem like poverty is too complicated to be contained by any one political philosophy. … So we have to be humble, because it’s so gloomy and so complicated and so cloud-like.
The good news is that for all the complexity of poverty, and all the way it’s a cloud, it offers a political opportunity, especially in a polarized era, because it’s not an either/or issue. … Poverty is an and/and issue, because it takes a zillion things to address it, and some of those things are going to come from the left, and some are going to come from the right. … And if poverty is this mysterious, unknowable, negative spiral-loop that some people find themselves in, then surely the solution is to throw everything we think works at the problem simultaneously, and try in ways we will never understand, to have a positive virtuous cycle. And so there’s not a lot of tradeoffs, there’s just a lot of throwing stuff in. And social science, which is so prevalent in this report, is so valuable in proving what works, but ultimately it has to bow down to human realities – to psychology, to emotion, to reality, and to just the way an emergent system works.
Poverty is only a “mysterious, unknowable, negative spiral-loop” if you specifically ignore the lack of money that is its proximate cause. Sure, spend your whole life wondering about the mysteries of human variation — but could we agree to do that after taking care of people’s basic needs?
I wonder if poverty among the elderly once seemed like a weird, amorphous, confusing problem. I doubt it. But it probably would if we had assumed that the only way to solve elderly poverty was to get children to give their parents more money. Then we would have to worry about the market position of their children, the timing of their births, the complexity of their motivations and relationships, the vagaries of the market, and the folly of youth. Instead, we gave old people money. And now elderly poverty “has declined pretty much all the time” and “it has no relationship to the economy.”
Philip N. Cohen, PhD is a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park. He is the author of The Family, a sociology of family textbook, and writes the blog Family Inequality. You can follow him on Twitter or Facebook.
We all know that wealth is unequally distributed in the US. But, the results of a new study by the Institute for Policy Studies, authored by Chuck Collins and Josh Hoxie, are still eye popping.
Collins and Hoxie find that the wealthiest 0.1 percent of US households, an estimated 115,000 households with a net worth starting at $20 million, own more than 20 percent of total US household wealth. That is up from 7 percent in the 1970s. This group owns approximately the same total wealth as the bottom 90 percent of US households.
Moving up the wealth ladder, they calculate that the top 400 people—yes, people not households, each with a net worth starting at $1.7 billion, have more wealth than the bottom 61 percent of the US population, an estimated 70 million households or 194 million people.
Finally, we get to the top 20 people, those sitting at the pinnacle of the US wealth distribution. As the authors explain:
The wealthiest 20 individuals in the United States today hold more wealth than the bottom half of the U.S. population combined. These 20 super wealthy — a group small enough to fly together on one Gulfstream G650 private jet — have as much wealth as the 152 million people who live in the 57 million households that make up the bottom half of the U.S. population.
Although obvious, it is still worth emphasizing, as Collins and Hoxie do, that great wealth translates into great power, the power to shape economic policies. And, in a self-reinforcing cycle, the resulting policies, by design, create new opportunities for the wealthy to capture more wealth. Think: free trade agreements, privatization policies, tax policy, and labor and environmental laws and regulations.
Oh yes, also think presidential politics. As a New York Timesstudy points out:
They are overwhelmingly white, rich, older and male . . . . Across a sprawling country, they reside in an archipelago of wealth, exclusive neighborhoods dotting a handful of cities and towns… Now they are deploying their vast wealth in the political arena, providing almost half of all the seed money raised to support Democratic and Republican presidential candidates. Just 158 families, along with companies they own or control, contributed $176 million in the first phase of the campaign, a New York Times investigation found (emphasis added).
And yet, one still hears some people say that class analysis has no role to play in explaining the dynamics of the US political economy. Makes you wonder who pays their salary.
“That’s private equity for you,” said Steve Jenkins. He was standing outside the uptown Fairway at 125th St. about to go to breakfast at a diner across the street. He no longer works at Fairway.
Steve was one of the early forces shaping Fairway back when it was just one store at 74th and Broadway. He hired on as their cheese guy. “What do you want that for?” he growled at me one day long ago when he saw me with a large wedge of inexpensive brie. “That’s the most boring cheese in the store.” He was often abrasive, rarely tactful. I tried to explain that it was for a party and most of the people wouldn’t care. He would have none of it. He cared. He cared deeply – about cheese, about food generally.
He helped Fairway expand from one store to two, then four. He still selected the cheeses. He wrote the irreverent text for their signs, including the huge electric marquee that drivers on the West Side Highway read. And then in 2007 Fairway got bought out by a private equity firm. The three original founders cashed out handsomely. Steve and others stayed on. Much of their their share of the deal was in Fairway stock, but with restrictions that prevented them from selling.
Fairway kept expanding – stores in more places around New York – and they aimed more at the median shopper. Gradually, the store lost its edge, its quirkiness. With great size comes great McDonaldization – predictability, calculability. “Like no other market,” says every Fairway sign and every Fairway plastic bag. But it became like lots of other markets, with “specials” and coupons. Coupons! Fairway never had coupons. Or specials.
The people who decided to introduce coupons and specials were probably MBAs who knew about business and management and maybe even research on the retail food business. They knew about costs and profits. Knowing about food was for the people below them, people whose decisions they could override.
“I gotta get permission from corporate if I want to use my cell phone,” said Peter Romano, the wonderful produce manager at 74th St. – another guy who’d been there almost from the start. He knew produce like Steve knew cheese. Peter, too, left Fairway a few months ago.
Maybe this is what happens when a relatively small business gets taken over by ambitious suits. Things are rationalized, bureaucratized. And bureaucracy carries an implicit message of basic mistrust:
If we trusted you, we wouldn’t make you get approval. We wouldn’t make you fill out these papers about what you’re doing; we’d just let you do it. These procedures are our way of telling you that we don’t trust you to do what you say you’re doing.
The need for predictability, efficiency, and calculability leave little room for improvisation. The food business becomes less about food, more about business. It stops being fun. The trade-off should be that you get more money. But there too, Fairway’s new management disappointed. They expanded rapidly, putting new stores in questionable locations. In the first months after the private equity firm took Fairway public in 2013, the stock price was as high as $26 a share. Yesterday, it closed at $1.04. The shares that Steve Jenkins and others received as their part of the private equity buyout are practically worthless.
Steve Jenkins will be all right. He’s well known in food circles. He’s been on television with Rachel Ray, Jacques Pepin. Still, there he was yesterday morning outside the store whose cheeses and olive oils had been his dominion. “I’m sixty-five years old, and I’m looking for a job.”
I recently moved to a neighborhood that people routinely describe as “bad.” It’s my first time living in such a place. I’ve lived in working class neighborhoods, but never poor ones. I’ve been lucky.
This neighborhood — one, to be clear, that I had the privilege to choose to live in — is genuinely dangerous. There have been 42 shootings within one mile of my house in the last year. Often in broad daylight. Once the murderers fled down my street, careening by my front door in an SUV. One week there were six rapes by strangers — in the street and after home invasions — in seven days. People are robbed, which makes sense to me because people have to eat, but with a level of violence that I find confusing. An 11-year-old was recently arrested for pulling a gun on someone. A man was beaten until he was a quadriplegic. One day 16 people were shot in a park nearby after a parade.
I’ve lived here for a short time and — being white, middle-aged, middle class, and female — I am on the margins of the violence in my streets, and yet I have never been so constantly and excruciatingly aware of my mortality. I feel less of a hold on life itself. It feels so much more fragile, like it could be taken away from me at any time. I am acutely aware that my skin is but paper, my bones brittle, my skull just a shell ripe for bashing. I imagine a bullet sheering through me like I am nothing. That robustness that life used to have, the feeling that it is resilient and that I can count on it to be there for me, that feeling is going away.
So, when I saw the results of a new study showing that only 50% of African American teenagers believe that they will reach 35 years of age, I understood better than I have understood before. Just a tiny — a teeny, teeny, tiny — bit better.
I have heard this idea before. A friend who grew up the child of Mexican immigrants in a sketchy urban neighborhood told me that he, as a teenager, didn’t believe he’d make it to 18. I nodded my head and thought “wow,”‘ but I did not understand even a little bit. He would be between the first and second column from the right: 54% of 2nd generation Mexican immigrants expect that they may very well die before 35. I understand him now a tiny — a teeny, teeny tiny — bit better.
Sociologists Tara Warner and Raymond Swisher, the authors of the study, make clear that the consequences of this fatalism are far reaching. If a child does not believe that they might live to see another day, what motivation can there possibly be for investing in the future, for caring for one’s body, for avoiding harmful habits or dangerous activities? Why study? Why bother to see a doctor? Why not do drugs? Why avoid breaking the law?
Why wouldn’t a person put their future at risk — indeed, their very life — if they do not believe in that future, that life, at all?
If we really want to improve the lives of the most vulnerable people in our country, we cannot allow them to live in neighborhoods where desperation is so high that people turn to violence. Dangerous environments breed fatalism, rationally so. And once our children have given up on their own futures, no teachers’ encouragement, no promise that things will get better if they are good, no “up by your bootstraps” rhetoric will make a difference. They think they’re going to be dead, literally.
We need to boost these families with generous economic help, real opportunities, and investment in neighborhood infrastructure and schools. I think we don’t because the people with the power to do so don’t understand — even a teeny, teeny tiny bit — what it feels like to grow up thinking you’ll never grow up. Until they do, and until we decide that this is a form of cruelty that we cannot tolerate, I am sad to say that I feel pretty fatalistic about these children’s futures, too.