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Meritocracy is a massive lie: Race, inheritance and the the truth about the rigged American dream

Upward mobility has become a mirage: Rich have never had more wealth, the rest of us have never had so much debt

Danny Dorling
August 9, 2015 8:00PM (UTC)
Reprinted from "Injustice: Why Social Inequality Still Persists"

Once a process of economic polarization begins, it is very hard to turn it around. Attitudes harden, fear grows on fear; as people polarize geographically, they begin to know less and less of each other, and become more fearful and more distrusting of each other. Free market rhetoric stops being ridiculed as it was in the 1950s, when economists described events in the late 1920s as free market madness. It is only under rising prejudice that it becomes acceptable again to have many people looking for work all the time, and changing jobs frequently, as the workless become seen as part of the ‘oil’ that makes the whole machine work smoothly. It takes a long time again for people to realize that jobs being lost and gained around the world, or relocated, results in huge gross turnover of human lives for small net increases in apparent productivity.

The turnover change and precarity is what most affects individual lives: insecurity, feeling worthless, being made redundant, being made redundant again and again, having to take whatever work is on offer. In 2011, Guy Standing published The precariat:The new dangerous class. He argued that this group were invariably working below their capabilities precisely because they have no other option. And they are dangerous because they know they have no other option as things stand. Standing himself cites graffiti written on a wall in Madrid in recent years as indicative of how this group thinks about transformation. The graffiti read: ‘The worst thing would be to return to the old normal.’


The precariat do not celebrate the net increases in numbers of people in paid employment, which is how government economists measure success when selfishness has become the norm.More people in paid work than ever before occurs when there is coercion for everyone who can work to have to do that work. Despite the prevailing rhetoric, it is not necessary that we all labour. Much non-renumerated work is valuable. Neither do we live in a zero-sum world, where jobs have to be lost in rich countries for them to be gained in poor ones and consequently that exchange will somehow make the world a more equitable place. If that were the case, globally, we would be so much more equal by now. Instead, areas are abandoned, other places become overcrowded, labour is casualized and spaces congested; the poorer people are, the more they are exploited. But economic statistics do not usually assess exploitation; just aggregate measures like growth.

During the 1980s in Britain, the motorway system was greatly extended, which allowed people to commute much further and more frequently by car than before.This aided spatial polarization between areas, as you could live further away from the city centers in which you worked. Seen more widely, road building was part of a longer-term change in transportation to encourage individualism, although different affluent countries chose to undertake different levels of road building and of more collectivist and efficient railway building.

Road building and social polarization in Britain led to more road use. The motorways became even more congested than before, despite more being built and more lanes added to the existing roads. It was because more cars were on the road due to more motorways having been built, and more people choosing to live in the suburbs, that the roads actually became even more congested. Conversely, while trams and urban railways had created the outer suburbs as residential possibilities, the car made commuter villages attractive.

Now in many cities, the rich have returned to the very center to avoid congestion and the nearby initially affluent inner suburbs have been suffering decline. This pattern is found in many European cities, across the US and in Australasia – recent changes in the larger cities, such as Sydney, typify this pattern. There are, however, some huge differences between what is normal in different rich countries in terms of how people travel and arrange their housing. In general, the more economically equal people are within a country, the more often they have engineered their public transport systems to work well, and have arranged workplaces to be near enough to homes to avoid having to use cars all the time. Between 2005 and 2009 in the US,only 3.5 per cent of all journeys to work were by cycling or walking; in Australia, that proportion was 6 per cent, in Canada, 12 per cent, in France, 25 per cent, in Finland, 31 per cent, in Sweden, 32 per cent, in Denmark, 34 per cent and in the Netherlands, 51 per cent. Australia and the US chose to build sprawling car-dependent cities, they did not have to, but now their population have problems exercising as they spend many more hours getting to work behind a wheel rather than in healthy exercise.

In different parts of the world, at different times, different parts of cities fare better than others.When in Europe and North America the poor became concentrated in the centers and the rich were spun out to the suburbs, the opposite pattern was found in poorer countries. There, the rich were initially spun into the center. In poorer countries local taxes tend to be low or non-existent. In rich countries the affluent often initially moved out of city centers to avoid being taxed at city rates, thus avoiding having to help support the poor within their city, and avoiding having to live too near them. In richer countries they moved further out to create an outer ring of commuter towns. In the most unequal of all rich countries, the most affluent ensure that local taxes are low and they have at least two homes, one in the city center and one often even further out, so maybe one in Chelsea and the Cotswolds, or one in Manhattan and Maine.

And some of those with homes in more than one community complain of a general lack of community cohesion! Both the Conservative leader, and later Prime Minister, David Cameron and the 2008 Republican presidential nominee John McCain were unsure when asked on the campaign trail how many homes they owned. It isn’t possible to know all your neighbors when you own three, four, five, six or more homes. While community cohesion might be low where the most affluent live, these uncohesive areas tend not to experience many riots.


The phrase ‘community cohesion’ was not used before 2001. It is a strangely manufactured lament reflecting some old concerns associated with city living and migration, but perhaps also a new fear of the affluent who do not want to be blamed for causing others’ woes by their own accumulation of riches. It is in the countries that have become more split apart by greed,in which the richest live as far away from the poor as they can, that you most often hear the lament that in poor areas people occasionally riot.Although the areas where the riots occur are almost always poor, reports on riots in recent years have not made the links between rioting and poverty made by earlier reports. Compare official reports on riots in places like Bradford in 2001 or London in 2011 with reports in the 1980s, including the Scarman report on the Brixton riots in London, or the 1960s California gubernatorial commission’s findings on the Watts riots in Los Angeles.

It is now more common to hear that poverty is ‘not an excuse’, that the fact that those areas have been disinvested in should not have led to disturbance (as so much has somehow been ‘invested’ through ‘regeneration’ schemes). But in the areas in which most rioters live, young people are given so little compared with most young people that they know they have little to lose. Instead of rioting, minor public order offenses and what is called general anti-social behavior are now more often blamed on supposed racial tension and on different groups of people labelled by skin color and religion apparently not mixing much.Almost always these are groups that have mixed well in poor areas, as compared with the way the rich, despite flocking together, do not mix well with each other, let alone with the poor. The segregation and lack of community cohesion of the affluent is ignored, as is their lack of general community spirit, which harms the majority so much. Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s The Spirit Level depressingly documents the decline in trust that occurs as inequality increases, encouraging the people with most to try to acquire yet more to protect themselves from those they then trust less and less, and consequently impoverish.

Until recently in the US, the myth that all could become rich was so strong that even a majority of the very poorest voters were in favor of abolishing inheritance tax, called ‘estate tax’. This was despite the fact that less than 1 per cent ever pay such taxes. With US wealth falling after the economic crash it is becoming harder to sell the American dream as something to hang on to, and more and more vital to find sources of income to simply maintain the basic running of the US. Taxing the inheritance of the rich is the most obvious source of that income. Even Bill Gates, the richest single American in 2014 with $81 billion at stake, is in favor of it. However, the greatest obstacle to keeping, expanding and raising inheritance tax is racism. Inheritance tax is now seen as transferring money from white to black Americans, but it was not always so.Andrew Carnegie argued that inheritance tax was the only way to prevent a permanent aristocracy of the wealthy, which could have been prevented had the tax been maintained; instead, North America got that aristocracy, the aristocracy of the descendants of robber barons and bloated bankers.And the social group who take kinship and inheritance most seriously are the very richest of all, where even those who marry into the family can be described as ‘outsiders’.

The human failing most closely associated with the injustice of prejudice is racism. It is racist to believe that we are inherently different. The idea that mental ability and other ‘gifts’ are inherited, and the concept of giving material and social advantage to your offspring, coupled with preventing them from apparently squandering their inheritances by urging them to marry from among a narrow class of partners, are the mechanisms through which prejudice is maintained over time. Where such behaviors over inheritance remain powerful, social inequalities remain high, and social solidarity tends to be low. A belief in inheritance both creates and maintains the ideas of racial groups and racial difference. What separates white and black people most in the US is wealth. When people are free to consort with whomever they wish in a society, that society quickly becomes seen as racially homogeneous.This occurred in Iceland as it came out of abject poverty and almost all were seen as alike, or in Japan, following land reform that made all more equal and hence more alike. As a result, most people in Japan and Iceland are viewed as being of the same race.


The creation of race

We have not always belonged, and do not always belong, to particular ethnic groups. When there are restrictions on mixing, either legally imposed or through the creation of a tradition, then races become created and begin to take on huge importance in connection with life chances. A race can be made in a flicker of time, and one such flicker occurred in 1770.

On 22 April 1770 there were no indigenous Australians, no natives, no black people in Australia, there was no Australia; there were just a great many people who had lived in a very large land for a very long time. They belonged to many groupings, although these were constantly reforming and far from all-encompassing.


Of the people spread all across that huge continent, not one of them was called ‘aboriginal’. In a flicker of time all that changed; all the nuances of kin groups, kingdoms and respect went when James Cook, initially apprenticed by Quakers in the Yorkshire seaside village of Whitby, claimed Australia for the English Crown.

If it hadn’t been James Cook, it would have quickly been another sea captain who would have, at a stroke, turned the oldest great collection of continuously surviving human civilizations in the world into what within a few years would become one of the poorest racial minorities on the planet. He did this simply by claiming that Australia was, from then on, part of the inheritance of the British. The British themselves were a manufactured race, who, from 1603 to 1714, had mostly been subjects of a Scottish monarchy, the Stuarts.

There were no British people in 1700; they were only ‘made’ to exist long after the successors of another James, King of Scotland from 1567, inherited the crowns of both Ireland and England in 1603. These were times when the nationalities that people were given, their religions, and the languages they were expected to speak, depended greatly on the whims of princes and kings.And the prince or king you got depended entirely on when and where you were born.


Like nations, religions and ethnicities, races are created. They are manufactured from acts of royal marriage and infertility, exploration, discovery, colonization, imperialism and expropriation. And races can also be dissolved. They are dissolved by inter-marriage and when no one considers them any longer as a race. Often religious groups are synonymous with racial groups, especially when persecuted, as in the cases of Jews, the Huguenots and Rastafarians.

The Quakers were one such group that was greatly persecuted, much as more accepted races were, and that could easily have become a mainstream race. There was a time when Quakers mostly married other Quakers, gave birth to children who in turn became Quakers, and were seen in countries like Britain as a group apart. When barred from the few universities that existed, a few of their oldest sons instead established what would later become great industries, and they were given a little space to allow that. In England in 1753, the Marriage Act of Parliament contained an exception to allow Quakers and Jews to follow their own traditions.

Just 17 years before James Cook landed on the Australian East coast, English law depicted Quakers on a par with Jews, and also as a ‘race’/ religion to be respected and tolerated. If respect and toleration last long enough, however, a race disappears. The Quakers received respect and toleration in most of the places where they lived, although the Jews often did not. When respect and tolerance are absent, race is all-pervasive, and races are maintained through oppression and persecution. Oppression and persecution occur most frequently where there is great economic inequality.

Race is often proposed as the reason ‘... for the absence of an American welfare state’. The US does have a cut-down version of a welfare state, but properly functioning welfare states require a degree of mutual trust and understanding, greater than that which has been common in the US. When trust is absent, it is very hard to establish widespread support for a system where those who have fallen on hard times through sickness or worklessness will be supported until they are better, or back in work, or both.You have to see your fellow humans as like you in order to support such a system.


If you see other people around you as a different kind of human being, following different kinds of motivation, perhaps as lazier than you, not as clever as you think you are, or as upright or as moral, then you may be less likely to back systems of mutual support. Seeing groups of others as generally lazy, immoral and stupid is usually social status-related – it is part of seeing them as beneath you. The great injustice of the lack of a well-functioning welfare state in the US is the direct result of the tolerance, maintenance and even encouragement of racism.

Racism is everywhere, but found in each place to differing degrees. In most of Western Europe racism has been kept subservient enough to permit the establishment of a series of welfare states. These welfare states were brought in most solidly after the Second World War, partly to curtail dissent among poor people over continued social inequalities, but also because social solidarity and equality were then high enough to make welfare possible. It was possible even earlier in New Zealand, as the welfare state there was established in the 1930s.

Not all people in Western European countries have been subject to the protection of welfare states – the reasons for excluding a group are usually racist. Guest workers, non-EU tourists, illegal immigrants – these are all groups who can be excluded from medical care and rights to social security that would protect them during times of worklessness. In Japan, for example, guest workers are encouraged to leave when they fall ill or out of employment. In the UK in early 2015, the Prime Minister advocated restrictions on tax credits being available to some European migrants.

Within Europe the right to move freely for those with citizenship is yet another example of races dissolving, as Europeans come to be seen to have more in common with each other, to have common rights and expectations to be treated similarly – a common European inheritance. This is a constructed, not a natural, pan-European inheritance. How it is constructed is well illustrated by recent tensions over migration from Eastern Europe. This common inheritance and the fights on citizenship within Europe are also used, like the ideas of US citizenship and Japanese nationality, as a reason to exclude others, others not fortunate enough to have inherited through accident of birthplace the right to a protected life.


If you are born in one of the three rich regions of the world you should never go really hungry, never expect to fall ill and die on the street without healthcare; your children will have a right to education; your basic dignity will be respected. These are all things you have inherited because they are your inheritance as a citizen, through the accident of your birth. However, rather than admit this, it can be easier to suggest that in the past, people in these areas were specially endowed to become richer,and that superiority both existed and somehow justifies the current fortunes of their descendants, including almost everyone reading this book. Did the ‘British race’ come to rule an empire of many other ‘races’ that had its greatest extent in 1919 because ‘the British’ were especially able? This would be both a justification based on an identification of races and a racist argument.

It is hard to overplay the importance of how just being born in a wealthy country provides you with an inheritance that ends up marking you as different from others.This inheritance is not simply of systems of social organizations that are efficient at keeping people healthy and (usually) well fed, occupied and educated. It is also of the physical infrastructure that makes all this possible, of roads and railways built decades ago from profits often made from trade – trade that was often imposed on others.

Good health is maintained partly by the inheritance of sewer systems and health systems, and partly the product of being born to parents who, in their turn, will have been better fed and cared for than most other people in the world. However, being born in an affluent country also results in inheriting the right to have payments made indirectly to you in the form of interest on the loans your forefathers made to people in poorer countries. More generally, you inherit being at the right end of a mechanism that ensures that over time, you pay less and less for what is made and grown elsewhere, while those in poorer countries pay more and more.

By 2006, the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs valued that transfer at $500 billion (net) moving from poor to rich countries annually. All you need do to qualify for a share in these profits is simply ensure that you are born to the right parents in the right place at the right time. This is luck, not skill. Thus most of your pay packet, if you live and work in a rich country,reflects your luck in having been born there, not your skill at work. By 2014, that same department had identified that it was the rich within the most inequitable of the richest countries of the world who were polluting the most through carbon emissions, to the detriment of everyone else.


Privilege and prejudice

Taxes, including inheritance tax, should be transfers of wealth from rich to poor. Protecting inheritance is all about maintaining unfairness. Inheritance preserves privilege and prejudice, and without it there would be precious little privilege or prejudice based simply on accruing power from accumulating money. No doubt new forms of privilege and prejudice would emerge, but they could not be based on looking down at others whose parents, for instance, could not afford, due to the cost of the school fees or of living in the right locality, to send their children to similar schools as yours, if you were more wealthy.

When someone says they have been privileged to have had a good education, that often means that they think that they were lucky because others were not given what they preserve as their social advantages. No one in a country where state schools were as well equipped as private schools would say that they had been privileged to have been educated privately; they would say they had been duped if someone had made a charge for what was theirs of right. Rarely are those who mention privilege talking about an education where they were actually taught well, extensively or widely. It is fear of losing these inheritances, these advantages that have little to do with useful learning, that keeps people behaving in particular ways.Often private schools have (privately marked) entrance exams so that only those children who are likely to find the next set of public exams relatively easy are allowed in, giving a false sense of the quality of the education they provide. These schools also teach children to conform and not to question their parents’ choices for them.

Rights to pensions in old age, healthcare then and before, out-of-work and educational benefits, all help keep a population pliant and reduce the incentive for emigration. The recent experiences of people leaving Eastern Europe for Western Europe, or leaving Mexico for the US, or of some Koreans moving to Japan, all show how easily places can lose their people when there appears less and less to inherit at home, and more of a chance for a better life abroad. These included some 68,631 unaccompanied children who were apprehended trying to cross from Mexico to the US in the financial year to 2014. Passports and border controls were only necessary once it began to be appreciated that much inheritance was simply the result of being in a place. Emigration controls, having to apply for permission to leave many countries in Western Europe and a few other jurisdictions, only ended just over a century ago, when enough reasons to stay had begun to be put in place.


Unless you are seen as highly skilled, one of the few legal ways to move from the poor world to the rich world now,without relatives in the latter, is to gain rich relatives, by marrying. Immigration through marriage is permitted partly because the unwritten rules on marriage are so well adhered to that marriage across social classes remains rare. If people married whoever they wished to marry, their choices not influenced by tradition or another social direction, the world would become a dramatically more equitable place within just a few generations. However, recently in the UK, in a bid to keep poorer people out, prospective immigrants who are the spouses of people who are not well off may now not be allowed to join their husband or wife within the UK.

It is only through the most careful selection of who we marry that inequality is maintained over time, and this careful selection is largely carried out unconsciously.Geographical proximity to potential partners is not just controlled by practical considerations of travel, but also closely curtailed through monitoring by family and society over where young people travel and when. The extent of that control is reflected by the rates at which people marry those from families not like themselves, poorer or richer, black or white, not by what clothes young people are allowed to wear or by what time they have to be home.

Two centuries ago, the question of whom to marry became the staple of contemporary fiction in the English novel,dominating the market from shortly after James Cook returned to England and Jane Austen’s writing gained favor,through to Catherine Cookson becoming the most widely read novelist in England by the time of her death in 1998. We now use terms like ‘gender’ and ‘ethnicity’ to refer to when people choose their partner’s sex or race, but the extent of our actual choices is remarkably limited by how others view us.At the same time as there has been an increased freedom to be gay and much less tolerance of explicit racism, freedom to mix with those who have more or less has been curtailed.

‘Assortative mating’is just one of the terms used to describe the myriad processes employed by varying human societies to ensure that like marry like.‘Homogamy’ is another obscure word for the same thing. The fact that these terms are so obscure illustrates just how embedded the process is. It is not that some people practice assortative mating and others do not, or that a very sizeable majority follow homogamy; it is that these behaviors are so much the norm that these terms are not needed. When people married out of their economic class, it used to be a great scandal.


It was a scandal in 1960 when the prosecuting counsel in a well-known English obscenity trial asked the jury, ‘Is it a book you would wish your wife or servants to read?’ Because the prosecuting counsel was a man from the upper classes who had married a woman from the upper classes, inherited property and employed servants, he had assumed the jurors were in the same position and that they all had servants! Homogamy promotes and maintains such prejudices.

The subject of the infamous 1960 trial, Lady Chatterley’s lover, was a book written by D.H. Lawrence in 1928 about a woman who had sex with her gamekeeper, a servant. It was immediately banned from publication until the trial collapsed in 1960, which was indicative of how prejudice had been reduced between 1928 and 1960.The trial had been held in order to try to stop the publisher (Penguin) in its attempt to produce a cheap paperback copy.

Although banning books on subjects such as sex between social classes became seen as absurdly old-fashioned by 1960,marriage (if not so much sex) beneath one’s station, especially for a woman, still carried great stigma; it still does, as evidenced by its continued rarity and patriarchy’s continued dominance (at least at older ages). That stigma may be rising in countries where social mobility is falling. And social mobility falls when income inequality rises.

Reprinted with permission from "Injustice: Why Social Inequality Still Persists" by Danny Dorling, published by Policy Press at the University of Bristol. © 2015 by Policy Press at the University of Bristol. All rights reserved.

Danny Dorling

Danny Dorling is the Halford Mackinder Professor of Geography at the University of Oxford. He is the author of over twenty-five books.

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