“Nobody’s Blues Are Like Mine”
April 21, 2017
Posted in Politics
All around us we see people playing the game of “Comparative Deprivation.” Its signature meme is “Those people don’t have it as bad as (fill in the blank here.)” Some conservatives for example like to point out that poverty in the United States is not “real” poverty such as in underdeveloped countries. American “poor” have refrigerators and televisions unlike say all those Syrian refugees. On Facebook recently I entered a conversation when someone mentioned an old quote from sociologist Orlando Patterson that he made in a New York Times op-ed piece defending Clarence Thomas in 1991. He said, “[America] is now the least racist white majority society in the world; has a better record of legal protection of minorities than any society white or black; [and] offers more opportunities to a greater number of black persons than any other society including all of Africa.” This quote is posted by “Praeger University” (which is not a university at all but a conservative web site) and has been used recently by conservative radio host Larry Elder, a black man.
It is an argument rarely made by the poor themselves but by those who have more and are trying to justify it to themselves or to others. This is like being told to eat whatever slop is put in front of you because others don’t have even that. I have to admit from the outset that for some these arguments are objectively true though irrelevant. Deprivation like many things is relative. To be poor in a rich society is quite different from being poor in a poor society. In both types of society however, the poor are at the bottom of the society, lack the rights or opportunities of others, and that is what feels the same.
“Comparative Deprivation” also works another way. In whatever group you define yourself one compares the deprivation of that group to others. This is why it is so hard to explain white privilege to a poor white person. His poverty doesn’t feel like privilege to him. Being a poor white in a society in which there is white privilege and watching a non-white who has more creates resentment. Feeling that the government has done more to help or protect the rights of nonwhites was the basis for much of the Trump support as revealed by a new American National Election Study. In it racism rather than income or belief in authoritarian regimes, played a bigger role among Trump supporters many of who were in the lower class.
Being at the bottom of one hierarchy doesn’t mean that you can’t be higher in another one. White women may be at the bottom of a male privilege hierarchy yet still be above blacks in the white privilege one. Some of the early suffragettes felt it unfair that women were denied the vote while black men sometimes had it. Black men who were at the bottom of the white superiority hierarchy may still have been higher in the gender hierarchy than women. Black women have complained for years that white women may be low in the gender hierarchy but still benefit from the white privilege hierarchy.
Comparing your deprivation to others has for centuries prevented an effective coalition against those who control the political system. Being at the bottom of a hierarchy feels the same no matter which hierarchical system it is. Yes there are different things oppressing us and different tactics needed to combat them, but a coalition of those at the bottom is the best way for all to rise. For that to happen we have to give up what we think is the uniqueness of our identity group’s blues, don’t listen to those who want to mollify or incite us by comparing deprivations, and recognize “someone else’s blues are like mine.” It is a tall order, but it is the way forward.