Attempting to prevent police racism and violence is a worthy and overdue reform. However, to adequately address racism, we need to take a step back and understand the me generations. Then perhaps we may begin to move away from the me-culture towards a we-culture. We might even consider completing the French revolution, giving equality and fraternity the same priority as individual freedom (Prilleltensky 2020). We may find our lost morality and build community (Brooks 2020). Let us try to understand how the me generations evolved over the last 60 years.
The generation of the sixties created a new kind of individualism. For example, Students for a Democratic Society wrote in the Port Huron Statement, "the goal of man and society should be personal independence… a concern not with an image of popularity but with finding a meaning of life that is personally authentic." At the time, we interpreted this as emancipation from conformity, dogma, prejudice, and political oppression. And as David Brooks points out, "the individualistic culture that emerged in the sixties broke through many of the chains that held down women and oppressed minorities. It loosened the bonds of racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, and homophobia.” He also believes that "we could not have had Silicon Valley or the whole information age economy without the rebel individualism and bursts of creativity that were unleashed by this culture” (Brooks 2020).
However, gradually our society began to take this framework to an extreme.
One of the most prominent examples of this tendency is the star system of rewards, which remarkably spread to many endeavors. It began in Hollywood with the public's desire to know the name of the actors, and the concept of movie star was born. It spread to Broadway and then to sports, to fashion, to academics, to cooks, to authors, to every profession. The media continually presents the stars with evident admiration. We are being told to strive to be like these winners. It is a very effective motivational system since we also believe that the stars are worthy. This provides sport for the economic elite. We work ourselves very hard to be exceptional individuals, downplaying all the resulting frustrations and health consequences such as divorce, opioid abuse, and obesity. The uncomfortable secret is that in the end, there is not much room for everybody to be a star, and not all stars are worthy. This is conveniently forgotten.
With this individualism, the autonomous individual becomes the fundamental unit of society, free to achieve self-realization. It is no longer the task of parents, schools, and institutions to create a shared moral order; it is something you can do on your own (Brooks 2020). Social goals are your individual option or can be ignored.
The nature of consumption has also evolved towards sustaining hyper-individualism, using all means possible, such as Artificial Intelligence, to forecast and even control the selection of individual products and services. The other essential task is to individualize, design, and produce these personalized products. This, together with the fast delivery of Amazon, has created a very seductive individual model of consumption, imitated worldwide. Unfortunately, it ignores the environmental and social costs. Also, our social problems concerning inequality and fraternity are reframed into individualized services of amelioration rather than looking at the primary causes.
In this context, it is crucial to understand the role of meritocracy. The economic elite certainly relies on it for justification of their position of power. The rationale goes like this: since the elite (presumably) have worked hard at achieving their success, they naturally view themselves as being merit worthy. However, the others, the less successful (perhaps they have worked less hard), are less worthy. And finally, the less than less worthy become the least deserving and possibly unworthy. In addition to believing that these persons simply have not strived enough, they may also be viewed as biologically inferior, lacking behavioral traits, or other forms of inferiority. The economic elite can see their position as a merited evolution of the fittest.
There are two essential problems with meritocracy. One is that it is a half-truth to which the medium and lower classes also frequently adhere, thus reinforcing the elite's dominant position. We wish to be merit worthy and to have such leaders. However, we forget all the social determinants and the role of luck in achieving individual economic success, noted by Jencks decades ago (Jencks 1972).
The second troubling issue is the oversized rewards we allow the merit worthy to accumulate. With the Internet spanning the globe, the network economies of scale with extremely low costs of each additional customer made possible extraordinary income and wealth accumulation of the service provider. However, we forget that the Internet was made possible by numerous projects in computer networking, primarily with funding from the public sector, the federal government in the US, and CERN in Europe. We allowed the benefits of public investment to be captured by the private sector in what became an individualistic, winner-take-all framework. The top three US billionaires have more wealth than the lower 50 percent of the population in 2018 (Collins 2019). CEO compensation has grown 980 percent since 1978, while typical worker compensation has risen only 12 percent. The compensation ratio of CEO-to-typical-worker reached 221 in 2018. It was 20-to-1 in 1965 (Mishel 2019).
Pervasive individualism spreading to groups
During the same period, the liberation of many minority movements had produced a heterogeneity of groups and small political movements. With no strong counter-balancing social goals, these groups followed the pervasive individualistic pattern of thought, stressing their particular goals instead of finding common ones. Group identity became an emotional issue. Often our clans rallied against the others. We gained emotional satisfaction being within our clan and attacking the others. The same occurred within the two political parties, clearly exacerbated by Trump. Gridlock prevails, and now few significant social programs are undertaken, the exceptions being Obama Care, and reactions to the Coronavirus pandemic. Gridlock can serve to keep power relations unaltered.
Over the last decade, the economic elite’s control over politics has become stronger. In 2010 the Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to prohibit corporations and unions from spending from their general treasuries to finance independent expenditures related to campaigns. This gave new birth to the PACs (Political Action Committees) and Super PACs, raising funds from individuals, corporations, unions, and other groups without any legal limit on donation size.
In this context of hyper-individualism and an extremely wealthy economic elite, with increased political influence, our social and collective goals have been deprioritized. Unions historically weak in the US, have continued to decline. All this has created a perfect storm for the forgotten poor.
The transformation of key sectors
Within this cultural and economic background, critical areas of our economic and social structure changed over the last decades. These include health care, the food industry, college education, incarceration, housing segregation, workers’ wages, and military defense. These sectors have often been transformed by the direct participation of business in creating new activity and markets, with little attention to the private/public tradeoffs. Not surprisingly, the changes have been in favor of the elite to the disadvantage of the poor.
Health care: paying if you can
With COVID-19, we are all very familiar with the limitations of our health care system. In the building of the US health services, it almost appears that each individual sector (insurance companies, pharmaceutical industry, physicians, and hospitals) attempted to maximize their profits, ending up in a very costly and cumbersome system. The US health system costs are twice the average of other rich OECC countries. Services are centered on the hospital and private care, with little attention paid to prevention, as shown by the high levels of obesity. Middle and lower-class US citizens often cannot afford it, and frequently, when one loses their job, they may lose their health insurance. The poorest part of the population has the worst health and is precisely the group that can least afford health care. According to Census Bureau projections, the 2015 life expectancies at birth for blacks are 76.1 years compared to 79.8 years for non-Hispanic whites (HHS 2019). Twenty-two percent of blacks and 19 percent of Hispanics are living in poverty compared to 9 percent of whites in 2018 (KFF 2019).
Food: eating it all
“Before industrial agriculture and food processing, people ate food that consisted of whole grains and fruits and vegetables eaten in season or naturally preserved in the summer for winter months. Their food came from animals that grazed freely and lived according to their natural instincts. Now, industrial agriculture has taken over our food supply. Food has become “products” for the profit-driven food industry” (Hong 2016). Producers are free to manufacture any form of food; advertisers are free to promote everything, and consumers are free to eat what they want. However, all this excess of freedom and power of business has resulted in a health disaster and less freedom for the consumer. He is bombarded by advertising for all kinds of foods, including those with a high content of fats and sugars, and most importantly, the consumer is not encouraged to eat in healthy portions. The US obesity rate has steadily increased since the initial 1962 recording of 23% to the age-adjusted prevalence of obesity in adults of 42.4% in 2017–2018 (Hales 2020) and 18.5 % for children. Overall life expectancy in the US ranks 38th among other countries, at 78.9 years. The US poor minorities also have higher obesity rates and lower life expectancy. By contrast, Italy, a less developed country, with the Mediterranean diet (mainly of fresh foods), ranks 4th among developed nations with an overall life expectancy of 83.6 years (Conceicao 2019) and with an adult obesity rate of only 10.4 percent (ISTAT 2017).
College education: graduating the well to do at a cost
“The price of going to college has been increasing since the 1980s. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average cost per year for the 2015-2016 academic year was just over $19,000 for a public four-year university. The figure jumps to nearly $40,000 for a private university…The average annual growth in wages was only 0.3% between January 1989 and January 2016. That’s right, the cost to attend a university increased nearly eight times faster than wages" (Maldonado 2018). “The closing of enrollment selectivity gaps for both Black and Hispanic students appears to be driven entirely by more of these students making the choice to enroll in non-degree-granting postsecondary programs rather than not enroll in college at all. Indeed, once we remove these marginal postsecondary enrollees from our analysis, over the past three decades, enrollment selectivity gaps have been consistently growing for Black students and growing, albeit more gradually, for Hispanic students… Black and Hispanic students are still falling behind their White peers in the rate at which they can access more-selective levels of higher education” (Baker 2018).
Jails: keeping many in and privatizing
The population of inmates housed in prisons and jails in the United States exceeds 2.3 million, with the per capita incarceration population higher than that officially reported by any other country in the world. Blacks comprise 12 percent of the adult population and 33 percent of the prison population, compared to 64 and 30 percent for whites in 2017 (Gramlich 2019). “Systemic racism drives both poverty and mass incarceration of low-income people of color, putting these communities, especially at risk for justice system involvement. Low-income neighborhoods are the most heavily policed; social safety net benefits recipients are monitored, tracked, and prosecuted for fraud; low-income individuals of color are disproportionately drawn into the child support and welfare system and separated from their family members; justice system fees and fines have a greater punitive impact on low-income people; and exclusionary discipline in schools drives disengagement” (Fajardo 2020). Policing policies have targeted low-income neighborhoods that predominantly house Black and Hispanic community members for surveillance, increasing the frequency of arrests and the possibility of police violence. The introduction of private companies to build and manage prisons, now about 8 percent of the total, has raised many questions. “The goal of the prison system is to rehabilitate prisoners. Since prison has over a 77% recidivism rate for violent crimes, those goals have been doubted. Besides that point, if prison was 100% effective, the private prisons would be working themselves out of business. This makes one wonder: is prison supposed to rehab the individual, or is it supposed to earn money? If the goal is to earn money, then a high prison population is the end goal” (Bryant 2020).
Housing segregation: maintaining the status quo
“Where people live affects their well-being and ability to thrive… but not all neighborhoods provide their residents equal access to the opportunities necessary to succeed. White residents tend to have more access to high-opportunity neighborhoods than residents of color do. This trend did not come about by chance. Programs, policies, and practices have systematically denied equal opportunity to people of color, resulting in segregated neighborhoods with unequal access to resources”… “White and Asian or Pacific Islander households tend to live in neighborhoods with stronger labor markets and better-performing elementary schools than black, Hispanic, and Native American residents.” Taking into consideration the racially and ethnically concentrated areas of poverty (R/ECAPs), persons living in these areas have an opportunity index of 11 compared to an index of 53 for persons residing in other zones” (Gourevitch 2018). “As of June 2019, black homeownership, nationally, stood at 40.6%, the lowest since 1960, when racial discrimination in mortgage lending was actually federal policy. That’s almost 33 percentage points short of the white homeownership rate (73%), the biggest gap on record” (Whitehouse 2019). In the 52 largest cities, the segregation level is between 50 and 70, indicating that more than half of blacks would have to have to move to reach complete integration (Frey 2015). The tragedy of this status quo is that black homeownership is kept low and out of neighborhoods where the value of home investments grow.
Workers’ wages: stagnating
Cumulative change in real median wages from 1979–2019 was only 15.1 percent. “In 2019, black wages exceeded their 2000 and 2007 levels across the wage distribution for the first time in this recovery. Even so, black-white wage gaps are significantly wider now than in 2000…From 2000 to 2019, the strongest growth among white, black, and Hispanic workers occurred at the top of the wage distribution, a sign that wage inequality is growing within each of these groups as well as among workers overall (Gould 2020). Recent research shows that the black-white wage gap is as large today as it was in 1950: black males earn $0.51 for every $1 earned by white men in 1950 and in 2014 (Leonhardt 2020). The "gig economy," whereby individuals have greater work flexibility but without the benefits of the employed, such as healthcare, pensions and paid holidays, has been around for more than a century but has grown from the 1990s when about ten percent of work was given to outside contractors and services, until today where it is estimated that a third of workers are now in the gig economy (Pichard-Whitehead 2019). This provides them with greater freedom, flexibility, and possibly better work/life balance, but at the expense of increased economic uncertainty. To date, the gig worker seems to have little bargaining power for wages. The percentage of workers belonging to a union is down to 10.3 percent of workers in 2019, about half of the 20.1 percent in 1983 (USDLC 2010). As a result of these trends, income distribution has changed. In 2016 Western Europe’s bottom 50 percent’s share of national income was 22 percent, compared to 13 percent for the US. In 1980 the US share was 21 percent, indicating a massive shift in favor of the rich in this period (UNESCO 2018). In the bottom 50 percent the minorities are concentrated, but the largest portion at least 27 percent, more than half, is white.
Defense: always increasing the military budget
The last sector, the US defense industry, is crucial because it is always expanding and taking so many resources that could be allocated to other priorities. The size of the US ‘defense’ budget, $ 738 billion, is more than the next seven countries combined. It is hard to justify with our history of wars without strategic importance such as the Vietnam War and others. Since wars are unpopular with the youth who have to fight them, private ‘security’ firms are increasingly being utilized. Eisenhower warned us of the industrial-military complex and yet we are still reluctant to ask if such large expenditures are required or serve our best interests.
Police violence against blacks is only the tip of an iceberg of racial injustice in America. Let us remove the roots of racism! It is necessary to dismantle the excessive incarceration; to begin a large scale program of public housing for minorities; to fight obesity and transform the food industry into a health food industry: raise the minimum wage and spend less on the defense industry. Fraternity cannot be imposed, but minority inequalities and injustices can be reduced.
Adding a multi-year program with job creation and training would be extremely helpful. Something that would improve the lives of minorities, renew the old infrastructure, help industry take the lead in new technologies, improve our environment, and help save our planet. Call it a Green-Brown-Black New Deal. It could be the first step to help America heal. Can me become we?
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