But some are still more equal

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE distinguishing feature of the United States is equality.

I heard that definition offered to a symposium on 'American Identities' here in North Carolina last month. To my surprise, no one contested the definition. Yet the scholars present included blacks and feminists - some of them also black. All, in their scholarly work and public statements, highlight the gross inequalities of race and gender subsisting in American society. Yet none of them, in that context, challenged the doctrine that the distinguishing feature of the United States is equality.

On reflection, I can see why. America is as full of inequalities as other countries - but within the American tradition, the commitment to equality, from the Declaration of Independence down, has been, and remains, an important asset to those to whom equality has been denied. In particular, the leaders of those designated as inferior, on grounds of race and/or gender, have been able to appeal to that commitment for nearly two centuries. They have insisted that the commitment must move from rhetoric into reality, and they have achieved substantial successes along those lines. So there is no disposition to challenge the rhetoric, including that definition. The rhetoric is a resource, to use in challenging the realities of continuing inequality.

Those realities remain spectacular, though more so (and much less challenged) in the domain of wealth than in race and gender. There are vast extremes of wealth and poverty, and in between a great spectrum of gradations - in income, in health, in housing, in education and in influence. These complex and omnipresent inequalities are carefully monitored by the flourishing advertising industry, on behalf of all those who have goods and services to sell. The United States that is under constant surveillance by all those highly competitive professional observers is not a country whose distinguishing characteristic is equality. Quite the contrary. As a New York advertising executive said this week: 'Once you're not number one, it doesn't matter where you are.'

Yet the claim to equality is not altogether nonsense, either. There is far less inequality of status in the US than there is in Britain or in the rest of Europe. Some privileged Britons felt this, with something like outrage, in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. I remember a letter in the Times, circa 1950, from a gentleman who had just crossed the Atlantic on the liner, The United States. This had been a shattering experience. The passenger, seated in a deck-chair on the promenade deck, had hailed a steward who was pushing a tea trolley. The passenger asked politely: 'Are you serving tea?' The waiter replied: 'Naw. I'm selling newspapers on Third Avenue]'

A person long accustomed to deference was suffering withdrawal symptoms aboard The United States. His letter to the Times was such a symptom.

The reason there is little inequality of status in the United States is that most Americans have no sense of status. Status, and the elaborate system of inequalities defined and fixed by status, were things that generations of immigrants had been happy to leave behind them. What the immigrants were entering was not a more equal world, but a world of a different kind of inequality, based not on status but on income. The immigrants themselves were at the bottom of the heap, but their children would have a chance of rising. The American dream is not about equality, but about upward mobility. The children are dreamt of, not only as equal to others - not a particularly exhilarating vision - but as superior to others: a powerful incentive to effort and achievement. But in the meantime, the rhetoric of equality is a help with upward mobility.

In the fight for upward mobility, under the flag of equality, minorities, mostly black and female, now play the leading parts. They are winning because they are working with the grain of society. Barriers to upward mobility, expressed in terms of race and gender, show themselves, under relentless examination, to be un-American - vestiges of an inequality based on status.

The inferiority collectively ascribed to blacks, defined by their pigmentation, belongs to the system of caste, the most vigorous version of the status society from which Americans of European origin had escaped. Female inferiority is another form of genetically based collective ascription, and therefore similar to caste. It is no coincidence that the American feminist movement - the oldest in the world - grew up through the anti-slavery movement among the wives, sisters and daughters of male abolitionists, 150 years ago.

Today, as then (though not at all times in the past), feminists and anti- racists are allied. But there is a growing uneasiness within the alliance. Blacks and women can join in challenging the hegemony of white males, but blacks and women are not, in other respects, comparable groups. The black movements are led by black males, with a record of suspicion and even hostility towards black feminism. Black feminists, in fact, have more influence over white feminists than within their own community, over either women or men. Nor is there anything analogous, among white women, to what the shadow of the black urban ghettos represents, both for black men and black women.

The greatest impact of the race-and- gender movement for equality will be on the circulation of the elites. The word elite is both politically incorrect and un-American, and therefore literally unspeakable, but the phenomenon is securely there. The American elite is exceptionally powerful and uniquely open to recruitment. It is now recruiting women and blacks. There will be more women, many of whom will be black. There will also be more black men, but not as many. The governing elite, and therefore the country, will benefit from this recruitment, as it has from older sources in the past. But many will be left behind. The American version of equality, so kind to many millions, is cruel to those who do not make it. The great test of the new expanding elite will be how it meets the challenge of the black ghettos, from which the black part of the new elite is just starting to escape.

(Photograph omitted)