By Isabel Manuela Estrada Portales, Ph.D, M.S.
The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.
Anatole France, The Red Lily, 1894, chapter 7
#Inequality is trending these days.
But inequality has been trending for a very long while and not precisely in Twitter. Inequality is imprinted in the physical landscape of America: rural versus urban versus suburban, yes, but that is just the beginning.
Driving through the beautiful vineyards and manicured states of the wealthy farms in rural areas one may forget the unseen countryside, the Appalachian or Mississippian view of dilapidated towns that are far out of sight from the driving roads…Direct access to the road comes at a premium, which is just so convenient for those of us going there for the sightseeing and the greenery.
Suburbia has its own division of ugliness, particularly in places to which gentrification has thrown those city dwellers who had been left behind in the dangerous, bad-schooled and worst-served urban centers. Gas prices went up, city-living became glamorous…and black and poor people were on their way out.
The cities, the urban centers, epitomize inequality. Blocks away from the hipsters, chic cafés and boutiques, and the eco-friendly, conscious-living, the never-colorblind ghetto raises its ugly head, while its people have to keep their heads down. You never know where the bullet is coming from.
But all this is just landscaping. Inequality is easy to caricature, and that caricature becomes a great shorthand to avoid dealing with the actual manifestations of the problem, and its origins.
Inequalities are lived continuously in race, gender, sexual orientation, the justice system, education, food, health.
Of course, economic inequality is a thread through all of those, and increased economic inequality deepens the ill effects of other inequities. However, speaking of inequities as separate issues becomes rather convenient because we never address how things turned out this way. “The system is rigged” has become a fashionable statement…but the system is really rigged.
Much of the inequality and discrimination – racial and gender ones, for instance – were created with the specific purpose of engendering inequality. Yes, it sounds confusing, it seems a tautology, but it is rather simple. A whole language and a mythology were created and reinforced over time to make plausible, even laudable the exploitation of others.
Looking at inequality without history sustains the status quo. We don’t need to look at the foundational fictions and make the appropriate, restorative, equitable changes that are not merely necessary but just.
The safety net, while necessary for those in need of assistance for specific life circumstances, has become not merely a palliative, but a perfect excuse to maintain the status quo. The right thinks, delusionally, immorally and hypocritically, the safety net is too comfy. What passes for the left, cowardly, wants to safeguard it and even add an extra patch here or there.
Nobody wants to discuss why we have such a need for a big safety net. Why there is, proportionally, such a large contingent of blacks and minorities in need of it. Why, if hard work will get you to wealth, the sons and daughters of the hardworking slaves that built that wealth are so removed from it that are left to beg for a crumb of the pie.
But I digress.
These ruminations were caused by a discussion with a person I love, someone who works hard for others and cares deeply about social justice. We were discussing an article about wage theft. In summary, it showed the dispar and disparate ways in which the laws against wage theft were applied:
- draconically against a handful of sleazy senior care home operators who will end up in jail and have to make restorative payments for the “roughly $2 million in underpaid wages to some 60 care home workers;”
- almost apologetically and without any real consequence to the big tech companies – Apple, Adobe, Google and Intel – that stole an estimated $3 billion dollars in wages from tens of thousands of employees, for which they’ll be subjected to the outrageous punishment of “an agreement with the DOJ “that does not constitute admission by the Defendants that the law has been violated or of any issue of fact or law.” And, no fine.”
In our discussion, his argument was: “There is something bad about everything and every company. It is a known fact that there are two justice systems in this country, one for those with money and one for those without. What can we do about it? What can we change by getting incensed about it?”
My argument went something like this: [Tears feeling my eyes as two things dawned upon me: he did have a point…but it was wrong that it was like that; and if even someone like him was throwing in the towel, we were officially screwed.] “No, I cannot do much, but at least I can be informed. [Becoming desperate at the growing realization of the futility of my arguments.] I also have to pass this information so that we can at least boycott those companies. [I had shared this article with him through our…iPads after a…Google search!] Even if we know it is the case, we cannot just say: oh, well, it’s like that!”
I, mercifully, found that I needed to take the dog out or something of crucial import at that point. And life continued.
Then, I realized we were living in the complacency of the well informed but never involved. Mind you, I am involved in everything, it seems. But, am I really? What of what I do actually transforms the pillars of this system that makes inequality into such a commonplace that we are not even outraged any more when we speak of a two tier justice system in which money is king?
Inequality has become so pervasive that we are no longer surprised by it. Particularly, we are no longer surprised by its concrete manifestations, its effects. Ironically, now it is mentioned so often as to render it devoid of any revolutionary meaning.
We have done a very astute maneuver and have segmented inequality into the various domains of society: economic inequality, racial inequality, and so on. And various groups and constituencies fight to reduce it in their particular realms.
That’s great…for the status quo. The system as a whole is built on the basis of inequality. Economic inequality reigns supreme and the rich and powerful are truly rich and powerful. For them to go down in flames, they really have to mess it up…and it cannot be merely screwing up thousands of people out of their life savings…unless those people are also rich and powerful.
The perennial inequality in all aspects creates a level of normalcy that makes us conform. It also makes it a very Sisyphus-like fight which incites pessimism and defeatism. It also spurs a “live and let live” attitude and an “every man for himself,” as long as it does not directly affects me.
The Occupy movement brought to the fore some of these essential problems, but it scrambled to find solutions and a platform that charted a way forward. Because the big questions are too big to ask. Because the threats of communism and socialism make us afraid to ask the really transformative questions. Because the left keeps trying to fix the corners without dealing with Wall Street…or actually, dealing too much with Wall Street.
The American Dream was always a dream, and it was always built on the daytime nightmare of others – here and abroad. Because inequality, like the poor, according to Jesus, has always been with us. In his supposed omniscience, Jesus actually said the poor will always be with us. Then one really gets desperate because one should think someone bringing the good word would be more hopeful. But perhaps he was, as the left these days, just not ready to confront head on the real merchants at the temple.
Inequality is no accident. Inequality is our system. It just becomes more visible when there is less to share or, what is even more sinister, when you keep hearing the economy is booming but your kids are pinned down by student loans…or by a bunch of bullets.
Final judgement of USA v. Adobe Systems, Inc.; Apple, Inc.; Google, Inc.; Intel Corporation; Intuit, Inc; and Pixar.