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Overclass Blues: Reflections on the Ironies of Privilege


The first word of this article’s title does not exist according to the spell check program on my computer and the dictionary on my desk. Underclass? Yes, both sources recognize and can define that term. Yet neither acknowledges that any word with the prefix “under” is by definition relative, and that there must be an “over” with which it can be contrasted.

As such, while Webster’s informs us that the underclass refers to those who are “below subsistence level” in terms of income (we used to call them poor), they don’t seem to think that if those with too little constitute an underclass, perhaps those with too much constitute an overclass. This is likely because there is no such thing as “too much” in the U.S., where excess is applauded and sought out with reckless abandon.

The underclass, social scientists tell us, is made up not merely of the poor, but those trapped in a cycle of poverty, pathology, addiction and dependence, particularly on welfare programs, drugs, or both. They are to be pitied, perhaps, feared always, regulated and controlled to be sure.

The underclass supposedly have different values than the rest of us: they live for the moment (this is called having a “short-term orientation”); they engage in destructive behaviors at alarming rates (things like substance abuse, violence or other criminal endeavors); they take a lackadaisical attitude towards school; they don’t want to work hard and prefer government handouts to honest labor; their families are a tangle of dysfunction.

Yet many of these things are quite common, not only among those struggling to survive, but also among those who don’t struggle for much of anything; those who, if our dictionaries reflected basic intellectual honesty, would be called the overclass: those of privilege in the upper echelons of the nation’s class structure.

The wealthy and specifically their corporations rely heavily on government handouts–subsidies totaling more than $100 billion annually: far more than all the money spent on poor folks. Without these taxpayer-funded gifts, these companies and entire industries would not be able to remain competitive in the so-called free market, the meaning of which apparently means “free money,” at least for them.

As for laziness and an aversion to work, one really can’t find better examples of that than among the rich heirs to family fortunes: take Paris and Nicki Hilton for example, whose paparazzi-covered lives seem to consist of nothing but one party after another, interrupted occasionally by a seemingly low-stress photo shoot.

Poor folks who don’t work are parasites; rich people who don’t work are cover story material for glamour magazines.

More broadly, the wealthiest Americans get at least half of their income not from work at all, but from the money they already have, in the form of rent, dividends and interest payments. Yet few people would be willing to suggest the obvious: namely, that these folks are less hard-working by definition, than the typical waitress, hospital orderly, housekeeper, garbage man or even mother on “welfare,” trying to keep a roof over the heads of herself and her kids.

As for short-term orientations, what could be more short-term than a corporation’s quarterly profit and loss statement, and the mindset that places short-term profits ahead of long-term fiscal stability?

Dot.com bust, anyone? That sure as hell wasn’t underclass twenty-something youth from the so-called ghetto setting up sweetheart compensation packages and golden parachutes for themselves, without regard for a long-range business plan.

Short-term orientation is supposedly why the poor squander money on lottery tickets, preferring the long-shot opportunity of striking it rich to the daily grind of steady employment. But when William Bennett blows several million dollars in casinos it’s just a hobby, passing the time, or entertainment, not viewed as evidence of a flawed value system.

The fact that the wealthy who gamble could spend their money feeding hungry people instead of amusing themselves at slot machines is not apparently proof of their narcissism, but if the poor engage in the same behavior, they are viewed as “different” than the rich, rather than mimicking them.

Likewise, if the rich gamble with other people’s money via speculative investments, junk bonds, Savings and Loan rip-off schemes or shady accounting a la Enron, this is not seen as evidence of a class flaw, and it isn’t usually punished nearly as harshly as the typical food stamp fraudster.

As for devaluing education, wasn’t it President Bush–he of the privileged prep-school and Yale set–who bragged to graduates of his alma mater that he had been a C student, and that there was nothing wrong with such mediocrity?

Destructive behavior? Well let’s see: it isn’t the poor who start wars, incinerate cities, or pollute the environment with toxic waste. It is those with power–by definition not the “underclass”–who develop weapons of mass destruction, or impose deadly sanctions on countries they don’t like.

Even closer to home, the well-off engage in more than their fair share of destructive activity. Suburban schools have higher rates of violent and property crime annually than urban schools according to the Departments of Education and Justice, even though the former tend to be doubly privileged: mostly white and mostly affluent.

Whites (the group with racial privilege in the U.S.) are far more likely to drive drunk, have a rate of child molestation and sexual violence against children that is 75 percent higher than that for blacks, and are equally or more likely to use drugs than blacks or Latinos. In fact, white high schoolers are more likely to use every category of drug than blacks.

It also isn’t poor folks of color creating computer viruses that have caused over $65 billion in damages worldwide, but almost always upper middle class white suburbanites.

Yet, as a recent AP story on the latest Internet meltdown noted, criminal prosecutions of the hi-tech thugs wreaking all this havoc are few, penalties are minimal and only a few people have been imprisoned for such behavior. Interesting, considering how utterly premeditated virus creation is–far more so than typical street violence, which regularly lands its perpetrators in jail for long stretches, even when the damage is miniscule by comparison.

Our unwillingness to label destructive behaviors by whites and those in the upper classes as a character flaw typical of the group as a whole, while we readily do so for people of color and the poor, speaks to our insipient racism and classism, both of which are so endemic to the national culture.

And our lack of an adequate language to critically examine the behaviors of the society’s haves, also leads us to ignore the warning signs or potential dangers posed by such persons, to themselves and others.

It is blindness to the concept of the overclass that explains in large part the inability of most commentators to properly analyze a just-released study from Columbia University. According to the report, from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, the key risk factors for drug, alcohol and tobacco use among teens are too much stress, boredom, and too much money.

As for too much money, well, that’s obviously not an underclass problem. And boredom too is more common among those in sterile, uninspiring suburbs, at least if one believes what an awful lot of youth say about their own lives.

Which brings us to the issue of stress. On the one hand, one would think that dealing with poverty, racism, crumbling schools and dilapidated housing–as is common for the stereotypical member of the underclass–would be pretty stressful. Yet, all data indicates it is whites and those with money who are more likely to drink alcohol, use drugs, or smoke cigarettes. So what’s going on, and what really explains the findings of the Columbia study?

Clearly it is not absolute levels of stress that correlate with these self-destructive behaviors, since it makes little sense to believe that kids driving their own Acuras and SUV’s deal with more pressure than those who are homeless, or desperately poor, or simply black for that matter. Rather, it must be the relative inability of the affluent–the overclass–to deal with their stress that is to blame. Perhaps it is the lack of coping skills among those with resources that gets them into trouble.

Whereas those who face oppressive conditions must, as a matter of survival, learn to deal with these conditions from an early age, those who have been pampered and provided for at every turn often don’t learn the same lessons because they never have to. If their grades drop, they pay for tutors; if they wreck their car, they get it fixed or get another one; when they screw up, someone is usually there to bail them out, whether through drug rehab, anger management counseling or other forms of expensive therapy.

But all that cushioning also leaves them strangely vulnerable to dysfunction. Not to romanticize suffering or oppression, of course, but what studies like that from Columbia indicate is that the folks we have been taught to fear and loathe often have more self control than those in our own families.

So even though blacks and Latinos are more likely than whites to report having been offered drugs in the past thirty days, or having had drugs made available to them, they are less likely to actually use drugs than their white counterparts.

Even though persons who are in marginal economic conditions would have every reason to try and anesthetize themselves via alcohol, persons at the bottom of the economic pyramid are half as likely to drink as those with incomes above $75,000 and more than twice as likely to completely abstain.

Among youth, despite targeted liquor and tobacco advertising in poor communities and communities of color, whites are three times more likely than blacks to binge drink, and 3.5 times more likely to smoke cigarettes regularly.

Despite the oppressive conditions of racism and economic marginalization, the poor are less likely to commit suicide, as are people of color, and indeed studies going back fifty years have found that suicide is linked more to having one’s previously high status threatened than to absolute hardship.

In other words, unemployment and suffering are correlated with self-destructive tendencies, but not so much for the poor or people of color as for whites and those who are affluent, and who find themselves unable to deal with temporary setback.

So before we go casting about for evidence of social pathology among those at the bottom, we would do well to recognize the factors, environmental and cultural, that exist among those at the top, and which also are likely to correlate with dysfunction: too much money, too much power, and a mentality of entitlement and expectation that can leave a person dangerously ill-equipped to deal with the real world.

Privilege is dysfunctional, in other words, just as surely as its polar opposite. To be the favored, the top dog, the one who always gets what one wants is to create unrealistic expectations that often can’t be sustained, and a kind of self-centeredness that can eclipse whatever personality disorders some folks claim to find among the poor.

This kind of narcissism breeds excessive risk-taking, lack of empathy, delusions of grandeur and the kinds of abuses of power that only those on top can possibly manifest.

None of this is to say that we should now pity the rich, or cry tears for the racially-privileged, or men who reap the benefits of patriarchy, or any other dominant group.

It is merely to say that if we are going to truthfully analyze what is wrong with our culture, and the environmental influences on certain behaviors, we should begin with the folks at the top, not the bottom, for as the old saying goes, the fish tends to rot from the head down.

Tim Wise is an antiracist essayist, activist and father. He can be reached at (and footnotes procured from) [email protected]

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