In the United States, status is far from irrelevant. We don’t live in an aristocracy, where Lords and Ladies that stay Lords and Ladies no matter what. We don’t live in a caste system, where we are expected to fill whatever function we were born into. But we do have classes.
In the United States, status and power are intertwined. Unlike these strict societies, where power is wielded based on status, here power can be acquired from the lowest and lost by the highest. As the power exchanges hands, so does status.
In a movie I watched a while back—The Skulls starring Joshua Jackson—there was the following brief discussion:
“Is America really a class society? Or is it the meritocracy we’re taught it is since we were in kindergarten? Mr. McNamara?”
“Well, actually, I believe that it’s both, sir.”
“How can it be both?”
“It’s been my experience…that merit is rewarded with wealth, and with wealth comes class.”
For a long time, that observation struck me as something of a truism. Yet, even as the movie unfolds, it demonstrated some examples of the severe abuses of power that may be used to reinforce this notion of status, and how wealth is used as a lure to suck in those with merit.
Apply that to life. Apply that to the experiences of those who do not brush sleeves with that kind of power. Apply that to those who hope that the degree of corruption described in that movie is only fiction. Apply that to life, and you’ll see that status is far more complicated in the United States than is described by this movie.
According to Wikipedia, caste is described as: “an elaborate and complex social system that combines elements of occupation, endogamy, culture, social class, tribe affiliation and political power.” Thinking about our own culture, I do wonder if it’s really so different. The main difference seems to be the ability for those with merit (or those who lack it) to change their situation. In the socio-political sense, this is a big, big difference. However, for those who lack the opportunity to change their situation, the end-result is the same.
I grew up in a middle-income household. We weren’t rich, but we didn’t lack for basic necessities like food, health care, housing, or clothes. We often lived in school systems where I interacted with children that were either significantly poorer than we were or significantly richer than we were. Some of the “rich kids” made fun of me, because I couldn’t afford to shop at the mall for my clothes. Mostly, though, I was judged by my teachers, professionals, and peers based on who I was and what I did.
Then, I became an adult. I married very young (18), and neither my husband nor I knew how to support ourselves or our growing family. We relied on state aid for medical care, and for some nutritional needs (WIC, when the boys were young). As a student, I was intelligent (if a bit naïve and overly idealistic), studious, and, well, “gifted.” I was one of those who could be regarded as having merit, or having the potential for merit. As an adult, I was poor white trash, too stupid and too ignorant to understand the dumbed-down legalese that was pushed in front of my face whenever my family had a need we weren’t able to meet. Of course, nothing about me really changed. I was still who I was. But because my circumstances changed, my status changed; because my status changed, how I was perceived changed.
The difference in how I was treated was shocking.
As an adult, struggling to deal with the realities of a society that revolved around status, I have been bullied by those whose status was oh-so-superior to mine. From doctors to social workers, from administrators to council members (i.e. local government), and from all sorts of people in between. My status meant I didn’t matter. Now, don’t get me wrong, the system is designed to provide for people like me, for families like mine. But, who I am, what I think, what I know, what I’ve experienced—none of that matters.
Of course, now that I have a graduated Summa Cum Laude from Herzing University with a degree in Business Administration, now that I have been admitted as a graduate student at National-Louis University, now that I have started my own business, things are changing. Once again, I am among those with merit, or at least the potential for merit. My status is heightened. My self—the essence that is me—is unchanged.
Yet, once again, the difference in how I am treated is shocking.
We live in a society where people with differences—particularly, but not exclusively, people with disabilities—have status points deducted from them just for those differences. For people who are perceived as having merit, this is another challenge to overcome—an unfair challenge, but only a challenge. For people who are perceived as not having merit, this can mean something entirely different. It can mean a forfeiture of basic human rights. It can mean a life-time of oppression—always being at the bottom with no way up. It can even mean forced imprisonment for the crime of being unvalued.
We live in a society with class. We live in a society where merit (as perceived by that society) can be rewarded with wealth for those who seek wealth. We live in a society where wealth elevates class. We live in a society where contributions made to society by those who forego the pursuit of wealth also elevate class. But we also live in a society where the people who have neither wealth, nor class, nor merit (as perceived by that society), have no opportunity to elevate their class, and where some of those are treated their whole lives as if they as are something “less than.” Less than worthy. Less than right. Less than human.
Systemic bullying enforces this social regime. It isn’t bred into our bones. It’s learned. We learn it every day, since they day we first became aware. Perhaps, before even that—at least, before our society recognizes awareness. Bullying is built into the fabric of our culture. We rely on it to keep people in their places. Only those who can rise above it can advance. Separating the wheat from the chaff. And those who are left behind—the many who are left behind—know not this “land of opportunity” that is supposed to be so much better than all that came before.