Friday, July 14, 2017

On Soppressata, Capicollo And Intersectionality. My Criticism of Cultural Criticisms

You may have come across David Brooks' most recent NYT column about the way the upper middle classes (and lower upper classes?) can keep others from climbing up in the American society.  He refers to a book he has recently read, The Dream Hoarders, which talks about the structural constraints that keep the lower classes down:

Richard Reeves of the Brookings Institution recently published a book called “Dream Hoarders” detailing some of the structural ways the well educated rig the system.
The most important is residential zoning restrictions. Well-educated people tend to live in places like Portland, New York and San Francisco that have housing and construction rules that keep the poor and less educated away from places with good schools and good job opportunities.


Reeves’s second structural barrier is the college admissions game. Educated parents live in neighborhoods with the best teachers, they top off their local public school budgets and they benefit from legacy admissions rules, from admissions criteria that reward kids who grow up with lots of enriching travel and from unpaid internships that lead to jobs.

That is all fair and good, though the solution to those structural inequalities is not to tell the dream hoarders not to hoard*, but to make sure that schools are good everywhere (yes, it can be done),  that zoning restrictions are scrutinized for unfairness and that the way schools are funded is changed so that it's less dependent on the local property tax base.  The way schools are currently funded reinforces existing inequities.

But then our David decides to argue that cultural constraints matter more than those structural constraints, without giving us any evidence on that.  The famous paragraph from his column which has been quoted all over the Internet is this one:

Recently I took a friend with only a high school degree to lunch. Insensitively, I led her into a gourmet sandwich shop. Suddenly I saw her face freeze up as she was confronted with sandwiches named “Padrino” and “Pomodoro” and ingredients like soppressata, capicollo and a striata baguette. I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican.
Osita Nwanevu at Slate has a good critique of Brooks' cultural criticism.  He notes that several conservative writers agreed with Brooks' cultural arguments, going as far as admitting to a certain kind of class privilege.

Now that is lefty talk!  But it's highly unlikely that the same conservative writers would view race or gender privilege or other types of privilege, or their intersections, in the same light, as Nwanevu points out.

My criticism of Brooks' piece is about something different, and to a lesser extent it also applies to Nwanevu's response.  Both pieces discuss cultural affronts, verbal slights or the consequences of unthinking or oblivious behavior by those who have more privilege.

Pointing that out is healthy and important, and introspection on our own privileges is most useful.  As Nwanevu's states,  we should treat all people with sensitivity and be aware of any privileges we have over them.

That is excellent advice.  But note that those types of behavioral changes are very low cost.  Note, also,  that nobody needs to pay more taxes to change the way privilege is expressed in social exchanges.  Indeed, it's quite feasible to be very sensitive in the linguistic sense and yet vote against, say,  the kinds of tax increases which would be needed to improve the quality of inner-city schools.

And that may well be the reason why the conservative writers Nwanevu quotes admit to their own class privileges.  After all, they are not asked to admit poor people into their country clubs or into their neighborhoods, and nobody is asked to incur actual economic sacrifices to make the country a fairer one.

I'm concerned that the structural changes we urgently need are not getting the focus they should get.  Yes, not being able to decipher an elitist menu can make a person feel embarrassed and awkward, but it's nowhere near as strong a force to keep that person from college education than the lack of the necessary funds.


* Because people will not voluntarily give away such advantages if they see giving them up as hurting their own children, but the same people can work toward fairer overall rules. (I should note here that I have not yet read the book which may well make that point and many better ones.)