I am a white, middle-class male raised by middle-class parents who have higher education degrees. All four of my parent’s children graduated from universities and three have post-graduate degrees. I grew up in a small suburban town outside a larger Texas city. Almost all the people living in my town were white and middle-class. To the best of my knowledge, there were no wealthy people in my small town, just a mix of skilled workers, rural farmers, and professionals.
I went to a Presbyterian church located about 25 minutes away from my town. The members were mostly university educated middle-class whites, although there were a few wealthy members who enabled the church to build an impressive sanctuary and fund a large church staff.
I thought that my life was normal since those with whom I associated had similar backgrounds. All my closest high school friends were like me (white, middle-class) and they attended universities after high school graduation. I worked during high school at a small grocery store with employees and customers who were lower income and less educated. Some lived in a nearby small town that was primarily Hispanic. We all got along, but our interactions were primarily work or school related.
During my childhood, I did not have a clue about the differences between classes of people: social, racial, and educational. The word privileged was not used to describe my upbringing. Looking back, I now know that I was privileged. I was blessed and would not exchange my family for another, although I should have been more aware of my privilege and curious as to how it originated.
In his 1932 publication, Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics (Must Have Books, Victoria, BC, 2021), Dr. Reinhold Niebuhr discussed in Chapter 5 “The Ethical Attitudes of Privileged Classes.” When reading this chapter, one must be careful to remember that it was written in the early 1930s during the height of the depression. Niebuhr was the product of a highly educated, middle-class family. His father was a Protestant minister who immigrated to the United States from Germany and his children were raised to attend university. All three graduated with PhDs from Ivy League universities and were scholarly professors. I would readily classify his family as privileged. Niebuhr wrote about this subject as one who is familiar with the topic as an insider.
Niebuhr advocated education and stated that the original purpose of universal education was to level inequalities. It was implemented during the nineteenth century with state legislations that created free education for all children through high school. Although equal education appeared to be an opportunity for all to succeed regardless of social class, the theory did not become reality. Non-whites and lower income children received poorer quality educations and rarely were admitted to top universities or, if admitted, could not afford it. It was the privileged classes that usually succeeded. “The moral attitudes of dominant and privileged groups are characterized by universal self-deception and hypocrisy. … The most common form of hypocrisy among the privileged classes is to assume that their privileges are the just payments with which society rewards specially useful and meritorious functions.” (page 70) It is the dominant classes that resisted yielding power because they desired to preserve their privileges and superiority within society.
The moral justification of privilege is that it comes through meritocracy. In truth, it arrives through both privilege and merit. Once obtained, the pattern repeats itself through economic power, networking within privilege, and philanthropy (the combination of power and pity). “Privileged groups have other persistent methods of justifying their special interests in terms of general interest. The assumption that they possess unique intellectual gifts and moral excellencies which redound to the general good, is only one of them.” (page 76) This is the argument of trickle-down economics: those who achieve economic benefits cascade their benefits down to those at the economic bottom. Unfortunately, various studies have disproven supply-side economics promoted during my lifetime.
Niebuhr’s mood then turns darker when he seems to advocate violence to achieve justice. “No society has ever achieved peace without incorporating injustice into its harmony.” (page 76) He next launched into a historical review of the lower classes revolting against privilege. His book was published just before Franklin Roosevelt was elected president in response to the economic depression. “President Hoover’s defense of the use of troops against the unemployed presents another perfect example of the superficiality of governments.” (page 81) His administration did not want to assist farmers as Hoover believed it would weaken the country. By 1931, US unemployment hit 15% which led to his loss to Roosevelt. Niebuhr witnessed this national turmoil as he wrote this book.
He ended this chapter with a somber outlook: “It must be taken for granted therefore that the injustices in society, which arise from class privileges, will not be abolished purely by moral suasion. That is a conviction at which the proletarian class, which suffers most from social injustice, has finally arrived after centuries of disappointed hopes.” (page 83)
I don’t agree with Niebuhr’s anti-capitalism. Although imperfect, capitalism has benefited the poor more than any other economic system. Those with capital provided jobs for the lower social classes. Capitalists paid taxes which went to government entitlement programs. I agree that the world needs an educated society supplied by an unbiased education system. It is true that those who have economic, racial, and social privilege have a much better chance of retaining their privileges. Those without privileges have difficulty rising into the privileged class.
One of Niebuhr’s later sentences caused me to pause. “The task is not as easy as it seems to rational moralists, who are themselves too much the product of comfortable circumstances to understand the desperate problem of social justice.” (page 82) I did not understand social injustices for many years since I was a product of privilege. One must seek to peer past one’s own horizon. Within the cocoon of privilege, it is much easier to remain inside than be transformed.