Talking About Pay

Felix Salmon has a piece at Vox about the Jill Abramson thing at the New York Times. Apparently there are rumors that she wasn’t paid as well as her male predecessor and that her complaints about this lead to her ouster. At one point in the piece, he says something that gives me a chance to make a point I’ve been wanting to make:

Very few people like to talk about how much money they make — especially not people who earn a lot of money.

I hear this sentiment expressed, almost always by upper class people, but is it actually true? Salmon adds “especially not people who earn a lot of money.” But, in my experience (could not find studies), this is only true for people who earn a lot of money, as well as those who may not make that much money but still find themselves in that high socioeconomic status milieu (e.g lesser-paid writers).

Over the years, I’ve asked and seen others ask dozens and dozens of lower-paid wage workers what their pay is and an hourly figure almost always pops out immediately without hesitation. This has been true of people who were familiar to me and those who were not.

In conversations among those in upper class professions, I’ve noticed that once the job and employer are identified, the next questions are about how they like it and what kinds of things they do. In conversations among those in lower class professions, after the job and employer is identified, most of the time the next question is about what the pay and benefits are. When jobs aren’t self-actualizing and don’t confer status, that’s all they are about.

Asking about the pay serves another function as well, which is to gain information about a job that you might consider trying to get. If you are a low-level worker and you meet someone or have a friend who works at a restaurant or retail store or similar, it’s useful to know what their employer pays people. If you are in that low-level labor market, you can plausibly move into these jobs at some point. The same is not generally true for professional jobs where it’s not plausible for an accountant to think they might get hired as a writer at Vox at some point, for instance.

Again, this is just what I’ve seen. Pay is much more transparent and open at the bottom. People in those jobs regularly share that information with one another and don’t seem squeamish about it in the least bit. I have never seen any larger scale research on whether there is such a class divide in willingness to share one’s income, but it’s one I’ve noticed.

Adjusting to this culture of pay secrecy (which to me seems unnecessarily tense and awkward) is something I’ve had to intentionally undertake as well in the course of learning all of those arbitrary cultural capital habits that make upper class people so awesome (err I mean “noncognitive skills” that are all definitely objectively valuable, not valuable simply because they make you a better fit among the crowd that controls things).

Duck Dynasty, Jim Crow, and poor whites

Phil Robertson said this about life in the Jim Crow south:

I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field…. They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word!… Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.

Much has been said about this quote with respect to its delusions that Jim Crow apartheid was a pleasant time for blacks, with Coates writing perhaps the best piece on the point. This quote has another interesting piece to it though, which most have overlooked. Referring to his specific job on the farm back in the day, Robertson says “I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash.”

This sentence has a lot packed into it. Robertson recognizes that he and fellow poor whites were doing similar manual farm labor as blacks. Robertson recognizes that this is because he was a poor white, and was therefore considered inferior white trash by rich whites. Yet he obviously is and was a racist, believing himself and other poor whites to be better than the blacks with whom they occupy similar positions in the economic structure. If you ever wanted a microcosm of the tensions operating within the mind of the typical racist poor southern white, this is it. What was true then is, from what I have seen, true now.

The Jim Crow era is rightly analyzed as one of white supremacist apartheid. The chief aim of Jim Crow institutions was to terrorize and subjugate black people, economically, politically, and socially. But the instruments used to carry this out often subjected poor whites to collateral damage as well. Disenfranchisement is perhaps the most notable example. Poll taxes and literacy tests disenfranchised both blacks and poor whites. This was not unknown to the white legislators of the era. They just didn’t care. Some are even recorded as celebrating the collateral disenfranchisement of poor whites as a wonderful bonus.

In his book on Jim Crow disenfranchisement in Alabama, Glenn Feldman observes:

But plain whites — due in no small part to their own efforts to deny African Americans the franchise — lost the vote as well. By the first day of 1903, the expiration date of the constitution’s temporary plan, 3,350 Black Belt whites, in a small area of the region most populated by poor whites, had been disenfranchised. Statewide, the total number of white registered voters fell by 41,329 — from 232,821 in 1900 to just 19,492 in 1903 — despite a generally growing population and the efforts of many poor whites to register under the permanent plan. In 1904, novelist Thomas Nelson Page estimated that fully 50,000 white Alabamians had been disenfranchised by the constitution’s poll tax and the illiteracy and vagrancy clauses. Over time, the constitution continued to have a devastating effect on poor whites. Because white population outstripped black, by 1941 more poor whites than blacks had been disenfranchised by the provisions of the 1901 Alabama Constitution, primarily by the cumulative poll tax: 600,000 whites to 520,000 blacks. Yet the disingenuousness of the patricians persisted beyond 1901. Five years later, after the poll tax had worked incredible hard ship on poor-white voting, convention president John Knox actually blamed poor whites not “the Constitution itself,” for the massive loss of suffrage. According to the industrialist, the culprit was an insufficiently developed sense of personal responsibility. In other words, “it should always be remembered” that they had “made good on [their] pledge … that no worthy white man should be disfranchised.” According to Knox, poor whites who could not afford the cumulative poll tax were losing the vote in droves because of their own sloth, character flaws, and shiftlessness, not the constitution’s provisions, but “simply because they refuse[d] or omit[ted] to comply with its terms.”

Granted, it’s hard to find sympathy with the poor whites disenfranchised or otherwise collaterally oppressed by Jim Crow, especially if you believe, as Feldman does, that the majority of poor whites actually supported these provisions. But there is still something kind of pathetic about their plight. Owing to some combination of deep racism and last place aversion, these poor whites got behind a regime that primarily enriched and empowered people who regarded them as inferior scum and celebrated their subjugation.

This history reaches into the present of course. Rich southern whites (and rich whites in general) still hate poor whites and regard them as low-life, sub-white trash. Poor whites are, from what I have seen, fully aware of the contempt rich whites direct towards them. Yet many — especially in the south — find themselves culturally attached to a heavily (albeit more camouflaged) racialized politics that only really serves the very rich whites that hate them so much.

I don’t know what you can do about this. Racist cultures are hard to disrupt and, for those with little else, sharing in white supremacy probably provides some psychological comfort in that it ensures that at least somebody is beneath them. There are some encouraging indicators that poor whites, even conservatives, do support expanding government aid to poor people, which would disproportionately flow to blacks and Latinos. Obviously that does not by itself indicate that there is cross-racial solidarity or empathy in any meaningful sense, but it may at least indicate a relaxing of the kind of self-destructive politics poor southern whites have been engaged in since the Civil War.

Conservatives are correct about cultural transformation

Ta-Nehisi Coates has an interesting post over at The Atlantic about Rick Perry’s new ad. In the ad, Perry crams as many culture war issues as he can into 31 seconds: Christians under attack, gays in the military, school prayer, and the War on Christmas.

The ad comes off as the typical culture war paranoia that seems to have gripped huge swaths of the conservative electorate. The culture war wedge is so strong that it manages to seep into all sorts of issues, up to and including climate change for some reason. However, as Coates points out, the conservatives are probably on to something when it comes to their theory that the culture will dramatically change.

As fun as it is to discount conservatives — both in the present and history — as crackpots, they have often correctly predicted forthcoming cultural shifts and fought them vigorously time after time. Perhaps unfortunately for them, conservatives have lost almost every culture war battle that they have ever fought.

They lost on slavery. They lost on segregation. They lost on interracial marriage. They lost on women’s liberation. They lost on abortion. They lost on the secularization of public spaces. They lost on teaching evolution. And so on.

They have not totally lost on these fronts. The discriminatory and bigoted power structures that were constructed prior to these cultural shifts still exist, but they have been considerably weakened and undermined

So when it comes to the current crop of culture war concerns, I suspect conservative fears are completed warranted. When it comes to gay marriage, the following polling data is pretty terrifying for conservatives who hope to keep gay marriage permanently illegal:

In the last year alone, support for gay marriage has shot up in every age and gender group measured in the poll. More troubling for the conservatives is that they have almost completely lost the battle among younger Americans. Those in the 18-34 age group support gay marriage by a whopping 70%, a 16% increase in just a year. Conservatives will lose here; the demographics of the polling make it just a matter of time.

A less pronounced trend can be seen when it comes to cultural secularization. Conservatives no doubt look towards Europe in horror, but we can see a move towards increasing secularization in the United States too. The Pew Data I found on religious affiliation by age group was displayed in a strange way, but the trend is still noticeable. For instance, despite making up only 20% of the population, people aged 18-29 make up 37% of all atheists. Unless people get more religious as they move into middle age, a somewhat more secular population awaits us.

We could also walk through immigration fears and the conservative fears of the destruction of the current American — by which they mean white — cultural dominance. Consider this chart:

Minority births — defined here as anyone but non-Hispanic whites — are slowly creeping over the 50% line. States on the southern border have already passed that line, and other states are soon to follow. According to the Census, Hispanic populations in the United States currently have 9 births for every 1 death, while non-hispanic white populations have only 1 birth for every 1 death. The paranoia that immigration will diminish the hegemony of the white culture in the United States is probably somewhat justified, especially in border states where conservatives are the most heated about it.

In these three cases, conservative paranoia is often mocked, but they are probably right about the forthcoming cultural transformation. Like almost all the other cultural issues they have battled with throughout history, they seem pretty likely to lose on all three fronts too. I think that is a good thing, but I can see how someone who wants to cling on to the current culture (and no doubt the privileges it provides to them) would be terrified enough to take the Rick Perry ad seriously.