James Baldwin on the Immiseration of Inequality

If you talk about inequality and poverty in the US for long enough, conservatives and even liberals of a certain recent vintage will invariably raise the point that bottom incomes in the US are higher than many incomes elsewhere in the world. Sure, they say, it may not be that those on the bottom of our society are treated totally fairly, but we must put it in perspective before we go about harshly indicting the political economic system.

Whenever I see this I am always reminded of the famous James Baldwin v. William F. Buckley debate, which took place in Cambridge in 1965. Prior to Baldwin speaking, a Cambridge student made exactly this point to Baldwin, but about Blacks in America.

I do not want to say the Negro in America is treated fairly. But at the same time, the average per-capita income of Negroes in America is exactly the same as the average per-capita income of people in Great Britain. […] There are only five countries in the world where the income is higher than that of the American Negro and they do not include countries like West Germany and France and Japan. There are in America 35 Negro millionaires. […] I do not, by saying this, wish to emphasize that the Negro is fairly treated. I merely wish to try and convey a more realistic and objective account of the situation of the Negro.

Of course, looking back, most probably cringe at this argument. Indeed, you can tell from the video that most found the argument preposterous even then. After all, we are talking about an America that was just one year past the passage of The Civil Rights Act of 1964, an America that was only barely coming out of official apartheid.

Baldwin does not respond to the point directly in his speech, but he does a good job explaining how unsatisfying this objection is.

The most serious effect of the mill you’ve been through is, again, not the catalogue of disaster: the policeman, the tax drivers, the waiters, the landlady, the landlord, the banks, the insurance companies, the millions of details 24 hours of every day which spell out to you that you are a worthless human being. It is not that. It is that by that time you’ve begun to see it happening in your daughter or your son or your niece or your nephew, you are 30 by now and nothing you have done has helped you escape the trap. But what is worse than that is that nothing you have done and, as far as you can tell, nothing you can do will save your son or your daughter from meeting the same disaster and possibly coming to the same end.

Immense inequality is experienced by those on the bottom end of it as a parade of humiliations and feelings of worthlessness. It is an index of domination in society. That income levels in other societies might be lower still does nothing to mitigate that suffering. And when combined with an understanding of the likely permanence of that situation for your descendants, there is an experience of hopelessness that is devastating.