“To be dominant means to a monkey that it gets the best of everything. It is easy to test the status of two macaques. All one has to do is toss a desirable object between them and see which one takes it.”
– Primates, Library of Nature, 1984
The American Declaration of Independence proclaims “All men are created equal” as self-evident. Equality is the cultural value we appear to value most highly. But the equality assertion creates a values conflict when paired with our primate nature. This nature is highly competitive, with asserting dominance the leading mechanism.
The US Supreme Court cases dealing with affirmative action in the college admissions process have been forced to deal with this paradox of dominance versus group rights. Most recently in the Harvard case in federal court last October, the outlines of the way we value and consider hierarchy are starting to coalesce. The trial was the outcome of the 2014 suit filed by the anti-affirmative action group Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), who held that Harvard discriminates against highly qualified Asian students in order to favor other (less qualified) ethnic minorities—along with athletes, legacy students, and the wealthy. It offers a showcase of reverse discrimination, one that Jews traditionally have faced as well for being an achievement elite that appears to threaten diversity mandates.[i] The federal court’s ruling is pending.
Why are hierarchy and equality so consistently on trial in our public debates? Here is how a cultural analysis would begin to study this question, starting with college admissions as the “laboratory” for observing hierarchy dynamics at work. Because college has long been seen as the opening channel to lifetime achievement, the admissions process for elite schools is the focal point for understanding the involved issues.
So great has been the payoff of a college education in guaranteeing upward mobility that schools have been raising tuition at rates far outpacing general earnings. It has taken the crisis of student debt across income levels to push parents past the assumption of higher education at any price. The result: the value of the college degree is now no longer automatically assumed to lead to a decent career—or even job security.
The equality tradition
Two and a half centuries since the Declaration’s equality clause, we are caught up in the crucible of the American class paradox: the self-made success (typically an entrepreneur) versus the level playing field to attain that status. Nearly a century after our country’s founding, it took the 1866 Civil Rights Act, part of post-Civil War Reconstruction, to declare all persons born in the US to be citizens. Two years later the 14th Amendment endowed voting rights on those same citizens. In the past century since 1921, the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) has been an ongoing bone of contention for ratification because of fears about how the general concept of sexual equality would be implemented, as well as women subject to the draft and to losing protections at work. Ninety-eight years after it was first introduced the ERA is still circulating as a proposed Constitutional amendment. More recently, The Employment Nondiscrimination Act (ENDA) has been in circulation for ratification since 1994, with its main barrier to ratification transgender issues.
The search for equality—racial, ethnic, sexual, gender, religious, occupational, and age—are all part of an ongoing crusade using identity politics as the medium and measure. These efforts are now under fire as championing special rights rather than equal rights[ii]. This problem illustrates that dominance—“specialness,” or American Exceptionalism—is woven deep into the fabric of universal ways of thinking about class dominance, power, and privilege. The file folders in the case are ancestry, gender, age, achievement, influence, favoritism….every way in which people are either born or become who they are in the social world of family, community, political alliance, colleagueship, and religious affiliation.
In considering the role of social differences, we must think simultaneously along two lines. First, who we are as humans and how we got to be the way we are across cultures and over time; and second, who we want or need to be as social primates, and how we move along that trajectory from our common ancestry as Americans. For Americans, who celebrate success—a major differentiator of people—balancing the achievement ethic against general social fairness is a given cultural imperative.
Under affirmative action, well-meaning attempts at creating equality by counterbalancing discrimination somehow equate to elevating downgraded / denigrated groups to become chosen favorites. This act, intended as a needed palliative measure, has become another kind of social leveling that results, again, in an uneven playing field. As an example, savvy commuters on the London Underground protested the new system that marked off in green the spot where car doors would open, preventing congestion caused by the clash of on-boarders with off-boarders. They argued that creating this type of advantage worked against their own hard-earned competitive advantage in learning the system on their own time and effort.
The White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP), long the top white group based on bloodlines plus aggregated wealth, can now be seen as a disadvantaged minority facing the end of legacy admissions with the ascension of rival elites from Africa, Asia, and the subcontinent. There is already a rich legacy of WASP villains throughout popular culture. The standard character is the evil banker, or hypocritical minister, or Machiavellian president. Any other ethnic would have the basic right to protest this casting. Any other group so maligned would be heartily encouraged to seek social justice against such hateful portrayals (the Irish could qualify as well).
To follow the cultural picture along these lines, in the US, status is weighted toward the bottom. This is the reason there is no virtue in having a rich upbringing, and why Humphrey Bogart, Alice Cooper, Edward Norton, Chevy Chase, and Spike Jonze all kept their well-off backgrounds a dark secret. There simply is no dramatic interest in a riches-to-riches biography. The idea is that against all odds, like Andrew or Dale Carnegie, one realizes the resilience, motivation, and character needed to make it to the top. This is the American salvation story.
So, should admissions (for example), be race-blind? Or, perhaps better, class-blind? College admissions, like business, doesn’t like to talk about class, because in this country, it’s a mobile system that individuals can influence, and do all the time. Logically, therefore, failing to make a success of oneself is clearly down to the individual, not the system.
Surprisingly, though, even ad agencies don’t use the term, even at in-house idea sessions. Although advertising is designed to further the goal of aspiration to raise one’s class through consumption and experiences, the industry doesn’t do this straightforwardly but by talking more obliquely about income, education, and occupation (as does the US Census) as a stand-in for privilege. A second paradox is the concept of “earned privilege,” which fits the American cultural system and is in fact acknowledged in the idea that class is a mobile structure which individuals move into and around by their own genius--or fail to navigate as a lack of strategic acumen.
Still, this mobility would still appear to favor some groups over others – making Martin Luther King’s exhortation problematic: to judge on the basis of character, not skin color. Should colleges, the golden tickets to success, follow this lead? And how should we think about measuring character?
Perhaps we can measure race as a positive on some cultural scale. But if race is considered positively, rather than as a negative, does that also work to disadvantage mainstream white groups in their efforts—aren’t Irish, Italian, French, Nordic, Polish, et al. bona fide ethnic origins? Despite all the press about Latino and Black demographic growth, German remains, as it has been for decades, the largest single US ethnic group. Global conflict puts Arab and other Middle-Eastern groups (non-Israeli) at multiple disadvantage as Muslim believers. How are these groups to be weighted and assigned handicap values in the game of educational one-upmanship? And do we want to consider this a reasonable approach to a method of fairness in assigning credits to be redeemed in building careers, professions, and reputations as the basis for a successful personal future? As a species of entrepreneurship, higher education is the coin to bid on all that wonderful potential we automatically assign (a bit uncritically) to growing minds.
Origins of dominance: Class
Back to primatology. All primates, particularly monkeys and humans, have an easily observed dominance hierarchy that dictates every social relationship—including the exercise of personal space. The measure of space an individual can command is a clear physical sign of status – to feel free to co-opt the best feeding and sleeping spaces, to move into others’ personal territory and invade their personal space[iii].
Hierarchy assures order and enables the quick decisions at the core of wild primate survival. Baboons and macaques, aggressive by nature as part of their defense against predators on the ground, can be depended on to generate in-group conflicts that must be held in check by the alpha group—using symbolic threats (the long stare, bared fangs), short of all-out repressive action. “The whole elaborate structure of dominance and submissions, of threat and surrender, is surely terribly familiar. It is like a preview, a parody of status relationships between humans” – the teacher enforcing, with a long stare, order in the classroom[iv]. The power of cliques also provides the answer to the problem of succession when the alpha dies or is incapacitated, a close parallel to human oligarchy. Survival insurance depends on rule by the top groups, both against predators from the outside and inner turmoil and insurrection. Males from outside or lower orders are incorporated into the ruling class over time to assure ongoing vitality and diversity[v].
As in our own elites, qualifying for membership in the inner circle or white-shoe law firm is a matter of style and the achievements made possible by a clear, confident, self-possessed manner all primates recognize (the blue-chip college degree being one symbol of this style of belonging at the top), as well as birthright in having the right mother and/or father. This styling goes beyond the social justice concept of fairness into identity based on a deeply embedded and reinforced class intelligence. Such style intelligence explains why we grow up within homogenous subgroups—homophilly—that persist far beyond childhood into adulthood. This is the reason for the avid pursuit of the “right” schools beginning with preschool—not for knowledge of subjects, but for the social networking.
But in the American version, such intelligence doesn’t have to be taught, although aspiring parents try through many channels like sports, the arts, dance, travel, and museum-going – to cultivate it in their offspring. Class cues can just as well be picked up by the intuitive striver (like the artist Jack Dawson in “Titanic”) to create the self-made alpha identity—within or outside existing organizations and social structures. We move our identities around the social board as a natural act, and expect others to do the same. During the lifelong aspirational process, we draw upon the concept of equality as the means to mobilize our talents and ambitions with as little friction as possible by using social leverage to overcome blocks to progress. But equality isn’t the goal. It’s simply the means to the end objective: using the equality lever to climb or create the personal top of the mountain.
This dream of developing social capital into fame, status, and economic capital creates the microculture of the super wealthy, but at the same time is also the thinking and behavioral guideline for the most modest of households. The difference that always hangs between wealth extremes is the Matthew Effect, coined by Robert Merton in 1968 after the Parable of the Talents: the tendency of the rich to become super-rich and poor to remain poor or grow poorer (“For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance, but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away” – Matthew 25:29, RSV). Starting advantages of the class network accumulate quickly from birth to maintain and expand a “best of everything” lifestyle, which is the whole point of upper-to upper-middle-class attainment in a mobile class system like ours. These advantages, once earned, then become the legacy capital for children, grandchildren, and beyond—though many a fortune is squandered through bad management, a spendthrift ethic, and subdivision among many offspring.
Celebrities, top athletes, entrepreneurs, and professionals are self-generating systems of wealth, reputation, and power that are purposefully unequal (that is to say, exceptional, excellent, and successful through competitive advantage). But getting to those heights is part of the pursuit of happiness endowed as an inalienable right. Although any two people can be clearly unequal in their talents, or in the hard work they are willing to apply to develop them, Americans see social equity as expandable, a commodity that underlies the achievements available to be exploited as success breeds success. Not at the expense of others, but as available to all as a public good.
The American dream is not equality. The goal is constantly working to develop one’s unique competitive advantage. This project is assumed to be the shared goal of the work ethic, social relations, and striving. Equality tests are just the baseline designed to prevent anyone from being barred from the race. The rest is the test of mettle that wins our place in the fast-moving hierarchy.