Nonetheless, their ambivalence about recognizing privilege suggests a deep tension at the heart of the idea of American dream. While pursuing wealth is unequivocally desirable, having wealth is not simple and straightforward. Our ideas about egalitarianism make even the beneficiaries of inequality uncomfortable with it. And it is hard to know what they, as individuals, can do to change things.
In response to these tensions, silence allows for a kind of “see no evil, hear no evil” stance. By not mentioning money, my interviewees follow a seemingly neutral social norm that frowns on such talk. But this norm is one of the ways in which privileged people can obscure both their advantages and their conflicts about these advantages.
Calls from liberal and left social critics for advantaged people to recognize their privilege also underscores this emphasis on individual identities. For individual people to admit that they are privileged is not necessarily going to change an unequal system of accumulation and distribution of resources.
Instead, we should talk not about the moral worth of individuals but about the moral worth of particular social arrangements. Is the society we want one in which it is acceptable for some people to have tens of millions or billions of dollars as long as they are hardworking, generous, not materialistic and down to earth? Or should there be some other moral rubric, that would strive for a society in which such high levels of inequality were morally unacceptable, regardless of how nice or moderate its beneficiaries are?
My interviewees never talked about themselves as “rich” or “upper class,” often preferring terms like “comfortable” or “fortunate.” Some even identified as “middle class” or “in the middle,” typically comparing themselves with the super-wealthy, who are especially prominent in New York City, rather than to those with less.
…Real affluence, she said, belonged to her friends who traveled on a private plane.
Others said that affluence meant never having to worry about money, which many of them, especially those in single-earner families dependent on work in finance, said they did, because earnings fluctuate and jobs are impermanent.
Keeping silent about social class, a norm that goes far beyond the affluent, can make Americans feel that class doesn’t, or shouldn’t, matter. And judging wealthy people on the basis of their individual behaviors — do they work hard enough, do they consume reasonably enough, do they give back enough — distracts us from other kinds of questions about the morality of vastly unequal distributions of wealth.
…Such moves help wealthy people manage their discomfort with inequality, which in turn makes that inequality impossible to talk honestly about — or to change.