Speech Transcript: “Where Class Privilege Meets Social Change”

[Note: The following speech was delivered at the Action Item Fair held on 4/8/2017 in NYC.]

Hi, my name is Michael Schmale, I’m a member of Resource Generation, a national group that organizes young people age 18–35 with wealth and class privilege around social justice issues. Today I’m going to talk a little about the intersection of class and social justice, and I want to start off by talking about the idea of meritocracy.

(Also, one caveat before I start: it’s almost impossible to talk about wealth and class without talking about race, but I’m artificially restricting my scope here, so just know that you’re not hallucinating, there is an elephant in the room.)

If you’re here, then you probably disagree with the conventional thinking that America is the land of equal opportunity. People interested in social justice understand that meritocracy is only as real as the institutions that enable it. So, until Ivanka and Jared are willing to pick the name of a random D.C. elementary school out of a hat and send their kids there, it should be obvious that we have some serious inequities built into our system.

I want to push that one step further, though, and ask, if meritocracy isn’t the organizing principle of American society, what does that say about me, and how I got to be where I am today?

I probably never believed more fervently in the idea of meritocracy than when I was admitted to Yale for college. I was living proof! I wasn’t a legacy. None of my grandparents were educated beyond high school. My parents attended college, but at regional schools. My childhood felt very middle class. My best friend’s parents were a schoolteacher and a police officer. For vacations, my family would take roadtrips. Sometimes we’d visit the farm in Nebraska where my dad grew up. I attended public school for most of my life.

That was my life and I studied hard in school and I got into Yale.

That’s one way to look at it.

There’s also another way.

Although my parents were just first-generation college graduates, they were the sort of education-obsessed parents who read to us every night and enrolled us in all sorts of activities, from piano to basketball. Yes, my best friend’s parents were a teacher and a police officer, but most other kids I knew had at least one parent who was a doctor, lawyer, or engineer. Yes, many years we would roadtrip, but we would also fly to Utah and Colorado to go skiing. Yes, I went to public school, but it was in a community where the median home price is now around $2 million.

So these are two different ways of framing my upbringing. Both are equally factual. And for a long time the first narrative — about taking family road trips and attending public school — was the one I embraced.

I was doing that thing that Americans love to do, which is to cherry-pick facts about myself that fit the arc of the classic bootstraps narrative. But which set of facts was actually more relevant to my matriculation at Yale? Realistically, what set me apart from my parents and grandparents was being the first generation in my family to be raised with all the benefits of class privilege.

So what is class privilege?

Essentially it’s the advantages that people enjoy as a result of their access to money, power, institutions, or social connections.

Class privilege typically functions in four ways: first, it mediates our experience of the world and can insulate us from legal and cultural oppression. Second, it acts as a safety net, giving us resources or connections to fall back on when we encounter setbacks. Third, it’s an amplifier for other forms of privilege and can make it hard to hear and understand other people’s experiences of the world. And fourth, it’s a gateway to wealth, equipping us with education, skills, confidence, or connections we can use to compete economically.

If we’re envisioning life as a race to the top of a mountain, having class privilege is like being given a map and sturdy boots. You’re still climbing the mountain, it doesn’t feel easy. And if you make it to the top, pointing out the map and the boots doesn’t negate the accomplishment, it just contextualizes it.

Still, it’s easy to feel defensive when someone calls attention to class privilege, because when we climb a mountain, we don’t think about our boots, we think about all the effort it took. Thinking about my own biography, even if I’m admitting that I had some advantages, I still feel an urge to reframe it to focus on the fact that I beat out all those people who had more advantages than I did — more money, more connections, more privilege.

But that’s a really common trap when we’re thinking about class which I’m going to call the “up bias.” As in, we’re always comparing ourselves up the social chain with people who have more advantages than we do in a way that minimizes our own advantages. That narrowed thinking gives us a totally skewed picture of the world.

In our mountain-climbing metaphor, if someone points out my boots, it makes me want to say, I’m not really that privileged, that guy over there has a sherpa.

That’s the up-bias talking.

When we insist on pointing out the people who have more privilege than we do, we tend to be self-serving. When we point out the guy with a sherpa, we’re ignoring the far greater number of people, way over there, who don’t even have a map, or boots, and are fighting off a pack of wolves.

It’s easy to feel attacked and go on the defensive when talking about class privilege. But, as individuals and as a society, we’re better off when we use it as a critical lens to enhance our self-awareness. What we see through this lens might not fit the bootstraps portrait we’re taught to paint for ourselves, but a willingness to see what’s actually there, and not just what we want to see, is what allows us to make informed decisions about the change we want to see in the world.

Advocating for social change doesn’t just mean changing other people. It’s also about recognizing our own imperfections and complicity in an unjust system.

For people with wealth and class privilege, social change might mean clinging a little less tightly to the legally sanctioned advantages we enjoy — the mortgage interest deduction; public school funding that keeps our tax dollars in our own, wealthier neighborhoods; cheap Uber rides and Seamless deliveries thanks to lax worker protections.

So my challenge for you is to take a second look at your own biography. As a thought experiment, try doing the opposite of what we’re taught to do. Instead of cherry-picking the details that make you sound like the protagonist in a Dickens novel, focus on the advantages you had. Take a minute to figure out how you and your family compare economically not just to your friends and neighbors, not just to the 1%, but to all Americans, including the 19% who have a net worth of less than zero. You might be surprised where you fall.

Thanks for listening. If you have any questions, or if any of this resonates with you and you’d like to learn more about Resource Generation and how you can leverage wealth or class privilege for social change, feel free to talk to me, Sarah, or Daniel, or connect with us online at resourcegeneration.org.