Recently at a dinner party the discussion deteriorated to mocking those with lesser educational attainment — people who “only” received a high school diploma (or less.) Of course this wasn’t the intent of the conversation; it was only to laugh at photos of people that dress and behave differently. Regardless, this conversation seemed like a type of veiled racism, even if the subject matter shared the same skin color as me. The conversation was uncomfortable, I found myself becoming defensive, and after some days of rumination I was moved to blog about my thoughts.
Perhaps I was identifying with the lesser educated — I, the lowly entrepreneur, was the lowest degreed person in a room full of Masters and Professional Degrees, including Doctorates. I was the least educated of the group. I remembered, however, once reading how most of American society is not degreed, but only “diplomaed”.
What percentage of adults do you think have a bachelor’s degree or higher? Here are the average US education attainment stats for adults 25-44:
- High School Diploma: 87% (highest 96% North Dakota, lowest California 81%, Georgia 86%)
- Associates Degree (or higher): 40% (highest Massachusetts 54%, Nevada 28%, Georgia 37%)
- Bachelor Degree (or higher): 31% (highest Massachusetts 46%, Mississippi 21%, Georgia 30%)
- Graduate/Professional Degree: 10% (highest Massachusetts 18%, Arkansas 6%, Georgia 10%)
Let’s be clear — less than 1/3 of American adults have attained a bachelor’s degree or higher. When I share this stat with my social networks, they are surprised; they consistently think it’s “about half of adults.” That number is even wrong when you consider associate’s degree or higher.
Recently, my Facebook discussion group The Coffe House had a posting from the Atlantic — “Class Now Trumps Race As The Great Divide in America.” Written by Robert D. Putnam, author of Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, the article discusses how the class gap is growing while the racial gap is shrinking.
You say poverty to most ordinary Americans, most ordinary voters, they think black ghettos. However, class, not race is the dominant — and becoming more dominant — dimension of difficulty here. Relatively speaking, racial differences controlling for class are decreasing while class differences controlling for race are increasing in America. Non-white folks with a college education are looking more and more like white folks with a college education and white folks who haven’t gotten beyond high school are looking more and more like nonwhite folks who haven’t finished high school.
At this dinner party this became clear. It was considered tacky and improper to judge someone based on race. But on educational attainment, however, the gloves were off. The less the educational attainment — no high school diploma GASP! — the more frequent the verbal jabs. These fellow humans were rudely referred to with pejorative, albeit race-free, terms such as “white trash” or “trailer trash”.
These terms hit close to home. When my parents immigrated to the US fleeing political turmoil from their homelands, they lived in a trailer park for some time. After several years of working hard, and at the demands of my mother, they purchased their first home together where I would spend the first 12 years of my life. Were my parents “trailer trash”, too?
I frequently experience class discrimination (“classism?”) in my everyday life. In my own profession of Internet marketing — one in which it still is very difficult to provide a collegiate education on due to the sheer pace of change — I’m often asked what degree my employees attained. In fact, it’s not the question “What degree did they obtain”, but rather the assumptive question “What university did they attain their degree?” When I started my first web software development company in 1999, I had just started my bachelor’s degree the semester before, paid in full with Georgia’s HOPE scholarship. My educational attainment had little to do with the company’s success other than that the first round of employees were mostly students I met while at the University of Georgia. Most of these employees, however, were self-taught; our best programmer was a Finance major!
I’m not immunce to classism. I have spent plenty of time with the guilty pleasure of laughing my way through the People of Walmart web site. The video below is a mash-up of sophomoric lyrics, country-tinged acoustic music, and People of Walmart photos.
Blogger Renee Martin of the blog Womanist Musings, however, points out how The People of Walmart shames those less fortunate.
Whether the owners of The People of Walmart realise it, there is also a class aspect to this site. Individuals shopping at Walmart do not exist with class privilege. These people usually range from the working poor to the middle class. Those that have limited resources are often held up to ridicule and shamed, even though the system is designed to assure their failure. Before the very first picture was taken, the owners of The People of Walmart, had already decided to shame based in class.
Do you experience classism in your social network? Do you call it out for what it is — ignorant prejudice — as frequently as other forms of discrimination such as racism?