Race, Class, and Inequality

Sunday, February 10, 2008
First Aired: 
Tuesday, August 8, 2006

What Is It

The concept of equality is as important to America's self-conception as it is confusing.  What sort of equality?  Equality before the law; equality of opportunity; equal access to all the benefits of modern society?  If we treat everyone the same, how can we take account of inequities due to race, class, gender and other factors?  Guest Elizabeth Kiss from Duke University joins John and Ken in front of a live studio audience at Oregon Public Broadcasting in Portland.

Listening Notes

John and Ken begin by introducing the Oregonian listeners who came out to this live taping of Philosophy Talk and thanking them for their continued dedication to the show. When discussing the topics of Race, Class, and Inequality, it may be easier to talk about what philosophical issues are not involved rather than enumerating those that are. Nevertheless, John and Ken try to frame the discussion by talking primarily about economic and political inequality, although John wonders whether or not any other kinds of equalities are possible without economic equality to begin with. John warns against over-generalization, but agrees with Ken that wealth tracking with things like race causes serious problems. John and Ken discuss whether or not some economic inequality is okay, concluding that as long as certain fundamental qualities of life are insured it may be.

Ken introduces Elizabeth Kiss, the Nannerl O. Heohane Director of the Kenan Institute at Duke University, author of many works on human rights and ethnic conflict around the world. John mentions that Americans pride themselves on being the most egalitarian country in the world, and asks Elizabeth if this pride is well-founded. Elizabeth sadly reveals that there are huge gaps between the rich and poor in the United States, and that unfortunately these categories are drawn along racial lines, a recent example of this growing gap is the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Elizabeth Kiss uses the example of Hurricane Katrina to discuss our country's moral imagination, and how natural disasters can reveal more underlying class tensions in American life. John discusses a kind of equality of humanity which allows us to relate to be what its like to be in other peoples' shoes, and notes that in American we have not been able to do so.
Ken returns the conversation to the distinction between economic and political equality, asking the guest if it is possible to have political equality without economic equality. Elizabeth Kiss believes that in this situation one can have formal equality--or equality on the books or by law--but not real active or effective equality, the kind which makes one feel in control and able to change ones life. She believes that the myth of the American Dream or rags to riches is mostly just mythical in this day and age. John discusses the equality of aspirations, or the equal access to possibilities and dreams, and Ken points out the practical difficulties of trying to guarantee such abstract notions of equality.
Ken gives examples to try to understand the underlying reasons for equality. If life is a race, and I run it well and win in the end, why should I care about other people who were not as successful? Elizabeth Kiss points out that it's not a fair competition, and that while it is hard to recognize this from the winner's perspective, we do not all start from the same place, invalidating the simple race analogy. She believes that the American ideal of equality of opportunity is really not being pursued through the current infrastructure, and that the reason people should care about such systematic inequity is because it wastes a very large amount of human potential. Playing the devil's advocate, Ken points out that many people think that society is on average fair, that those in jail broke the law, those that are poor are lazy, and those that are successful work hard--trying to push the guest for a more direct argument. Elizabeth describes an experiment she has her students perform where they visit a food bank and learn how little many families have to spend on food each day, a revelatory experience for those that don't understand what it's like.
Audience members discuss their own views and life experiences with the guest, ranging from the growing numbers of white poor to the moral imagination of fellow americans and how that could achieve a different and more equitable society. John, Ken, and Elizabeth discuss ways in which the moral background from across the political spectrum can be used to improve the lives of the poor. In his closing remarks John stresses the role of philosophy, imagination, and leadership in creating a more egalitarian society.
  • Sixty-Second Philosopher (Seek to 4:45): Ian Shoales burns through the history of the idea of "equality" from lofty ideal to practical application, noting its popularity and unpopularity in different times and in the schemes of different thinkers.


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