David Brooks versus Class Bigotry?!

Detail from the Limbourg Brothers' book The Very Rich Hours of the Duc du Berry.
Detail from the Limbourg Brothers’ manuscript The Very Rich Hours of the Duc du Berry.

David Brooks, New York Times writer, leading conservative, and stereotypical preppie, recently shared some thoughts about race. “People have tried to link Ferguson to Selma and Jim Crow, but something is off,” he wrote. According to Brooks, that’s because “the nature of racism has changed. There has been a migration away from prejudice based on genetics to prejudice based on class.” “This class prejudice is applied to both the white and black poor, whose demographic traits are converging,” he added.

It’s nice that Brooks acknowledges the existence of “prejudice based on class.” That’s more than most liberals will do. But that admission is at odds with the class bigotry that lies at the heart of Brooks’s writings. For starters, it’s absurd for him to claim that there is a sharp distinction between prejudice based on genetics and prejudice based on class. Much class prejudice is based on crackpot genetic theories devised by Brooks’s fellow right wingers, particularly Charles Murray.

In 1994, Murray re-launched bigoted junk science by publishing (with Richard Herrnstein) The Bell Curve. The book’s authors argued that those who were born rich were genetically superior to those who were born poor. They also claimed that people of Asian or European ancestry were genetically superior to people of African or Latin American ancestry. Murray and Herrnstein’s book was mainly based on publications financed by the Pioneer Fund, a eugenicist group that at one time supported the Nazis and has since moved on to supporting neo-Nazis.

This article by Jim Naureckas highlights the demented positions of the Pioneer Fund, including this quote from Roger Pearson, one of the group’s top recipients of financial support: “If a nation with a more advanced, more specialized or in any way superior set of genes mingles with, instead of exterminating, an inferior tribe, then it commits racial suicide.”

Conservatives in the media eagerly promoted the Pioneer Fund’s pseudo-science, and in 2012, Murray published a follow-up volume called Coming Apart, in which he argued that working-class whites are morally inferior to rich whites, based on theories about heredity.

What did David Brooks, self-proclaimed enemy of class bigotry, have to say about Murray and Coming Apart? “I’ll be shocked if there’s another book that so compellingly describes the most important trends in American society,” Brooks wrote in an NYT column. He entirely accepted Murray’s depiction of the poor as immoral and lazy and the rich as moral and hardworking. “Members of the upper tribe have made themselves phenomenally productive,” he wrote.

Let’s look at that word, productive. As economists have shown, the productivity of the American worker has doubled since 1980, but median family income has utterly stagnated. See this chart and accompanying analysis by economists Atif Mian and Amir Sufi.

Mian and Sufi identify where the monetary gains from higher worker productivity are going:

First, owners of capital are getting a bigger share of GDP than before. In other words, the share of profits has risen faster than wages. Second, the highest paid workers are getting a bigger share of the wages that go to labor.

The owners of capital are seizing the proceeds of workers’ increasing productivity. And though many capital owners were born rich and don’t work, Brooks is convinced that they are morally superior, uniquely hardworking folks. Then there is the matter of Wall Street’s criminal practices, which crashed the world economy and garnered massive bailouts for the perpetrators, in violation of conservative talk about morals. Brooks confuses predation for productivity, an error he commits so frequently that you might think it stems from a hereditary defect.

In a previous post, I discussed the favored tactic of Nicholas Kristof and other liberals: loudly decrying racial prejudice in order to distract from the issue of class. Here we see conservatives’ response: pretending to care about class in order to undercut liberals on race. Both sides gain by keeping their arguments within those parameters.

Liberals get to look progressive without actually caring about working-class people. Conservatives get to parry liberals on race, while pretending to support working-class whites. Since both ideologies are creations of the elite, both sides are eager to avoid doing anything to help the working class. Neither Kristof nor Brooks gets anywhere near the root of America’s problems, but they perfectly sum up liberalism and conservatism: a series a mirrored rhetorical feints, repeated endlessly by the same posh players.

If David Brooks genuinely wants to fight against class bigotry, he can begin with five easy steps.

1.  Condemn Charles Murray and his other enablers.

2. Endorse criminal proceedings against the bailed-out Wall Street fraudsters who crashed the economy.

3. Call for the end of gross inequalities in the U.S. tax code that allow members of the non-working investor class to pay a lower tax rate than many wage laborers.

4. Demand an end to class discrimination in higher education. For starters, that means no more legacy preferences. There could hardly be a more blatantly discriminatory act than granting college admission to an over-privileged but under-qualified applicant at the expense of a better, but less wealthy, applicant.

5. Call for the expansion of civil rights laws to include social class. If Brooks doesn’t know how to go about that, here is an article I wrote on that subject last year.

Or, alternatively, Brooks could just admit that he has nothing but contempt for working-class people and that right wingers’ invocations of class are nothing more than a race-baiting tactic.