Class Bigotry at the NOW, or Adventures in Bourgsplaining

Pehr Hilleström, A woman is reading, the chambermaid is bringing tea, 1775
Pehr Hilleström, A woman is reading, the chambermaid is bringing tea, 1775

American higher education has a long and shameful history of discrimination. In recent decades, many colleges have attempted to address the problems of racial and gender prejudice in their admissions practices. But with regard to social class, most top colleges cling to their old biases. Proof of discrimination has been building up for years.

A 2007 report by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute showed that the average U.S. college student came from a family with an annual income 60% above the national average. In 2011, education scholars Martha J. Bailey and Susan M. Dynarski produced a study on college access. They found that 54% of Americans born into the top income quartile between 1979 and 1982 had received bachelor’s degrees. For the bottom quartile, the figure was 9%. That same year, The Chronicle of Higher Education published a report based on enrollment data from 2008-09. The Chronicle showed that, at America’s 50 wealthiest colleges, only 15% of students received Pell Grants, a federal scholarship for low- and middle-income students.

Conservatives have no problem with that situation and, despite regular encomia to diversity, liberals don’t either. If liberals are so committed to diversity, why don’t they call for the addition of social class to existing affirmative-action programs? That is a question that answers itself by being asked (to quote an old saying). In 2013, I wrote an article about discrimination against working-class people in higher education, and bourgeois liberals’ culpability for it.

The piece included this passage on one activist group’s support for social exclusion.

Will activists help when journalists and educational officials won’t? The National Organization for Women addressed the issue of class in “Talking About Affirmative Action,” posted on the organization’s website. The talking points included this pairing:

Myth: Affirmative Action should be based on economic need.

Fact: Affirmative Action is necessary so that women and people of color of every economic class have the opportunity to enter all fields. [The formatting is in the original.]

Note how the writer(s) of the NOW talking points frame the issue. Either we can have affirmative action “based on economic need,” or we can have the current version of the policy, based on gender and race. Why must we choose between those approaches? The NOW doesn’t say. In the early years of affirmative action, when feminists demanded a gender-based version of the policy, male liberals didn’t pretend that they could not accede to those demands without ending race-based preferences. If they had, feminists would have called them liars—and sexists. Yet, leading feminists and other liberals continue to repeat the lie that class-based affirmative action would necessarily end all other types of the program.

Hiding behind the NOW’s inclusion-speak—“women and people of color of every economic class”—is pure class bigotry. When institutions employ affirmative action based on gender, without also basing that policy on class, they place an additional burden of discrimination on working-class men, while allowing rich men to keep their privileges. They also allow a small elite of economically privileged women to monopolize opportunities ostensibly created for women in general. NOW leaders think that’s fine, so they should add another section to their talking points:

Myth: The National Organization for Women supports affirmative action for all women. Open the doors of opportunity to women!

Fact: No white-trash girl is taking my daughter’s place at Harvard. I am legacy! Hear me roar!               

Looking back on that article now, I would add this question: Are the NOW’s talking points bourgsplaining? Let’s define that term:

Bourgsplaining (n.) from bourgsplain (v.)

1. Strange but prevalent phenomenon in which members of the bourgeoisie attempt to explain social problems to working-class people in an ignorant, condescending, or hypocritical manner.

2. When members of the bourgeoisie tell working-class people that discrimination and other harmful practices are actually positive developments when they happen to the working class.

3. When members of the bourgeoisie state or imply that working-class people are privileged, relative to them.

See also trust-fund baby, conservative moralist, Ivy League liberal.

Since I wrote that article, the NOW has redesigned its web site. The “Talking About Affirmative Action” page has disappeared, at least for the moment. Is that exercise in class bigotry gone for good or will it return? The former outcome would be nice, if a little late for several lost generations of working-class women, as well as men, marginalized by policies furiously defended by the NOW.

If the NOW decides to re-post or re-state its attack on the idea of affirmative action for working-class people, perhaps a name change would be in order. “The National Organization for Rich Women” sounds terrible, but the name has an undeniably truthful ring.