Racism and Rankism: We Won't Eradicate the One Until We Take on the Other

Americans are listening to Senator Obama on the issue of race, and recognizing something qualitatively different about what he's saying. That's because he's addressing race-based discrimination in a larger context--that of human dignity and affronts to dignity that are even broader than racism itself.

Racial discrimination is but one brand of a more pervasive and still unacknowledged form of abuse and discrimination--rankism. Other subspecies of rankism are sexism, ageism, ableism, classism, nativism, homophobia, etc. All of these ignominious "isms" denote a situation in which a more powerful group disadvantages a weaker group. These "undead" isms can be seen as discrimination based on social rank, each sustained by an interlocking set of expectations, customs, understandings, and laws.

Despite decades devoted to eradicating them, these isms cling to life like vampires. After a flurry of initial progress, often marked by the passage of "landmark" legislation, successes become rarer. Diminishing returns set in long before the ism has been entirely defanged, and its enervating effects continue to diminish the lives of countless individuals who bear a trait that makes them targetable.

Senator Obama understands this intuitively.

An analogy with cancer illustrates why these isms endure. Progress against organ-specific malignancies was long hindered by the failure to recognize them all as sub-species of cancer. It was only after tumors of the lung, colon, breast, prostate, liver, etc. were seen as varieties of cancer that medicine began to make piecemeal progress against them.

This is the situation today with the familiar isms. After decades of treating them as separate and distinct maladies, Barack Obama is showing us what they have in common. They all involve one group inflicting indignity on another. They are all subspecies of rankism. Indignity makes people indignant and resentful, and Barack Obama understands that no one's dignity is secure until everyone's is.

By recognizing that white resentment has strikingly similar causes to black resentment, Senator Obama has brought us to the threshold of a long national conversation about rank and its abuses. After discussing black anger and its roots, he said:

"In fact, a similar anger exists within segments of the white community. Most working- and middle-class white Americans don't feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience--as far as they're concerned, no one's handed them anything, they've built it from scratch. They've worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor."

Obama went on to explain how the violation of one's dignity leads to indignation--regardless of race.

"Just as black anger often proved counterproductive, so have these white resentments distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle class squeeze--a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices, and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many. And yet, to wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist, without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns--this too widens the racial divide, and blocks the path to understanding."

The cause of indignity is not rank itself, any more than the cause of racism is color, or the cause of sexism is gender. Color and gender are merely excuses for putting people down, to our own advantage. Just as it is impractical to combat racism or sexism by eliminating color or gender differences, so too we cannot eliminate rankism by abolishing rank.

Rank is not the problem; rankism is, and we can learn to disallow the indignities that result from abuses of the power signified by rank much as we are learning to disallow color as grounds for discrimination.

Were it not for our partial successes against racism, sexism, and the other isms over the last half-century, the prospect for progress against the social cancer of rankism would be bleak. But increasingly, our tolerance is evaporating for rank-based abuse, whether it takes the form of bullying, personal humiliation, corporate corruption, special interests, elder abuse, celebrity privilege, theological or medical intimidation, animal abuse, environmental degradation, or American exceptionalism. There is good reason to believe that once rankism gets the attention accorded the now-discredited isms, it will become as indefensible as they are.

Obama spoke to the need to see this larger pattern, when he said:

"For the African-American community, that path means embracing the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past. It means continuing to insist on a full measure of justice in every aspect of American life. But it also means binding our particular grievances--for better health care, and better schools, and better jobs--to the larger aspirations of all Americans--the white woman struggling to break the glass ceiling, the white man who's been laid off, the immigrant trying to feed his family."

It's never enough just to formally disallow an ism. To put it in the doghouse, it must also be made "uncool." To render the familiar isms uncool requires raising our sights from particular isms to the impulse that underpins them all. That impulse is the desire to hold others down so they may more readily be used to our advantage. Whether our motivation is psychological, social, or economic, is beside the point. Typically a mixture of motives is at play. But it's the willingness to indignify others, and the fact that we are still collectively holding our tongues--as previous generations did about racism--that lies at the root of many of the problems that vex us today.

Barack Obama is a harbinger of a dignitarian society, one in which every person, regardless of rank, expects and enjoys equal dignity. The implications of a politics predicated on the principle of dignity for all are profound and far-reaching. Just as all our institutions had to be reshaped as we transformed America from a segregated to multicultural society, so too will we need to transform our schools, businesses, healthcare and religious institutions as we become a dignitarian society. A dignitarian society is democracy's next natural evolutionary step.

Senator Obama is at risk of raising expectations beyond anyone's capacity to deliver on them. There are no quick fixes to the problems now moving into sight. But if the public understands that building a dignitarian society is as complex and rewarding a task as overcoming racism, it may grant our leaders, whoever they be, the patience and commitment that they are going to need to do so.

Robert W. Fuller is the author of All Rise: Somebodies, Nobodies, and the Politics of Dignity (2006). He is co-author, with Pamela Gerloff, of Dignity for All: Rankism Unmasked (forthcoming, Spring 2008)