The Temptation to Dehumanize

You will not often hear me say “you really need to read this column by David Brooks.” But I’m saying it today. His meditation on the dehumanizing rhetoric being aimed at people like Michael Brown may in part be a self-admonition, given his own tendency to moralize about the causes of poverty and inequality. But they are powerful words nonetheless:

Today we once again have a sharp social divide between people who live in the “respectable” meritocracy and those who live beyond it. In one world almost everybody you meet has at least been to college, and people have very little contact with features that are sometimes a part of the other world: prison, meth, payday loans, a flowering of nonmarriage family forms. In one world, people assume they can control their destinies. In the other, some people embrace the now common motto: “It don’t make no difference.”

Widening class distances produce class prejudice, classism. This is a prejudice based on visceral attitudes about competence. People in the “respectable” class have meritocratic virtues: executive function, grit, a capacity for delayed gratification. The view about those in the untouchable world is that they are short on these things. They are disorganized. They are violent and scary. This belief has some grains of truth because of childhood trauma, the stress of poverty and other things. But this view metastasizes into a vicious, intellectually lazy stereotype. Before long, animalistic imagery is used to describe these human beings.

This class prejudice is applied to both the white and black poor, whose demographic traits are converging. But classism combines with latent and historic racism to create a particularly malicious brew. People are now assigned a whole range of supposedly underclass traits based on a single glimpse at skin color.

Tell me about it.

This virulent classism/racism is in fact a betrayal of “traditional values” in multiple respects. It destroys the solidarity of Americans with each other as heirs of a society where entrenched castes have supposedly been left behind. And it defies all the cherished myths of color-blindness and equal opportunity that are established elements of the civic code.

But the thing that bothers me most about the dehumanizing of the poor and the dispossessed is its violent conflict with the supposed religious ethic of this country, particularly when it is promoted by people who think of themselves as good Christians. For the life of me I cannot understand Christians who do not grasp that an essential tenet of their faith is the radical equality of human beings as subjects of both divine judgment and redemption. Every human being is made in the image of God, and how one treats those Jesus called “the least of these” is the acid test of Christian ethics, certainly as important as obedience to rules of sexual behavior or social order. I think it’s fair to demand–if not, of course, to expect–that the religious leaders of those who look at poor people of color and see subhumans whose lives are punishment for vice preach against nothing else until this grievous collective sin is stigmatized if not exterminated once and for all.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.