Are we conditioned to label the marginalized as mediocre?

A paper titled Family Descent as a Signal of Managerial Quality: Evidence from Mutual Funds makes for interesting reading. Its authors Oleg Chuprinin and Denis Sosyura have bench-marked the success of Mutual Fund managers with the circumstances in which they grew up. What they find is: Fund managers who grew up poor do better than those who grew up rich. In this case, success is easily available as a metric and thus they’ve made a rather simple study. But their subsequent argument and our own lived experience makes one think.

As the authors point out, what this really means is that poor people from less privileged circumstances have a higher threshold to clear to achieve the same amount of success. Or, conversely, privileged people use their privilege in ways that are opaque to get themselves to levels of success they are otherwise too mediocre to achieve.

This isn’t news to any of us who’ve been subject to a performance review in a large organisation. It’s rarely fair to those who who don’t “fit in” and no one who is reviewing thinks they are being unfair. The biases are cooked in; no manager makes an explicit decision to not promote the worker from less privileged background. Instead they convince themselves said worker maybe a poor fit for leadership given their personality traits. And the traits managers approve of are likely products of privilege. It’s a depressing truth about human kind that we are very good at explaining ourselves to ourselves.

A natural reaction of several well-meaning people in such a context is to have affirmative action of some sort so that the biases are corrected for. But such corrections are usually for a just a few variables; it’s but natural to correct the most egregious of historic wrongs first. In most progressive places it’s race and gender, usually. Have we come to a place where the costs of using those two variables blindly aren’t negligible? At least two recent books make one wonder about that: the widely well reviewed Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance and Strangers in Their Own Land by Arlie Hochschild.

JD Vance’s part memoir and part sociological analysis is an inside out story. He is, as he calls himself, a hillbilly. His central thesis is that his Scotch-Irish Appalachian kin are culturally condemned into oblivion both by the elite and by themselves; that exacerbates their economic condition which in turn feeds the stereotype. Arlie Hochschild’s looks at a similar but distinct demography in Louisiana. Their leanings are towards the Tea Party and Hochschild tries to understand why with a lot of empathy and using something she calls their “deep story.” Hochschild though is a Sociologist from Berkley and her exploration is from the outside in, unlike that of Vance. But both these groups of people, it’s clear, hate the elites. White men in these places, both authors show, earnestly believe Blacks, Hispanics, immigrants, women, the disabled and every other group is advancing at their cost.  They seem to long for an ally who’ll stand up to elites; regardless of what the ally’s own flaws maybe. In the current context, that ally is Donald Trump.

A significant section of white men in the narratives of both JD Vance and Arlie Hochschild hold problematic and often racist constructs to be true. But is that a reason to then condemn them socially and economically as contemporary culture seems to have? That’s a larger question on which most reactionary politics is built on. One that has serious costs for the whole society.

An unlikely biography that obliquely addresses this difficult questions is that of Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte. She was an ‘aristocrat’ in the early Republic and a monarchist at that when Americans where at best ambivalent about the idea of aristocracy. She’d divorced Jerome Bonaparte, the brother of Napoleon, and supposedly attired herself in ways that scandalized the Americans. Charlene Boyer Lewis chronicles her ambition at a time when American women weren’t supposed to be ambitious. Elizabeth Bonaparte, in one of her letters to her father when she was living in Paris, writes how it was silly to not have a King. The reason she says that, as Lewis implies, may be that she wanted to belong to an aristocracy. But she then goes on to make an observation in that letter that seems pertinent; she mentions that women had better rights in an aristocracy where order was established and the aristocrats weren’t threatened by women. But that in the republic where everyone had a vote, the prudishness and insecurity of the common people was forced on women.

One is reminded of Elizabeth Bonaparte’s astute observation when reading about the anger of white men that Arlie Hochschild in particular captures. The hypothesis that one could come up with is, as the previously marginalised sections of society get empowered, illiberalism is a counter-intuitive cost to pay. This illiberalism seems to take multiple forms and have multiple sources. In the American South and Appalachia, we see the source as hillbilly white men. In India, it could be uneducated and poor upper caste men who want to do away with reservation policies.

Politicians exist to win elections. To blame either Trump or Modi when they take advantage of these sections of society and their anxieties is a liberal pastime that is trivial and misses the point entirely. But what could the liberal do that is non-trivial doesn’t have answers either, or so it seems.