Over on the New York Times today, columnist David Brooks lays out a peculiar argument for America's education gap in a piece ominously titled "How We Are Ruining America." In his search for what separates the children of upper middle class parents from those of the working class, Brooks finds an answer in the language of the ruling class (and also, Italian—but not Mexican—meats):
Recently I took a friend with only a high school degree to lunch. Insensitively, I led her into a gourmet sandwich shop. Suddenly I saw her face freeze up as she was confronted with sandwiches named "Padrino" and "Pomodoro" and ingredients like soppressata, capicollo and a striata baguette. I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican.
American upper-middle-class culture (where the opportunities are) is now laced with cultural signifiers that are completely illegible unless you happen to have grown up in this class. They play on the normal human fear of humiliation and exclusion. Their chief message is, "You are not welcome here."
As Jamelle Bouie said over on Twitter, "clowning on David Brooks is pretty rote at this point," and yet, here I am, living my best life by being mad on the internet. But I think it's worth digging into this, because there's actually something pretty insidious about the argument that Brooks lays out here.
Words like "artisanal" do not contain power. The cultural signifiers of the wealth reflect the power relations that already exist in the world.
I'm not frustrated because there isn't any cultural gatekeeping. There is, and it's deployed across not only class boundaries, but also across race, gender, sexuality, nationality, and other identity groups. Cultural signifiers—phrases, styles of dress, appropriate musical tastes—work to signify some societal identities as primary and to dismiss others. Brooks and I are in agreement there—as are a long line of social scientists and political philosophers.
Brooks talks about Italian deli meats and organic grocery store products as if they were code words arrived at a priori, as if from a void. "Braised artichoke," says the Brooksian protagonist, finally cracking the code and securing access to the hallowed halls of Harvard for their progeny. But this is, obviously, fiction. If you're a working class parent, whispering "Whole Foods" to the superintendent of the neighboring school district won't let your child in, but hearing someone ask you if you shop organic will remind you that there isn't even a decent grocery store near your home.
Words like "artisanal" do not contain power. The cultural signifiers of the wealth reflect the power relations that already exist in the world. In the case of education, those relationships are often about one's economic and geographic conditions, two things that, in America, are historically caught up with racial and class position.
There is one, special way in which the cultural signifiers of the rich do actively maintain the inequitable status quo, though: They trick people into thinking that they are the difference instead of just reflecting it. They cloak the material causes of oppression and poverty, and instead factor in cultural difference. If only you knew how to tie a windsor knot, son.
In arguing for the primacy of these differences—even when putting the blame on upper middle class moms (of course)—Brooks is doubling down on this by arguing that they're what separates the poor from good education. The (unintentional? who knows) subtext to his piece is that what separates the haves from the have-nots is cultural knowledge and the flexibility required to act adequately in spaces where you do not have it. Those are qualities that an individual person can achieve, and that brings us back to a familiar conservative ideology of personal responsibility.
It also allows Brooks—and anyone else who parrots this line of argument—to feign concern with inequality without ever talking about distribution of resources, quality of schools, redlining, and all the other real ways that the marginalized are kept from good education and equitable living. It lets them write articles with titles like "How We Are Ruining America" without ever engaging in the real ways that the lives of Americans have been ruined.
This argument fundamentally isn't about how cultural norms can keep the poor poor. It is a cultural norm that aids in that very task. It provides easy alibis for "compassionate conservatives" who do not want to redistrict, downplays the material reality of being working class in order to put personal responsibility at the forefront, and offers intellectual soap for those who want to wash their hands of the whole thing.