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by S. M. Miller & Karen Marie Ferroggiaro (Jan./Feb. 1996) September/October 1997 issue of Poverty & Race

The ultimate test of a society is not only how well its citizens live but how they feel about themselves and others. The basic (though not exclusive) standard of a society is that people feel good about themselves, that they are respected, respect others and have self-respect. Respect and self-respect shape what happens to people, politically and economically as well as socially.

Respect and self-respect are now burning questions of inequality, policy and politics. They share the public spotlight with the distribution of income and wealth as our society's central stratification worries.

At a time of widespread unemployment, declining real wages. welfare state tightening and profound fears about the economic future, it may appear strange to point to these terms of social appraisal and personal feelings as the cutting edge of policy and understanding inequality. But economic difficulties have fed rather than undermined the significance of respect. Emphasizing respect and self-respect as questions of inequality does not downgrade the importance of poverty and economic inequalities or concerns with the level and distribution of income and wealth, for the adverse consequences of these pressing issues are most manifest among those who are disrespected. Low respect leads to low income, as evidenced in many employers' reluctance to hire African-Americans, and low incomes reinforce the lack of respect for particular groups, for then they can be, and often are, characterized as reluctant to work. Today, respect and self-respect are central components of an enlarged concept of citizenship. Furthermore, as we continuously re-learn, economics is not all if we seek to redress the manifold injustices of society. Today, therefore, respect and self-respect are central components of an enlarged understanding of inequality in society.

Respect is not a minor question of politeness and niceties. While individuals may be told that they are "different" from the appraisals of their identity group or class, that does not change how the group is perceived and treated. Nor is it restricted to the personal irritations that afflict those who are disrespected because of their identity group or class standing. As a component of social capitals—the nonmonetary assets of cultural background, network connections, trust and know-how—it influences these economic and political assets. Respect affects how we are treated, what help from others is likely, what economic arrangements others are willing to engage in with us, when reciprocity can be expected.

The desire for respect, then, is not a silly, empty game for prestige or status. It opens doors, invites communication, wins cooperation, breeds money and power. It is part of the competitive game, providing access, information and responsiveness. In short, respect is a resource.

Disrespect has many benefits for those who seize for themselves the right to be judges: it gives them a feeling of superiority; it enhances their chances of capturing rewards in economic and political markets. Those who can authoritatively give or withhold respect have economic, political and social power. As economic gaps widen, disrespect and revulsion toward the losers grow.

A sense of shame inhibits individual or group action. The consequence is to strengthen the position of those who already have power. Inflicting shame is a weapon. That is one of the reasons identity groups that are testing the economic, political and/or social limits on them develop a history that corrects distorted or neglectful mainstream accounts and gives members of the group a more positive view of itself.

Public/Collective Respect

At issue here is not individual respect, but what might be called public or collective respect—the respect that is generally allocated to a group as a whole, whether on the basis of social identity or economic position.

The problem of public respect is not new; struggles about it have been occurring for a long time. What is new is understanding respect and disrespect as issues producing and maintaining inequalities and social stratification. Public respect and group self-respect affect not only the command over economic and political resources of marginalized groups, but the character of their daily lives as well. That is why the objective of greater economic and social equality has to be joined to the promotion of respect and self-respect. It is not better incomes and a better distribution versus lessened disrespect, but the pursuit of both that is important.

While we often talk about rights, respect is less often the explicit topic of discussions about social justice. Rights are important. But it is also important to realize that rights and respect go hand in hand. Legally sanctioned and enforced rights are basic, but respect plays a crucial role in the development and implementation of rights. Whether and how rights are enforced (e.g., the behavior of the police) is affected by the respect accorded to a given group. Respect and rights are reciprocal: the emergence of rights contributes to or enforces respect; respect encourages the development and implementation of rights.

The United States is undergoing a not-so-silent revolution about respect. Many groups—such as women, gays and lesbians, African Americans and Latinos—demand it. The growing significance of public respect and identity group self-respect is evident in the heightened public and personal sensitivity about harassment, racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia and multiculturalism. The situation discomforts the many who do not understand ("why are they making such a fuss?) or oppose ("they're going too far') the new demands for respect. The quest for respect is often met by irritation and counteraction.

Collective respect is unevenly distributed: Asians, Latinos, and African-Americans know that in general whites gain an automatic measure of respect because of the color of their skin; women are regularly accorded less respect than men; a construction worker applying to a bank for a housing loan is treated with less respect than a doctor or lawyer. Disrespected segments encounter distorting opportunities and obstacles. Their life-chances are shaped by degrees and types of disrespect. It has deep effects on their daily life as well as on long-term prospects.

Survey Research Data

Survey data by the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center (NORC) confirm that white evaluations of blacks and Latinos are strongly negative, especially when compared with white self-ratings. Almost one-third of whites surveyed thought blacks and Latinos were unintelligent, while only one-fifth thought they were intelligent. (The rest rated them in a middle category.) By contrast, nearly three-fifths of whites rated their own racial group as intelligent, and only 6% rated them as unintelligent. On another question inquiring whether various identity groups were hard-working or lazy, whites again had a high opinion of their own work habits (57% hardworking, only 5% lazy), while denigrating Latinos and blacks: for Latinos, whites' ratings were 26% hard-working, 37% lazy; for blacks, whites~ ratings were 18% hard-working, 47% lazy. While the NORC survey does not convey a completely negative assessment by whites, it does confirm the widespread feeling among African Americans and Latinos that the white community does not think of them with respect, and that this judgement carries over into behavior.

Class Disrespect

Disrespect has a class bias. As economic gaps widen, disrespect and revulsion toward the losers grow. In the contemporary United States, attitudes about poverty, especially that of African-Americans, often condemn the sufferers rather than criticize the conditions that produce low incomes and marginalization. The pejorative term underclass" indicts the inner-city poor, largely but not exclusively defined as African-Americans, who are considered the authors of their poverty because of their presumed cultural practices.

Those whom we would exploit or dominate we first disrespect and then attribute the subordination to the presumed disreputable condition or attributes of the dominated. Viewing a group as a deficient in some human qualities or desirable social practice makes it easier to mistreat them. Slavery seemed acceptable when those enslaved were not regarded as fully human. Holocausts do not appear reprehensible when the victims are seen as threatening or lacking the positive qualities that the perpetrators believe they themselves possess. This is the social construction of the "other." Guilt is banished.

Constructing the "other" in a negative fashion simplifies the ability to oppress. It eases one's conscience to believe that exploited workers are dumb, depraved and undeserving of respect. Those who are deemed "different" or "less worthy," be it because they are believed incompetent, improvident, work-shy or engaged in disapproved cultural styles, are regarded as undeserving and available for social and economic denigration.

The Golden Rule is reversed: treat "the others" as you would not have your group treated. Those who treat others with disrespect are according themselves the right to think and act as superior. Such outlooks and behaviors distort the self-assigned superiors as well as damage those who are disrespected..

Negative feelings about the "others" develop or intensify during difficult, strained times. For example, economic difficulties have fueled the fear of immigrants. Concern about "those Mexicans" has resulted not only in barriers to immigration but in physical and political attacks in many countries, including the United States.

Forms of Disrespect

Societal pressures and strains promote scapegoating and disrespect. One group can be played off against another, as in the long-time setting of poor whites against poor blacks in the U.S. South. Right-wing hate groups such as the Aryan Nation and the KKK are current threats. Calls for "English only" and anti-immigration policies such as California's Proposition 187 reflect fears about demographic and social changes occurring in the United States.

Disrespect takes many forms: discrimination, physical action, prejudice, mocking, segregation, marginalizing, automatic relegation to subordinate positions, harassing, demonizing, stereotyping, over-generalizing and much more. Both stereotypes and institutional practices are essential processes of disrespect. Culturally, disrespect is produced by the media, in our schools and in our everyday practice, such as language. Economically, disrespect is produced in institutional practices such as housing and school segregation and employment discrimination.

All too frequently, schools are prominent agencies for disrespect. They have labeled some classes and identity groups as having low educability and made them feel that they are stupid in one way or another. They have, for example, convinced girls that they were not good in science and mathematics, though with increased awareness this disabling is now less frequent. African-American students, especially those who come from one-parent families, are sometimes characterized as having "educational deficits" when they enter school and therefore unable to learn. Many African-American school and college students have teachers and peers who display open disdain for their competence and potential. For some, schools educate; "the educational others" often are made to feel and act dumb. Disrespect and low self-respect feed each other.

Yet schools contribute to the perpetuation of disrespect in other ways as well. Many examinations, especially the SAT, which is required for college entrance, are cited for racial bias against non-whites. Further, elementary school books portray a United States which is homogeneous, which has only one history, and disrespected groups are often portrayed stereotypically and/or negatively, or omitted altogether.

Perhaps nowhere do we learn more about who we are and how we view ourselves than in the mass media. Television, by providing us with a mediated version of reality, has the potential to influence us into believing in that reality and modifying our attitudes and behavior accordingly. A wealth of research conducted over more than three decades demonstrates that indeed television has become an important aspect of our social life, capable of influencing our attitudes, values and behavior. When media portrayals of disrespected groups reinforce negative stereotypes, disrespect is perpetuated and ingrained.

Television news is no less complicit. Media accounts mainly report on African-Americans when welfare, crime or violence are involved. Latinos gain attention mainly when illegal immigration is the focus. The activities of those who are not poor or who are attempting to improve communities get much less attention (unless they are celebrities). The public's false impression is that most African-Americans are poor and on welfare and that underclass conditions are their usual way-of-life. Hollywood has contributed to the stereotyping of African-Americans, especially the young, as mainly poor, hostile and violent.

The Consequences

Disrespect and fear join to create a disturbing situation for young black males. They are bitter about the disrespect shown by those white people and police who assume their presence means crime or violence will occur. For example, in a February 1993 Gallup Poll, 80% of blacks surveyed said that the police treat suspects from low-income neighborhoods differently. Furthermore, when asked whether they felt the U.S. justice system is biased against black people, 68% of blacks responded yes, compared to 33% among white respondents. Consequently, getting "respect" becomes an important goal. That concern may lead to a tough demeanor, which in turn may cause some whites and police to feel more threatened and respond with more disrespect and force. Thus, a vicious circle is created where the disrespected demand respect and are in turn disrespected even more.

The respect accorded to particular identity groups significantly affects their participation in the economy and the way that politics responds to their needs and interests. Respect determines, to a major extent, economic interactions and national attention and help. Two examples: the loss of tax revenues through the deductibility of mortgage interest and property tax payments is much greater than government spending on housing subsidies for low-income families, but the latter expenditure is frequently battered in Congress, while merely placing a cap on the deductibility of very high mortgage - interest payments is difficult to pass; and crimes such as rape and murder in African-American neighborhoods receive much less police attention than rape and murder in white areas.

Respect is part of the competitive game. Well-respected identity groups have an easier time than those low in respect in gaining information, access and responsiveness. In short, respect pays off. When a figure like Richard Whitney, the head of both the New York Stock Exchange and a prominent brokerage firm, was jailed for misappropriating customers' funds, the event was treated as an aberration, not as an indictment of his identity group. That is not the fate for the member of a less respected identity group accused of criminal activity. Then, the response is more likely to be: "What can you expect from those people."

Respect has political payoffs which may also contribute to economic gain. Useful networks and connections are constructed by and for respected identity groups. Their members are in positions to help one another and do so—although they may think of the reciprocity as simply the way business is done: you do business with people you know. They have access to political leaders and the media, are consulted on issues important to them, are treated seriously, and are often considered disinterested voices for "the national interest." By contrast, those identity groups marked by low respect are derided as "self-seeking" or "special interests." They are often unflatteringly described as "strident," "unruly" or "loud," making it easy to discount their views.

At the policy level, contrast the way that farmers, students and AFDC recipients are treated. Farmers receive enormous subsidies that maintain high prices, which burdens us all. They are not described as "on welfare" or attacked as "chiselers," suffering from "the culture of dependency." Reduced tuition fees and below-market-rate loans for some less advantaged college students are not criticized as encouraging irresponsibility or regarded as a welfare handout. Former college students who do not repay their loans are often treated lightly. Welfare recipients, however, are not accorded similar latitude.

A Vicious Cycle

The result is a vicious cycle: members of disrespected groups and classes stand a substantial chance of needing public assistance because of the obstacles they encounter in trying to achieve a decent outcome; a negative view of welfare recipients reinforces the lack of respect for them, which results in low benefits; inadequate income leads to a difficult existence that reinforces not only low collective respect, but often low self-respect as well.

Where we live is largely determined by how much money we have. Those who are relegated to low-status, low-paying jobs usually live in low-income neighborhoods or ghettos that are neglected by the municipality, dirty and unsafe. Thus, disrespect has consequences of immediate personal safety as well. This can be seen in the fact that there has been a rise in TB cases among low-income persons. as well as high infant mortality rate among disrespected groups.

Thus, what is needed is not limited to quantitative and qualitative economic improvements. Changes in the social fabric, in people's daily experiences and in their relationships are imperative. If powerlessness, disconnection, disrespect and hierarchy at home, at work and in the community are obstacles to a healthy functioning society, then genuine participation and the promotion of respect and collective respect would contribute to a healthy society.


Solidarity, a word much more widely used in Europe than here, is a broader term than community. Solidarity implies mutual concern and responsibility on the part of people who may be socially or geographically distant. More specifically, solidarity—at least in European discourse—signifies concern among those who are doing well for those who are faring poorly. For example, the Swedish solidarity wage policy followed by unions, with membership and government support, improved the wages of low-level workers more than those of higher-paid employees, thus reducing the income gap. The animating spirit was that of "one nation."

The keys to building a sense of solidarity, then, are the narrowing of social distance and the involvement of diverse people in common pursuits. Widening the scope of local decision-making is likely to encourage more people to participate in community affairs. Federal- and state-funded programs could require broader-based local participation and self-determination. Community service programs to which individuals could voluntarily contribute for the good of the locality or nation could make a difference. Simply put, inducements to community solidarity can call forth latent desires for mutual aid.

Ending discrimination and disrespect is central, but how to design policies to accomplish this is a difficult task. How can public policy bolster group respect and self-respect, while reducing disrespect? There is a need for programs that go beyond promoting individual self-esteem to influencing how social identity groups are viewed and treated.

Lessening economic inequalities is crucial, but their decline does not assure that disrespected identity and class groups will automatically experience less disturbing daily experiences. Contrary to the childhood taunt that only sticks and stones hurt, words and deeds do damage, resulting in anger or repression and in blocked access to important economic, social and political resources. Dollars count, but so do group respect and collective self-respect.

S. M. Miller is member of PRRAC’s Board of Directors.

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