Friday, August 27, 2010

Inequality and the problem of "equal rights"

Gail Collins, New York Times:

[I]f feminism simply means supporting equal rights and equal opportunities for women, I don’t see how a feminist can be opposed to government programs that provide poor working mothers with quality child care.

"Equal rights and equal opportunities" are in fact rather conservative concepts when viewed through the inequality of class and other relations.

"Equal rights" in this context is a political concept: it refers to one's relation to the state. To have equal rights means that the government will give all citizens equal consideration in the administration of their affairs.

A good example of this is the present fight over marriage. One side argues for equal rights, the other side against. The gay community advances a conservative position by appealing to the Constitution, their opponents push a "moral" argument by appealing to the Bible.

Similarly, "equal rights for women" means that the government gives women the same consideration it gives men: it acknowledges their right to vote, it defends their right to own property, it lets them seek restitution through the courts, etc. The state treats them equally as citizens, and affords them rights as citizens.

"Equal opportunity," on the other hand, refers to economic relations: it is the right to be considered without prejudice for a job, for example. In theory, a principle of equality of opportunity could be read expansively to mean equal access to resources; in practice, it is read narrowly as "non-discrimination" in the workplace -- a reflection of organized social power around employer preferences.

Equality of opportunity means equality vis-a-vis a particular standard of opportunity. It could be no opportunity, but as long such lack of opportunity is fairly maintained, equality of opportunity has been fulfilled.

This gets at the difficulty of using "equal rights and equal opportunities" as measure of progress within class societies: by definition, some classes have more rights and opportunities than others.

In fact, many rights only become meaningful in conjunction with a particular class position. Rich people can put rights like freedom of speech and due process to work in ways that poor people can't; men might be "most qualified" for a job insofar as they won't become pregnant; the right to vote for African-Americans hasn't translated into an unemployment rate less than 50% greater than the nation as a whole. By itself, an equality of rights doesn't tell us anything about outcomes -- what something actually means for people -- which is one of reasons why it is insufficient as a principle for addressing people's needs.

* * *

When it comes to government programs, for lack of anything else, what Gail Collins says is true enough. We need something that will address these problems, as opposed to nothing.

However, it is perfectly possible to be opposed to government programs in principle and feminist if you endorse something else -- e.g., something that is more likely to address women's concerns than a government program. It might be something designed and implemented by women, for example. "Government programs" typically aren't.

Suffice it to say that in the meantime something has to be extended to people in need -- and it deserves to be developed to a point beyond what a state agency can likely sustain: the point at which people achieve meaningful control over their lives. This is the outcome we should be working toward.


d.mantis said...

Any suggestions/examples would be greatly appreciated.

It infuriates me when I hear folks talking about how the less-fortunate expect the government to take care of them. The issue is one of necessity not expectation.

When I was a young lad, my mother and I were on food stamps. It was not tailored to our needs, but it got the job done. Plus, there didn't seem to be any other game in town.

Anonymous said...

Each libertarian I've met is a white male who grew up enjoying unequal rights. They each insist that any American can thrive through the steady application of elbow grease & boot straps! It's that simple!

JRB said...

This comes from Color of Violence: The Incite! Anthology:

Not surprisingly, poor women, women of color, and their communities are among the groups impacted most harshly by the domestic violence movement's overreliance on the state. As Angela Davis pointed out during her keynote address at the historic Color of Violence Conference in 2000, "...the primary strategies for addressing violence against women rely on the state and and on constructing gendered assaults on women as 'crimes,' the criminalization process further bolsters the racism of the courts and prisons. Those institutions, in turn, further contribute to violence against women. I suggest that we focus our thinking on this contradiction: Can a state that is thoroughly infused with racism, male-dominance, class-bias, and homophobi, and that constructs itself in and through violence, act to minimize violence in the lives of women?"

Andrea Smith voices some of the same sentiments [as others]: "As the antiviolence movement has gained greater public prominence, domestic violence and rape crisis centers have become increasingly professionalized to receive accreditation and funding from state and federal agencies." Smith continues, "Rather than develop peer-based services in which large groups of women can participate, they [domestic violence and rape crisis centers] employ individuals with proper academic degrees or credentials. This practice excludes most women from full participation, particularly women of color and poor women."

d.mantis said...

Ahhh, I think I see your point on the domestic violence/systemic racist criminalization side. The state is very good at assigning you a number, but counseling you on life or death questions...ehh not so much.

I thought by "Government programs" you were discussing housing projects, food stamps etc. My point was that there is not alot of choice out there for the truly desperate.

Programs that are designed to increase the efficacy of poor people would be great rather than just filling out forms and getting a check. I just think the rhetoric is not "how do we make this better" but always "they're broken so get rid of them."