Much effort was expended in 19th and 20th century America to account for the differences between various groups of people, specifically their presumed superiority or inferiority. Oddly, most were concerned only with the so-called white races of Europe, and both African and Asian peoples were left out of the equation.
The differences were supposedly differences of intelligence, beauty, criminality, slovenliness, etc. They relied on skull measurements, height, and subjective judgments of beauty. In every such scheme, newer immigrants and people of darker color came out on the low end, and their improvement over time with improved social conditions occurred later. When the next shipment of miserable immigrants arrived, the elevation of the previous inferior people was not recognized. The newest immigrants were always seen as inferior. No theorist saw the obvious, that improved social conditions improved everything else.
Instead, all these pseudo-scientific studies played into the hands of racists and supremacists, and the badly argued tenets of eugenics, culminating with Hitler and the Holocaust.
Much of the fuss of 19th and 20th century categorizations centered in the US around what to do about these “inferior” people. Involuntary sterilization for criminals, the “feeble-minded”, prostitutes, etc., never got off the ground, in the end because it didn’t address the issue, because “undesirables” were later found to be desirables before they could be sterilized, and because such steps are simply immoral.
Do we know better today? Not at all. As of this writing, Arizona and several other states are trying to bring forth laws that target Latinos for harassment and persecution. Latinos, the latest group to be presumed inferior, may now be stopped by the police essentially because they look Latino. The police may bring them in for interrogation if they don’t have some sort of citizenship papers on them. The parallel between this and Hitler’s various requirements for Jews and other presumed undesirables is unsettling.
To us in this latter day of instant communications, in which we are increasingly witness to well-lived lives among every human group on Earth, it is obvious to thinking people, and should have been even to the social scientists a century ago: all groups of people are equally capable of living useful lives and making significant contributions to society when opportunities are the same for all. In order to maximize every person’s contribution, we must structure society so that opportunities are the same for all people. This is the opposite of what conservatives want to accomplish. They want every individual to tackle the project by himself.
This achievement is not so easily done at any rate. For one thing, opportunity means different things to different people. Some Americans had languished at the fringes of society for generations, with low living standards, high crime rates, and other social ills. This was true for various groups at different times. Some saw no opportunity for improvement, but a recent demonstration that it is not true arrived with a new wave of Russian immigrants in the 1980s. After more than seventy years of Soviet oppression, they saw themselves surrounded by opportunity, and soon proved it with numerous successful businesses.
Race, or perceived race, is still a powerful element in everyone’s thinking, but social class is more significant in many ways. It was always more significant than most people believed, particularly the moneyed, who buy into the conservative belief that those who are rich or are members of the ruling class are so because they are inherently superior. This belief comes to us by way of conservative writers of the 17th century, and is regularly trotted forth by Republicans.
Social class is probably well above perceptions of race in significance for social opportunity. Poverty begets poverty, and breaking that cycle has proven profoundly difficult. Some noble efforts have been made, such as the guarantee given by one wealthy man to a class of third graders in an urban school. He would personally pay for college for each of them, whereupon, in due time, a large percentage of them did successfully complete college. This was in marked contrast to other classes in the same school.
There have been broader attempts to provide opportunity to children of the poor, most of them reasonably successful. They include a number of state and federal initiatives. But all such steps require significant financial investment. It is relatively easy to show that the social profit vastly exceeds the social expenditure, but it is still difficult to get the funds designated for the cause. We are profoundly hypocritical about education, extolling its virtues, shortchanging the reality. But a more important element without doubt is the general health of the economy. When the economy is robust, funds can be forthcoming. When it is not, they are withdrawn.
There is ordinarily about a decade between peaks or troughs of the economy, and the cycling of educational support that follows the ups and downs of the economy creates great problems for education, and therefore also for the education of the poor. One cannot eviscerate a strong school program in art or science, say, and expect the program to pick up where it was when funds are restored a few years later. Slashing education programs is more or less permanent. The present budget mess will be felt for decades.
Banishing socio-racial differences may never be perfectly achieved, but the only way to do it is with large, centralized programs. This goal goes against a primary principle of conservatism, which says that the individual must be totally responsible for how his life plays out. Maybe that would make sense if everyone started from the same place, but that has never been true. Rich conservatives begin life with a huge advantage, then assume they are superior because of it. Making the necessary changes to level the playing field would cost lots and lots of money. But it’s been shown time and time again that not doing so costs lots and lots more.