The Pathology of the Rich White Family
The pathology of the rich white family is the most dangerous pathology in America. The rich white family is cursed with too much money and privilege. It is devoid of empathy, the result of lifetimes of entitlement. It has little sense of loyalty and lacks the capacity for self-sacrifice. Its definition of friendship is reduced to “What can you do for me?” It is possessed by an insatiable lust to increase its fortunes and power. It believes that wealth and privilege confer to it a superior intelligence and virtue. It is infused with an unchecked hedonism and narcissism. And because of all this, it interprets reality through a lens of self-adulation and greed that renders it delusional. The rich white family is a menace. The pathologies of the poor, when set against the pathologies of rich white people, are like a candle set beside the sun.
There are no shortages of acolytes and propagandists for rich white families. They dominate our airwaves. They blame poverty, societal breakdown, urban violence, drug use, domestic abuse and crime on the pathology of poor black families—not that they know any. They argue that poor black families disintegrate because of some inherent defect—here you can read between the lines that white people are better than black people—a defect that these poor families need to fix.
Peddle this simplistic and racist garbage and you will be given a column at The New York Times. It always pays to suck up to rich white families. If you are black and parrot this line, rich white people are overcome with joy. They go to extreme lengths to give you a platform. You can become president or a Supreme Court justice. You can get a television talk show or tenure at a university. You can get money for your foundation. You can publish self-help books. Your films will be funded. You might even be hired to run a company.
Rich white families, their sycophants opine, have tried to help. Rich white families have given poor people numerous resources and government programs to lift them out of poverty. They have provided generous charity. But blacks, they say, along with other poor people of color, are defeated by self-destructive attitudes and behavior. Government programs are therefore wasted on these irresponsible people. Poor families, the sycophants tell us, will not be redeemed until they redeem themselves. We want to help, rich white people say, but poor black people need to pull up their pants, stay in school, get an education, find a job, say no to drugs and respect authority. If they don’t, they deserve what they get. And what the average black family ends up with in economic terms is a nickel for every dollar held by the average white family.
Starting at age 10 as a scholarship student at an elite New England boarding school, I was forced to make a study of the pathology of rich white families. It was not an experience I would recommend. Years later, by choice, I moved to Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood when I was a seminary student. I lived across the street from one of the poorest housing projects in the city, and I ran a small church in the inner city for nearly three years. I already had a deep distaste for rich white families, and that increased greatly after I saw what they did to the disenfranchised. Rich white people, I concluded after my childhood and Roxbury experiences, are sociopaths.
The misery and collapse of community and family in Roxbury were not caused by an inherent pathology within the black family. Rich people who treated the poor like human refuse caused the problems. Layers of institutionalized racism—the courts, the schools, the police, the probation officers, the banks, the easy access to drugs, the endemic unemployment and underemployment, the collapsing infrastructures and the prison system—effectively conspired to make sure the poor remained poor. Drug use, crime and disintegrating families are the result of poverty, not race. Poor whites replicate this behavior. Take away opportunity, infuse lives with despair and hopelessness, and this is what you get. But that is something rich white families do not want people to know. If it were known, the rich would have to take the blame.
Michael Kraus, Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner, social scientists at the University of California, did research that led them to conclude that the poor have more empathy than the rich. The poor, they argued, do not have the ability to dominate their environments. They must build relationships with others to survive. This requires that they be able to read the emotions of those around them and respond. It demands that they look after each other. And this makes them more empathetic. The rich, who can control their environments, do not need to bother with the concerns or emotions of others. They are in charge. What they want gets done. And the longer they live at the center of their own universe, the more callous, insensitive and cruel they become.
The rich white family has an unrivaled aptitude for crime. Members of rich white families run corporations into the ground (think Lehman Brothers), defraud stockholders and investors, sell toxic mortgages as gold-plated investments to pension funds, communities and schools, and then loot the U.S. Treasury when the whole thing implodes. They steal hundreds of millions of dollars on Wall Street through fraud and theft, pay little or no taxes, almost never go to jail, write laws and regulations that legalize their crimes and then are asked to become trustees at elite universities and sit on corporate boards. They set up foundations and are admired as philanthropists. And if they get into legal trouble, they have high-priced lawyers and connections among the political elites to get them out.
You have to hand it to rich white families. They steal with greater finesse than anyone else. If you are a poor black teenager and sprint out of a CVS with a few looted bottles of shampoo, you are likely to be shot in the back or sent to jail for years. If there were an Olympiad for crime, rich white families would sweep up all the medals; blacks would be lucky to come within a mile of the first elimination trial. I don’t know why black people even try to compete in this area. They are, by comparison, utter failures as criminals. The monarchs of crime are rich white people, who wallow in their pilfered wealth while locking away in prisons a huge percentage of poor men of color.
Rich white families are also the most efficient killers on the planet. This has been true for five centuries, starting with the conquest of the Americas and the genocide against Native Americans, and continuing through today’s wars in the Middle East. Rich white families themselves don’t actually kill. They are not about to risk their necks on city streets or in Iraq. They hire people, often poor, to kill for them. Rich white families wanted the petroleum of Iraq and, by waving the flag and spewing patriotic slogans, got a lot of poor kids to join the military and take the oil fields for them. Rich white people wanted endless war for the benefit of their arms industry and got it by calling for a war on terror. Rich white people wanted police to use lethal force against the poor with impunity and to arrest them, swelling U.S. prisons with 25 percent of the world’s prison population, so they set up a system of drug laws and militarized police departments to make it happen.
The beauty of making others kill on your behalf is you get to appear “reasonable” and “nice.” You get to chastise poor people and Muslims for being angry fanatics. You get to spread the message of tolerance with a cherubic smile—which means tolerating the crimes and violence of rich white people. Compare a drive-by shooting in Watts with the saturation bombing of Vietnam. Compare a gangland killing in Chicago with militarized police shooting a person of color almost every day. No one else knows how to churn out corpses like rich white people. One million dead in Iraq alone. And the rich and powerful kill staggering numbers of people and never go to prison. They can retire to a ranch in Crawford, Texas, and paint amateurish portraits of world leaders copied from Google Image Search.
There is no decadence like the decadence of rich white people. I knew a billionaire who in retirement spent his time on a yacht smoking weed and being catered to by a string of high-priced prostitutes. The children of rich white families—surrounded by servants and coddled in private schools, never having to fly on commercial airlines or take public transportation—develop a lassitude, sometimes accompanied by a drug habit, that often leads them to idle away their lives as social parasites. Mothers never have to be mothers. Fathers never have to be fathers. The help does the parenting. The rich live encased in little kingdoms, one guarded by their own private security, where the real world does not intrude. They are cultural philistines preoccupied with acquiring more wealth and more possessions. “Material success,” as C. Wright Mills wrote, “is their sole basis of authority.” They meld into the world of celebrity. And the organs of mass media, which they control, turn them into idols to be worshiped solely because they are rich. Public-relations specialists manufacture their public personas. Teams of lawyers harass and silence their critics. Acolytes affirm their sagacity. They soon believe their own fiction.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan in 1965 wrote what is known as the Moynihan Report, or “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.” The report concluded that “at the heart of the deterioration of the fabric of Negro society is the deterioration of the Negro family.” The oppressed were to blame for their oppression. Social programs alone could not save the poor. The report offers a classic example of a neoliberal economic model repacked as an ideology.
The pathologies of the rich will soon drive us over an economic and ecological cliff. And as we go down, the rich, lacking empathy and understanding, determined to maintain their privilege and their wealth, will use their Praetorian Guard, their mass media, their corporate power, their political puppets and their security and surveillance apparatus to keep us submissive. “The secret of a great success for which you are at a loss to account is a crime that has never been discovered, because it was properly executed,” Honoré de Balzac wrote of the rich in his novel “Le Père Goriot.”
The rich executed a coup d’état that transformed the three branches of the U.S. government and nearly all institutions, including the mass media, into wholly owned subsidiaries of the corporate state. This coup gives the rich the license and the power to amass unimaginable wealth at our expense. It permits the rich to inflict grinding poverty on growing circles of the population. Poverty is the worst of crimes—as George Bernard Shaw wrote, “all the other crimes are virtues beside it.” And the ability of a rapacious power elite to let children go hungry, to let men and women suffer a loss of dignity and self-worth because there are no jobs, to abandon cities to decay and squalor, to toss the mentally ill and the homeless onto the streets, to slash the meager services that give some hope and succor to those who suffer, to lock hundreds of thousands of poor people in cages for years, to wage endless war, to burden students with crushing debt, to unleash state terror and to extinguish hope among the least fortunate exposes our wealthy oligarchs as the most dangerous and destructive force in America.
Chris Hedges, whose column is published Mondays on Truthdig, has written twelve books, including the New York Times best seller “Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt” (2012), which he co-authored with the cartoonist Joe Sacco.