'Somebodies and Nobodies': Rank the New Racism?

Cover for 'Somebodies and Nobodies: Overcoming the Abuse of Rank'

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The Abu Ghraib prison scandal, clergy sex abuse and corporate corruption have all made headline news. Are such abuses forms of discrimination — based on distinctions of rank in business or society — even more severe than racism? NPR's Tavis Smiley talks with Robert Fuller, author of Somebodies and Nobodies: Overcoming the Abuse of Rank.

From Somebodies and Nobodies: Overcoming the Abuse of Rank (New Society Publishers 2004):

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Rank is generally less conspicuous than race or gender, but every bit as consequential. No sooner do people meet, than they begin probing to determine each other's rank.

"What do you do?" Who hasn't been asked the soft question with the hard edge? Depending on our answer, our interrogator may treat us with deference or disregard. Rank entitles, and it limits. It's a source of pride, and of shame. We struggle for rank, and if we get it, we hang on. People will die in defense of their rank.

Tribal and national groups also covet rank. Over the course of history a succession of people — for example, the Romans, the French, the British and the Americans — have prided themselves on being "Number One."

In everyday life, rank indicates position in a hierarchy, and it is expressed in a title. Our title signals our authority. It is as a signifier of power that rank acquires the extraordinary importance we attach to it.

When we think of rank, we may think first of the military, but rank is no less important in other hierarchies. In the traditional family, children are outranked by parents, and in some cultures the first-born outranks siblings. In the trades, we begin as an apprentice, rise to journeyman, and strive to become a master craftsman. In the firm, there are secretaries, bossed at every level, vice-presidents, and a chief executive officer. In academia, students are taught by instructors, assistant professors, associate professors, and, at the top of the academic ladder, "full" professors. Presiding over the faculty are the deans, provosts, vice-presidents, and a president. In medicine, patients are ministered to by health care providers whose ranks include patient care technicians, licensed practical nurses, registered nurses, interns, residents, and doctors.

Ranks are further subdivided with qualifiers such as "administrative," "associate," "senior," "managing," or "executive," or by adding suffixes such as "at Large" or "in Chief." Titles, and the ranks they distinguish, are important to us because they tell use who rules and who is expected to submit to whom.

Quite apart from our rank in the workplace, there is a more nebulous social rank — often referred to as "class" — that clings to us and defines our status in society at large. Social rank is inferred from attributes like connections, clothes, school ties, looks, talent, and wealth. Usually, high social rank carries advantages and low social rank functions as a handicap. In aristocratic societies, like Edwardian Britain, class was everything.

In the past, certain traits were tantamount to low, or at least dubious, social rank — traits like color, national origin, religion, wealth, and pedigree. Other characteristics such as gender, age, sexual orientation, and disability have also made their carriers vulnerable to abuse and discrimination,. One by one, these have all been eliminated as justification for discrimination. The only criterion that still sanctions abuse and discrimination is rank itself.

The reason that rankism has outlasted these familiar forms of abuse and discrimination is that rank, when it has been earned, is a measure of excellence, and distinguishing degrees of excellence is vital to the success of any human enterprise. Thus, rank itself is not inherently illegitimate as a carrier of power. Organizing ourselves to work cooperatively has always depended on ranking people and giving some authority over others.

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