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Writer Garret Keizer on how we discuss inequity: We change the language, but not the conditions

Man in white tshirt with beard looking down, autumn trees all around
Erica Heilman
Vermont Public
Garret Keizer says there are people of means who are arguing for better distribution of wealth, but they are the exception rather than the rule.

In 2023, around 70% of the total wealth in this country was owned by the top 10% of earners. The lowest 50% of earners only owned 2.5% of the total wealth.

In this story, Vermont writer and poet Garret Keizer, who has written extensively on the history of labor unions, talks about what happens when we address gender and race equity, but we ignore income inequality.

"What class are you?" is an occasional series from Vermont Public reporter Erica Heilman. In it, she talks with people from all sorts of backgrounds about money and class and privilege.

Find the other installments of the "What class are you?" series here.

This interview was produced for the ear. We highly recommend listening to the audio. We’ve also provided a transcript, which has been edited for length and clarity.

Garret Keizer: There are good historical reasons why certain groups feel that they need to organize around their identity. But I think that the most effective vehicle for social change is located at the production level of society. You get a million and a half workers on strike, as we had in the great strike wave of 1945,46, you can shut down the whole society or close to it. That is a more powerful vehicle for effecting change. Our politicians very much would like us to deflect our anger from the people actually exploiting us to groups of people. You know, let's pick on trans people, let's pick on the Mexicans. But nevermind the CEO who's making 344 times what the average worker is, and who's using his or her wealth to make sure that that inequity not only stays as it is, but becomes worse. There are people of means who are arguing for better distribution of wealth, but I think they are the exception rather than the rule.

Erica Heilman: What happens if we ignore class?

Garret Keizer: You know, what happens if we address those other issues, which we've made great strides doing in Vermont, but we neglect class? First of all, the benefits of those positive moves we make tend to be distributed inequitably, the way everything else is distributed according to class, so that we're talking about how many women are on the executive board of Goldman Sachs — which is an important thing to talk about. How many people of color are up for Academy Awards? But we're not talking about how many people of color, how many women how many kids can get their teeth fixed, or have enough to eat etc.

We also tend to take matters of justice and discuss them in terms of etiquette and attitude, rather than dollars and cents. In other words, instead of changing the structures that make for poverty and inequality, we’ll change the way we talk about it. I remember once when I was working with an editor on a piece I was writing, and I mentioned people were poor and didn't have teeth. And he said to me, ‘You know, some people will be offended by your mentioning that.’ And I smiled to myself and said 'This is really the way the things go in our society. We will be very sensitive about people without teeth, because it's a heck of a lot cheaper than providing them with dental insurance.' So we change the language, we change the pronouns, but we don't change the conditions under which people live.

So if, for example, you are a working class, gay Vermonter, you can have a pride parade in Burlington. And that's a beautiful thing. Long live the Pride Parade in Burlington. But you can't live in Burlington, because the rents are through the roof, the landlords are laughing all the way to the bank, and you make a little over $13 an hour in a state where the livable wage is estimated at just under $18 an hour. So go to your parade. Have a good time. But make sure you're out of town by sundown because except for a park bench or a homeless shelter, you don't have a place to lay your head.

We are hungry and thirsty for any subject that we can talk about without talking about the one that's staring us in our faces, which is the gross economic inequality and the class inequality, that's hardwired into our system. Let's change anything but that, please! Because changing that might mean that I have to give something up. Changing that system might mean that I have to have a little less of something so someone else can have a little more. But I don't want to have a little less. I want to have a little more.

Erica Heilman: Are you scared of having less?

Garret Keizer: No, I'm not really scared of having less, because I just don't think it's likely to happen.

Erica Heilman: Yeah, but if you had to have less, would you be afraid?

Garret Keizer: I would not be afraid up to a point, because my needs are relatively simple. And I have, right now, more than enough to meet those needs. The flipside of the fear that you mentioned, and let's face it, I'm afraid of any kind of change. My wife talks about rearranging the furniture in the living room and I'm afraid. So deep, structural change? Sure I'm afraid. But the other side of that fear, which I wish we visited more often, is what a world, how beautiful a world could be, in which some of those inequalities and injustices were eliminated. I mean, imagine sitting down to a meal at your favorite restaurant in Vermont, or just at your kitchen table in Vermont, looking out the window at the mountains and the valleys and the beauty of the landscape, and knowing for a fact that none of those hollows and on none of those mountains, there was a single hungry child. There wasn't a single couple at odds with each other because there wasn't enough money to meet the household bills. Imagine how your dinner would taste. Imagine how your wine would taste. Like the food of angels.

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Erica Heilman produces a podcast called Rumble Strip. Her shows have aired on NPR’s Day to Day, Hearing Voices, SOUNDPRINT, KCRW’s UnFictional, BBC Podcast Radio Hour, CBC Podcast Playlist and on public radio affiliates across the country. Rumble Strip airs monthly on Vermont Public. She lives in East Calais, Vermont.
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