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Unite for higher wages

Letter to the Editor | Friday, March 31, 2006

Just this week Notre Dame hosted a conference on white privilege. Generally speaking, white privilege refers to those systemic advantages in this society that members of the white “race” are granted solely on the basis of their membership in that group of people with white-colored skin – without any consideration of individual members‚ aspirations or achievement. Among the many benefits that being white automatically assures a person, perhaps the most significant is the ability to ignore issues of race and racism; that is, to claim colorblindness.

Though it often overlaps with the white kind, there is another, distinct type of privilege system that is just as prevalent in America: it is the one based on socio-economic class. On account of this “rewards” program, people who have money are enabled to ignore those who don’t. Indeed, it is a uniquely moneyed luxury to claim that money doesn’t matter. But this privilege extends further. America’s treasured myth of meritocracy, that Horatio Alger story in which hard work invariably assures success, allows the economically comfortable classes to believe that everything they have is the result of their own hard work – and is completely unrelated to their completely unearned inheritances of all sorts: money, reputation, education, childhood environment, etc. Conversely, this economic fantasy (a fantasy because there is a whole class of jobs in the United States on whose wages alone, no matter how long or hard you work, you cannot survive) also allows the well-off to imagine that if a person and her or his family are poor, it is somehow that person’s fault – even, by some inexplicable stretch of the imagination, if that person is working.

Though my purpose here is to argue for the necessity (a humanitarian, as well as a Christian, necessity) of a living wage for campus workers, I have brought up these issues of race and class-based privileges because I feel that they are extremely pertinent to situation of the living wage campaign here at Notre Dame. More precisely, I am claiming that it is because the majority of the students here come from very well-off families, and because all of the administrators here are financially well-off, that there is not more support for a living wage for campus workers. What I mean by this is that I truly believe that almost every individual associated with this University would like for every other individual associated with this University to have enough to eat, to have access to adequate healthcare, to live in a safe house and area and to afford decent clothes for themselves and their children. But I feel that it is our class-based capacity to deny social and economic injustice, since we ourselves probably have not been victims of it, that permits us to avert our engaged attention away from those people who work here at this school, for us, everyday, and yet who are often unable to keep themselves and their families above that mystical (to us) poverty line.

Since we the students (but also the faculty, the alumni, our parents, etc.) make up this University, if a critical mass of us demanded a living wage for all campus workers, the administration would undoubtedly make this happen. After all, this is not an issue of scant resources, but of budget priorities (think: the new main entranceway). However, our money buys us the privilege, which we accept, of ignoring this matter of inadequate wages and feeling apathetic towards campaigns that try to make the University’s economic policies more humane, more just. But, in truth, a wage system that does not pay each worker enough to survive and to support her or his family on the worker’s income alone is not simply the concern of the workers or of volunteer groups like CLAP – it is a problem for all of us. This University’s economic policies are our own. And if we do not challenge them, we enforce them.

Patrick WalljuniorO’Neill HallMarch 30