Medieval depictions of the bubonic plague often illustrated a “dance of death,” portraying peasants, noblemen, and clergy all equally afflicted by the plague. The current pandemic affects people of all classes too. It made front-page news when actor Tom Hanks (net-worth approximately $400 million) announced he and his wife had contracted COVID-19.
Public opinion about Hanks, a beloved entertainer, is almost universally sympathetic, but attitudes toward the rich as a whole haven’t changed during the pandemic. Wealthy people remain easy targets for social prejudice and mistrust.
The headlines say it all. In GQ last month: “How Are Rich People Getting Richer During the Coronavirus Pandemic?” The month before that in The Atlantic: “It Pays to Be Rich During a Pandemic.” A recent Axios report detailed a smorgasbord of similar stories, all about wealthier individuals fleeing to private islands or using private health care to protect themselves from COVID-19. Axios quoted a progressive scholar who lambasted “an undercurrent of unequal sacrifice.”
Although news is supposed to be unbiased, classism is hard to shake. Supposedly neutral articles about bonuses and salaries often featured sweeping generalizations, along with negative and highly emotive terms such as “greed,” “gambling,” “excess,” “filling their pockets,” and “obscene.”
On the other hand, although Oxfam’s reports on wealth inequality in recent years have been criticized rightly for questionable methodology, widespread coverage of the reports often took their findings at face value. That’s likely because Oxfam’s central claims and the organization’s general thrust against “the super-rich” are closely aligned with much of the media’s editorial viewpoints. Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century received similarly favorable coverage.
It’s not surprising that this media bias reinforces the public’s negative view toward the wealthy. But although researchers have extensively studied other stereotypes and prejudices, very little work has been done to understand prejudice based on social class, and even less has been done on “upward classism.” An international comparative survey measured what people in the United States, Germany, U.K, and France think of the rich. The survey asked questions that identified whether participants had a sense of “social envy.” It turned out that social envy is highest in France, followed by Germany. It is significantly lower in the United States and the U.K, but there’s a caveat: younger Americans were more likely than older Americans to resent and distrust the wealthy, showing that America may soon be like continental Europe in this regard.
Social envy enables scapegoating, or assigning blame to an out-group for societal problems. The comparative survey showed that nearly two-thirds of social enviers tend to scapegoat other groups. Scapegoating depends on a kind of a zero-sum thinking, and many respondents across the nations surveyed agreed that “The more the rich have, the less there is for the poor”–an assumption belied by the way that classes across a society commonly rise and fall together.
Like any other stereotype, these negative views toward the rich discount or ignore the many individuals who are virtuous or working to solve global problems. Unconscious bias toward the rich lumps white-collar criminals and unscrupulous businessmen together with Bill Gates, who created a world-changing computing system and went on to devote much of his fortune toward philanthropy, including hundreds of millions of dollars on Coronavirus research. These biases probably make it easier for people to accept strange conspiracy theories about Gates, such as the idea that he wants to use the pandemic to start a world government, or use vaccines against it to depopulate the world.
Class bias is western society’s unaddressed blind spot. Someone biased on a class basis is only a hop, skip, and jump away from adopting bias toward other groups—especially during a crisis like the current pandemic. Reports of racist behavior toward Asian Americans were widespread as COVID-19 spread. If one blames the rich for society’s problems, it’s no surprise that they’re just as capable of blaming an entire race. Some think classism and racism come from opposite sides of the political spectrum, but that’s not always true. Many episodes of genocide, like those in Rwanda and Cambodia, have had elements of both.
These biases harm society as a whole. If people do not understand the real causes of crises and negative events, choosing instead to believe simple explanations and assign blame to an easy target, this gets in the way of finding real solutions to problems like the current pandemic. Just as we now know that the bubonic plague was spread by rats and fleas, rather than by witches or Jews, we should be able to reject scapegoating in our own time.