Clearly, such intraracial and intragender abuses can't easily be accounted for within the usual trait-centered analyses. One approach is to account for black-on-black prejudice--sometimes called colorism--in terms of the "internalization of white oppression." But this explains one malady (black racism) in terms of another (white racism) and brings us no closer to a remedy for either. If the goal is to end racism of all kinds, it's more fruitful to see both inter- and intraracial discrimination as based on differences in power--that is, on who holds the higher position in a particular setting and therefore commands an advantage that forces victims to submit to their authority.
Viewing things in terms of power instead of color, gender, and so on is not intended to divorce the dynamics of racial or other forms of prejudice from the specific justifications that particular groups of somebodies use to buttress their claims to supremacy. But it does direct our attention to the real source of ongoing domination--a power advantage--and suggests that we'll end social subordination of every kind only as we disallow abuse stemming from simply having high enough rank to get away with it.
As the implications of all this sank in I realized that, as with the familiar liberation causes, abuse of the power associated with rank could not be effectively addressed so long as there was no name for it. Absent one, nobodies were in a position similar to that of women before the term sexism was coined. Writing The Feminine Mystique in 1963, Betty Friedan characterized the plight of women as "the problem that has no name." By 1968, the problem had acquired one: sexism. That simple word intensified consciousness-raising and debate and provided a rallying cry for a movement to oppose power abuse linked to gender.
A similar dynamic has played out with other identity groups seeking redress of their grievances. Those discriminated against on the basis of their race unified against racism. The elderly targeted ageism. By analogy, I adopted the term rankism to describe abuses of power associated with rank.
The coinage rankism is related to the colloquialisms pulling rank and ranking on someone, both of which bear witness to the signal importance of rank in human interactions. It is also worth noting that as an adjective, rank means foul, fetid, or smelly, and the verb to rankle means to cause resentment or bitterness. Although there is no etymological relationship between these usages and the word rank in the sense of position in a hierarchy, it's fitting that the word rankism picks up by association the mal-odor of its sound-alikes.
Rank can refer to either rank in society generally (social rank) or rank in a more narrowly defined context (such as within an institution or family). Thus, rankism occurs not just between and within social identity groups but in schools, businesses, health care organizations, religious institutions, the military, and government bureaucracies as well. Indeed, since most organizations are hierarchical and hierarchies are built around gradations of power, it comes as no surprise that they are breeding grounds for rank-based abuse.
Examples from everyday life include a boss harassing an employee, a doctor demeaning a nurse, a professor exploiting a graduate student, and students bullying each other. On a societal scale are headline-making stories of political and corporate corruption, sexual abuse by members of the clergy, and the maltreatment of elders in nursing homes. Photos of the humiliation of Iraqi prisoners by their guards gave the entire world a look at rankism's arrogant face.Hurricane Katrina made visible its most common victims. The wealthy and connected, even those of moderate means, got out of New Orleans ahead of time. The poor, the sick, prisoners, the old, and those lacking transportation were trapped by nature's fury and then left to cope on their own during days of inaction by government officials and agencies. The inadequacies of the initial government response have since been compounded by another, deeply ingrained form of rankism--the regionalism that, since the Civil War, has manifested as the North holding itself superior to the South.
In addition to its universality, rankism differs from the familiar trait-based abuses because rank is not fixed the way race and gender generally are, but rather changes depending on the context. Someone can hold high rank in one setting (for example, at home) and simultaneously be low on the totem pole in another (at work). Likewise, we can feel powerful at one time and powerless at another, as when we move from childhood to adulthood and then from our "prime" into old age, or when we experience the loss of a job, a partner, or our health. As a result, most of us have been both victims and perpetrators of discrimination based on rank.
In summary, rankism occurs when those with authority use the power of their position to secure unwarranted advantages or benefits for themselves at the expense of others. It is the illegitimate use of rank, and equally, the use of rank illegitimately acquired or held. The familiar isms are all examples of the latter form. They are based on the construction and maintenance of differences in social rank that violate constitutional guarantees of equal protection under the law.
The relationship between rankism and the specific isms targeted by identity politics can be compared to that between cancer and its subspecies. For centuries the group of diseases that are now all seen as varieties of cancer were regarded as distinct illnesses. No one realized that lung, breast, and other organ-specific cancers all had their origins in a similar kind of cellular malfunction. In this metaphor, racism, sexism, homophobia, and other varieties of prejudice are analogous to organ-specific cancers and rankism is the blanket malady analogous to cancer itself. The familiar isms are subspecies of rankism. Just as medicine is now exploring grand strategies that will be applicable to all kinds of cancer, so too it may be more effective at this point to raise our sights and attack rankism itself rather than focusing on its individual varieties one by one.
Another analogy is to waves in water. You can look at racism, ageism, classism, homophobia, and so on as waves, or you can focus on the water of rankism. Neither perspective makes the other an optical illusion.
Presently, backlash threatens the hard-won gains of the firmly established
civil rights and women's movements as well as the more nascent ones such as the movement for people with disabilities or the GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender) movement.Moreover, identity politics generally is running into diminishing returns. Could it be that to complete the eradication of the familiar isms,we will have to include everyone--somebodies and nobodies alike--and redirect our attack onto the rankism that afflicts us all?
The Dignitarian Perspective
I almost never make it through an interview or a talk without being asked, "Are you proposing that we do away with rank?" It is crucial to understand that rank itself is not necessarily a problem. Unless rank is inherently illegitimate--as are, for example, the social rankings that have made second-class citizens of various identity groups--then the problem is not with rank per se but rather with the abuse of rank. This distinction goes to the heart of many of the most vexing issues that arise in our personal lives, society, and national politics.
The confusion occurs because rank is so commonly misused that many people mistakenly conclude that the only remedy is to abolish it. This makes no more sense than attempting to solve racial problems by doing away with all races but one, or addressing gender issues by eliminating one gender. Ignoring differences in aptitude, ability, and performance and attempting to eradicate the differences of rank that reflect them has repeatedly failed those who have tried it. The socialists of nineteenth-century Europe and the communists of the twentieth century disappointed their supporters. And when egalitarian ideologies did prevail, those leaderships typically imposed even worse tyrannies than the ones they replaced.