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Why Do You Not Hear More About Rich Privilege?

I have heard and read many references to white privilege and male privilege over the past several years.

These seem to be the only types of privilege that socially progressive people talk about and disparage.

Although I sometimes think these phrases are overused, I don’t disagree that our American society still struggles to level the playing field of privilege by abolishing unearned privilege.

Being white and being male should not give one special rights or privileges; social privilege should be earned, not enjoyed just because of one’s unearned status.

But my concern here is not to examine or criticize the terms “white privilege” or “male privilege” but to raise this question: What about rich privilege?

It seems to me that, in contemporary American society, having wealth, or appearing to have wealth, gives one automatic privileged status over being white or male. In other words, a non-white female will enjoy unearned privilege merely for being rich (or appearing convincingly to be rich).

Recently, I visited a major U.S. international airport to board a flight to another one. For some reason, the airlines are permitted by the airport – a public facility supported largely by taxes – to have separate lines for ticketed passengers going through security.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is most definitely a public agency that should not show favoritism to people.

And yet, for the first time, I saw that the TSA had two security stands set up to examine passengers’ identifications and boarding passes before going through security toward their gates.

One stand was solely for the “premium passengers,” and the other one was solely for the rest of us.

Of course, that meant that many people went through the initial security screening and into the X-ray screening area more quickly – just because they held premium tickets.

This is clearly, unequivocally favoritism shown by our government for rich people. Yes, I know, some premium tickets are held for other reasons, but most are obtained by paying a higher price for a flight, such as first class.

It did not matter what race or gender a person was, if he or she held a premium ticket and was allowed into the premium passengers line by the airline-paid monitor, he or she got through security more quickly simply by virtue of having more money.

This is a very minor example of what I am here calling rich privilege. Some may quibble that rich privilege is by definition earned privilege. In some cases and in some contexts, it is.

But not when it comes to government services; our government should be blind to wealth when it comes to granting services offered to the public that are paid for by tax dollars.

A much greater example of unearned and undeserved rich privilege is evident in our justice system.

Anyone who pays attention to it knows that rich people are much more likely to get justice than poor people or even middle-class people.

Be that as it may, there can be little or no doubt that rich privilege is evident across the board in American society.

Just being affluent (or being perceived to be affluent) paves the way for special treatment everywhere. An affluent African-American and an affluent woman are more likely to be treated especially well than a poor white male.

Male privilege and white privilege are real, but why is there not more negative attention given to rich privilege?

I suspect it is because our social disposition is inclined across the board to respect wealth.

We may envy and even resent the rich, but we still kowtow to them. Or, if we don’t kowtow to them, we ignore the way others kowtow to them, including public employees and officials.

As a lifelong churchgoer, having been a member of at least 12 churches in my lifetime, I have seen rich privilege at work in most churches even though it is specifically condemned in the New Testament (James 2).

As we Americans seek to level the playing fields of opportunity by abolishing white privilege and male privilege, let us also acknowledge the reality of rich privilege and protest when we see it displayed.

I have made a point, for example, of complaining to TSA supervisors at airports when I have seen security personnel giving special privilege to passengers with premium tickets.

TSA supervisors have told me that I am correct in thinking that TSA personnel should not do that in any manner and yet I see it almost every time I fly.

One time recently, at a major U.S. international airport, there was no airline monitor “guarding” the premium line leading up to the initial security stand where the TSA checks identification and boarding passes.

A young woman walked up that premium line to the TSA stand and was turned back because the TSA guard saw that her ticket was not premium.

His supervisor assured me that this was his error, but the next time I went through that same TSA checkpoint I asked a guard at the initial stand if he would turn away people who walked up to the premium passenger line without a premium ticket. He said he would.

I informed him of what his supervisor had told me earlier, and he just shrugged and said he considered it his duty to monitor the lines for the airlines.

That is rich privilege shown by our government even if it is not intentionally thought of as such. People who enjoy white privilege and male privilege almost never think of it as such.

So what do I suggest we do about this?

First, churches and Christian organizations ought to examine their habits based on dispositions toward people and abolish all hints of rich privilege.

Clearly this is the message of the Epistle of James in the New Testament (see chapter 2).

For example, a person should not be made a lay leader just because he or she appears to be affluent.

One Christian nonprofit organization I know of (and all Americans would recognize its name if I mentioned it here) requires members to be owners of their own businesses. Ordinary working people, to say nothing of people on welfare, are not even considered for membership.

Second, American citizens should protest when our governments show any favoritism toward people based on their economic status (or perception of such).

Roger Olson is the Foy Valentine professor of Christian theology and ethics at George W. Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas. He is the author of numerous books, including “Counterfeit Christianity” and “The Story of Christian Theology.” This article is edited from a version that first appeared on his blog. It is used with permission.