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Breaking Rank: Rankism supplants racism for the 21st century
Published on Tuesday, May 10, 2005 by Working for Change
Breaking Rank
Rankism supplants racism for the 21st century
by Byron Williams
"Some men see things as they are and ask why. Others dream things that never were and ask why not" -- George Bernard Shaw

Shaw would be proud of the manner in which Robert Fuller has embraced his words. Fuller's dream simply asks: Why can't we put an end to "rankism?"

In his book "Somebodies and Nobodies: Overcoming the Abuse of Rank," Fuller begins to deconstruct what he defines as the "mother of all isms." Pulitzer Prize winning author Studs Terkel suggests that rankism is the "ism" that is far more encompassing than racism, sexism, or ageism.

Philanthropist Ruth Ann Harnisch, who oversees a family foundation, bought 20,000 copies of "Sombodies and Nobodies" for free distribution. It was at the Dalton Pen Awards ceremony that I recently met Ms. Harnisch and received my copy of "Somebodies and Nobodies."

Fuller, the former president of Oberlin College who now resides in Berkeley, defines rankism as "what somebodies are at liberty to do to nobodies." Rankism is the holding company for all other forms of discrimination; it is the concept that shows us what we are doing when we feel it is acceptable to insult someone's dignity.

Rankism is a doctor abusing a nurse, a boss harassing an employee, or a customer demeaning a server. What makes rankism different from racism is the underlying difference based on perceived power. As Fuller writes: "No one would dare to insult Queen Elizabeth I or General Colin Powell."

Rankism is a pervasive equal opportunity employer that allows most of us to simultaneously be victims as well as perpetrators.

So many of our social sins are based on an association within a group, be it race, gender, or sexual orientation. What makes rankism unique is its ability to transform the victims of the aforementioned groups into "rankists," abusing others based on perceived power, position or social setting.

Fuller's work has inspired the beginnings of a social movement focused on "Dignitarian Politics," which is defined as respecting people's dignity equally regardless of their social rank.

While non-partisan, "Dignitarian Politics" espouses such left-leaning ideals as universal healthcare, a living wage, and equal opportunity for higher education, along with a stake in American capitalism.

But "Dignitarian Politics" is far more concerned with American survival than political ideology.

According to Fuller, "Our political independence is dependent to some degree on our economic independence." He adds, "People who are working three jobs a day, to make ends meet, have no independence. For if they lose just one job, they are out on the streets."

"Somebodies and Nobodies" forces us to see just how dependent we are on one another. An individual picks strawberries for below minimum wage and without healthcare, subsidizing the cost of the fruit for our enjoyment. Meanwhile, we question whether he should have a driver's license in the name of national security.

The worker is dismissed because he is a "nobody" and thus invisible. Like Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man" we see his impact, especially when it benefits us, but his humanity remains unseen.

Fuller sees rankism as analogous to racism.

"The color of the person's skin was not the real cause of racism," he said. "The real cause was to keep a certain group weak enough so that we could exploit them."

For Fuller, "Nobody" is the 21st century version of the N-Word. And like Jim Crow, rankism is seductively used to maintain somebody's notion of a social order.

Rank itself is not the problem. No society could survive without it. The problem, as Fuller points out, is the abuse of rank.

"Somebodies and Nobodies" is the first step to admitting that we have a problem. Once we are able to admit that there is a problem we can then begin the long journey towards becoming recovering rankists.

Byron Williams writes a weekly political/social commentary at Byron serves as pastor of the Resurrection Community Church in Oakland, California.

© 2005 Working Assets Online


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