Presidential daughter Ivanka Trump gave a lot of people a good laugh this week when she appeared on Fox News and criticized the Green New Deal proposed by Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez because it includes support for basic income programs.
“I don’t think Americans, in their heart, want to be given something,” Trump said. “I’ve spent a lot of time traveling around this country over the last four years. People want to work for what they get.”
The irony of her statement was impossible for pundits and late-night talk show hosts to ignore. “Are you shitting me right now?” Trevor Noah said on The Daily Show. “Ivanka Trump says the thing she’s learned in life is that people want to work for what they get? Really? The woman whose résumé just says, ‘Daddy, I need job now?’”
Arguably, however, there’s a touch of hypocrisy in the outrage expressed by the many liberals who pounced on Trump’s ridiculous comment. Acknowledging the benefits of being born into the right class is hardly the first daughter’s struggle alone. She apparently is a victim of a belief that’s held by many professionals of middle-class or wealthy backgrounds, even those with strong progressive politics: not necessarily that the poor get what they deserve, but that they themselves, personally, earned their high-status, prestigious jobs.
That this isn’t really true is a painful reality for some people to acknowledge. British sociologists Sam Friedman and Daniel Laurison, authors of a new book, The Class Ceiling: Why it pays to be privileged, touched on this sensitive point in a recent conversation with The Atlantic. Researching their book, the pair interviewed 175 people in four elite professions: television broadcasting, accounting (at a multinational firm), architecture, and acting. All of the jobs generally required money, connections, the right addresses, and more, for one to break in and find success, but as the Atlantic points out, the interviewees downplayed the role class had played in their achievements.
“In both the US and the UK, there’s a really strong, widely shared implicit belief—in the US, it’s the American dream—that success and worth are nearly identical, that if you are really rich, you must be really smart and hardworking, and if you are poor, you must have messed up in some really big way,” Laurison said. “People want to believe that they got where they are because they’re smart and talented. And that’s often true to some extent, but it’s also true that there’s any number of people who are probably equally smart and talented who are not in their positions, because of the barriers that are erected.”
This possibility, he emphasized, is tough on one’s ego: “It’s hard to sit with the idea that maybe somebody else deserves to be where they are more than they do,” he continued, “and I think almost everybody wants to be able to tell a story of making it on their own.”
How we think about class is a complicated topic that overlaps with issues of race, gender, and other differences, and contains many of the same perplexing questions and structural obstacles. It’s also a topic whose time has arrived: The tension around class inclusion in workplaces is only bound to intensify as huge numbers of “first-generation” college students—those who were first in their family to go to college—graduate and begin looking for work.
If these conversations happen, things are going to get awkward, partly because of the psychological impact. “[F]or a lot of people, examining the ways that privileges you have are unearned is the same thing as saying ‘You are bad’ or ‘You don’t deserve anything,’” Laurison told the Atlantic.
It’s true that many successful people are very good at their jobs, he and his co-author noted. And people in these roles generally do have the education their jobs demand. At the same time, they often get their first jobs because of strings pulled and calls made on their behalf, or perhaps they took low or unpaid internships because their parents would help them pay rent. Furthermore, once they landed a job in their chosen field, they knew exactly how to behave, where to vacation, what to wear, and so on, to fit in and therefore get ahead. (At a minimum, the quality of their education was most likely determined mainly by their parents’ income.)
It’s easy to vilify Ivanka, but too easy to stop there. However fearful and unpracticed we are at unpacking this subject, this may be a moment for those who already hold plum jobs to think about whether they aren’t—to varying degrees—just as blind to their privilege as Trump is to hers.