I’m in Nashville with Debi, who is attending a professional conference. I have plenty to do to keep me busy, but I thought I’d read outside to enjoy the good weather rather than sit, cooped up, in our hotel room. I checked a local map and found a park by the river just a couple of blocks from our hotel. When I walked down to it with the textbook I’m reading for a class I’m teaching next quarter I noticed a number of homeless people walking through the park. There were other people walking through the park as well and I didn’t really give it a second thought. I found a nice, grassy location under a tree and sat down to read.
About an hour later, just as I was getting ready to go to lunch, I noticed two of the homeless men were walking toward where I was sitting. I looked up and listened in to their conversation. I couldn’t hear much and wasn’t really paying attention, but they noticed me observing them and they raised their voices so I could hear what they were saying. I’m still not sure what it was, but their conversation was laced with the word “nigger.” When they got close enough to me, one turned to me and said, “Lots of niggers around here, aren’t there? They’re all over the place.” My response? I just kind of shrugged.
Now, there are several interesting things going on here from a sociological perspective that immediately occurred to me (there are probably more, but these are the ones that hit me right away). First, of course, is that I didn’t even bother to say anything to them about what most would consider inappropriate language. I immediately rationalized this by saying to myself, “They were walking too fast and what good would it have done anyway?” I don’t think anyone would hold that reasoning against me, but it bothered me nonetheless.
After I reconciled my inaction, I had another, more interesting thought… Most social groups have a tendency to look for out-groups (groups to which they do not belong) to find a category of people they consider inferior, often in an effort to bolster their self-esteem or sense of self-worth. This is probably not true of all social groups, but it does seem to be true of most. In this case, these two, middle-aged, white, homeless men who were probably carrying all of their possessions with them on their backs looked to blacks as their “inferior out-group.” I thought, “How interesting… To many people, the homeless are one of the “inferior out-groups” that they use to bolster their self-esteem (e.g., “At least I’m not homeless.”).” Here I saw that the homeless still engage in self-esteem boosting by criticizing an out-group. Certainly this was not conscious on their part, and there are probably all sorts of complicating factors, including complex life histories for both of these men. Even so, I found the entire experience fascinating.
It is a human tendency to find “inferior out-groups” regardless of one’s social position. The really fascinating thing is that all social groups find “inferior” out-groups despite no humans being, of course, inferior. But the fact that all social groups do this actually indicates that no social group is “inferior” as there is no group of humans that considers itself completely inferior. It’s kind of like an M.C. Escher painting, where the stairways all go up even though you know they can’t all go up because of the way they are drawn. If all groups have an inferior, then all groups are both inferior and superior…