Why breaking the glass ceiling doesn’t work better

Sam Smith

It is part of the myth of America that breaking the glass ceiling is the best way for those suffering discrimination to get ahead. The problem with this metaphor is that you already have to have some elevation to even get near the glass ceiling. The vast majority of blacks and women, for example, need to break through innumerable locked doors before they can even think about the ceiling.

Now we have a black who has broken the glass ceiling and a woman on the cusp of it. And what do we find? In the case of Obama, there is no evidence that his election has helped blacks in any significant way. In fact, there is a general assumption that ethnic conflict has increased in recent years. With Hillary Clinton, despite her popularity with successful liberals, there is little evidence that her rise has had much positive impact on ordinary women.

In fact, in both cases, labor unions and the civil rights movement have been vastly more useful. As unionist Liz Shuler noted:

Women in unions are more likely than their nonunion peers to have access to paid sick leave and family leave. Collective bargaining through unions also narrows the pay gap between men and women significantly. A typical woman union member earns $222 a week more than a nonunion woman and is far more likely to have health and retirement security. This puts upward pressure on wages and benefits throughout industries that are predominately female, many of which traditionally pay low wages. Every worker deserves to have protections on the job, and it is the goal of the labor movement to ensure that happens.

This gets virtually no attention in the media which prefers to obsess over the significance of an Obama or Clinton being the first of their category to be president.

This is not to say that having a black or woman president is not a grossly delayed and highly desirable development. But it shouldn’t wipe out all public attention to movements, unions and other vastly more useful approaches to change.

Further, we live in a time when symbolism and semiotics constantly triumph over reality. Thus Barack Obama is hailed as our first black president when, in fact, he spent less time with a black parent than he did at the Harvard Law School. Much as we claim to despise racism, we still give more importance to our president’s skin color than we do to the culture in which he actually lived.

And thus a woman who had three close business partners go to prison, who was on the board of Walmart (hardly a role model for treatment of female workers), and who has found herself in more scandals than all but a few national politicians (such as her husband), gets away with accusing those who dare to criticize her as haters.

Among the main causes of this denial of reality – and it’s hardly limited to a few politicians – are the media and the public relations industry that lives off of it.

The mere fact that this year’s conventions have been so obsessed with the personalities involved rather than the issues and policies that used to be central at such gatherings is another sign that the distortion is getting ever worse.

The media teaches us to put our time and hope in the first black or woman president rather than in the economic and social fate of millions of those of their ethnicity or gender. And the results, although you won’t hear it on TV, are not that surprising. We are drugged by symbols as reality continues to suffers.



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