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How the Woke were Awoken

[Edit: Looking back on this, I think I undersell the role of the internet in fostering distrustful and anti-institutional politics. It has such a tendency to pull back hoods, and outrage is the handmaiden of virality. So, take the below as a hypothesis for why one distrustful politic emerged where it did, not a general theory of ideology in the last decade.]

Alright, everybody’s woke now. Twitter has been almost entirely consumed by Wes Yang types deriding this shift in cultural attitudes and Jamelle Bouie types deriding the Was Yangs for tiresome pearl-clutching over shenanigans at Cal.

I personally think the political stakes of wokeness are overblown. After all, Eric Adams is winning the race for mayor in *New York’s* Democratic primary. But, like similar shifts in the 1960s, the effects of wokeness will primarily be cultural. Already, I don’t think a show like Family Guy could come on the air these days, and it is remarkable the number of television programs about 19th century Britain that simply ignore its social and demographic realities. 

But why has this happened? Wokeness has as many explanations as it has enemies, but today I am going to advance a very simple one: Educated urbanites have all gone woke, and they are the only people who have gone woke, because the social worlds they live in really are the race-segregated capitalist nightmares that wokists tend to think the world to be.

The mystery is not “why are there wokists?”. Every country has a left. The mystery is, “why are all leftists race obsessed Yale graduates?”.

While no definition of wokeness is going to satisfy everyone, it involves the following features:

  1. A general assumption that any conflict is zero-sum. This involves:
    1. A belief that advantages are unearned.
    2. A distrust of markets.
    3. A distrust of all power-hierarchies, including the power of government enforcers.
    4. An assumption that all gains from any political or technological innovations will flow to the wealthy.
    5. A general tendency to overestimate the magnitudes of social or economic inequalities. 
    6. A distrust of formal liberties, such as free speech and freedom of association.
  2. An obsession with race, not as a sociological phenomenon, but only as a vector of oppression. 
  3. A tendency to view cultural products and social situations through a political lens.
  4. Highly affected language and word-choice, with liberal use of the letter x, or, increasingly, the @ symbol.

People find it mysterious why all 22 year-olds coming out of selective colleges view the world this way, especially since we’re the big winners from any oppression America might have.

It probably matters that the woke worldview is an extremely accurate description of selective colleges.

First, any given good college has quite absurdly high income inequality, far higher than any major country except South Africa. Part of this is, paradoxically, a result of range restriction. Almost everyone at a good college is from the top 20% of household incomes. At Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, as recently as we have good data, it’s around 70%. Normally, restricting the range of incoming incomes would lower inequality, but the top 20% of US incomes is where all of the real inequality-action is. So, because colleges take only upper-middle to upper class students, income gaps are magnified.

But that’s not all. Top colleges aren’t just more likely to have higher income students; they have a staggering number of stupendously wealthy students.

Across the ivies, typically 3% to 4% of students come from families in the top thousandth of household income. That means they’re about 30 times as well represented at top colleges than in the population overall. That dwarfs the roughly three-fold over-representation of the top income quintile. To make this kind of money, a household needs an income of more than $3.1 million. 

School% from top Thousandth of Income (above ~$3,140,000 as of 2019)% from top Hundredth of Income (above $630,000 as of 2015)

Cornell is notably lower than the others, likely because of its large engineering school and publicly supported colleges. 

The median household income at these colleges was only about $180,000 in 2015. Adjust some things to today-dollars and the 97th percentile person at one of these colleges (or even the 96th) has an income around 15 times the income of the median. At Columbia, Harvard, and Stanford, the gap is even more extreme.

SchoolMedian Household Income in 2015 dollars.

America overall is not nearly that unequal. The median American household has an income of $68,400. The 97th percentile is $329,352. That’s a factor of less than 5 between the two percentiles, compared to 15 at the best colleges.

And the difference between America and good colleges is actually even starker than that. Many differences in household income across America actually reflect age, because people make much more in their 40s and 50s than their 20s or 70s. If you look at individual incomes for 50 year olds (typically the people sending their kids to college), the median is $58,000 and the 97th percentile is only $235,000, only a fourfold difference. Parents of college students are mostly about the same age, so seeing the income gaps that we do is remarkable.

You see the same high inequality at colleges by comparing the median to the top 1% instead of the top .1%. At the typical Ivy in 2013, around 17-18% of students came from families making more than $630,000 a year, which means the 82nd-83rd percentile makes about 3.5 times the median. But in the US overall, the 83rd percentile of income only makes a little more than twice the median. To reach a household making 3.5 times the median, you have to get all the way to the 94th percentile. 

So income inequality at good colleges is very high.

Superstar-metros (where the woke graduates go after college) also have staggering inequality. Boston, New York, and the Bay Area are all in the top 3% most unequal metro areas by reasonable measures. Similarly, DC Has a gini-coefficient of around .51, while the US overall has one of only .48.

The inequalities in big cities are even less normal than they might appear. Normally, if you take a selected subgroup from a larger group, inequalities within the subgroup should be smaller than overall because the little group is selected, so they’re probably similar to each other. Take states. If you look at any given state, it will usually have lower inequality than the country overall. Out of America’s 51 jurisdictions, only 5 have Gini coefficients higher than the country overall, because people in a state tend to have similar incomes to other people in the same state. 

But the urban and educated states are special. Four of those five unequal jurisdictions are New York, Connecticut, California, and DC. New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Illinois are all in the top 15.

This is important. What’s distinctive about educated urbanites is not just that they live in somewhat more unequal societies than most Americans, it’s that they see wildly more inequality. For a hyper-educated American, the closer you look, the more inequality you see. For a normal American, it’s the opposite. 

Imagine some guy in a town in Wisconsin. First, you look at America. Some inequality. Then zoom in to the state. Okay. Wisconsin doesn’t have Greenwich, and it doesn’t have New Orleans, so there’s not that much wealth and not that much really deep poverty. A little more equal than the US overall. Okay, now zoom in on a town. Some towns have more rich people (maybe they have an engineering firm), and some have more poor (maybe they do chicken-processing), so the single town probably is even less unequal than the state. Now zoom to the single neighborhood. Well, houses in each neighborhood tend to have similar prices, so neighbors are even closer in income than fellow townspeople. Most Americans, in their daily lives, don’t see a huge amount of inequality. They mostly see people similar to themselves. 

But it’s a very different picture with the educated urbanite. The closer and closer you zoom, getting all the way to the circle of people walked-past every day or scrolled-past on Facebook, it just gets more and more unequal. 

And the inequality that the urbanite sees is especially racialized. It is remarkable how few poor white urban neighborhoods America has. There’s basically just Southie, which is already gentrifying. Instead, America’s poor whites are concentrated in rural and ex-urban areas.

What that means is that within expensive urban areas, racial inequality is severe. In the country overall, the median white household has an income about 50% higher than the median black household. But, in New York City, the median white household income is almost twice as high as the median black one. And that’s despite New York encompassing middle-income white neighborhoods far from city center that would typically be a different municipality (Staten Island and South Brooklyn). If you look at the more restricted San Francisco, the median white household has more than 250% of the income of the median black one.

The same thing happens in elite colleges. Colleges actively select for the richest white students and the poorest black ones, given the same standardized test scores. Combine that with the fact that many elite colleges draw heavily from incomes where there are essentially no black households, and you get an extremely high race-based income gap.

And these wealth gaps are unearned. The students coming to Harvard are all similarly capable. Sure, there are perks that help you get in, but the staggering inequality of resources is paired with a carefully maintained parity of ability. 

This means that the wealthy students are no more capable, or insightful, or hardworking than the poorer ones. But they are whiter.

So if you are a normal observant human looking around you, and you grew up in Westchester, Marin, or Brookline and then went to Duke or Hamilton, you might conclude three things:

  1. America is plutocratically unequal.
  2. This inequality is entirely unrelated to drive and skill.
  3. All poor people are black and all rich people are white.

So you’re going to end up a race obsessed socialist

Plus, in these societies, life really is zero-sum. Colleges only have so many spots and a heavily-zoned city cannot build new units. Furthermore, there is no such thing as real technological improvement in these societies. The value of the college is almost entirely the other people there, not anything about the college as an institution, and that’s basically true of cities as well. If technology improves the city/college, that just makes it harder/more expensive to get in. So the first 18 years of your life are a rat-race to win a zero-sum game, followed by another 10 years trying to win another.

I think this more or less explains why young educated urbanites are so much more woke than everyone else.

And the fact that it’s young, educated urbanites who are woke explains most of wokeness’s other weird features.

In short, why are the wokes… Annoying? Why do they inject politics into everything, and why are the politics so aesthetically obsessed? Why are movie reviews are useless now?

Rivers of ink have been spilled over this, but the most plausible answer is that Oberlin students have always been annoying about everything.

The strange, affected language? The constant one-upping and status games? The holier-than-thou attitude?

Have you ever listened to college radio?

There’s a special dynamic to academic political disputes that has an almost exact parallel in music. Once we understand this dynamic, nothing about wokeness is weird.

Like in music, as a participant in politics chats, your goal isn’t to come to correct opinions, it’s to look cool and smart and knowledgeable.

There are two ways to look cool and smart and knowledgeable:

  1. Actually know more than other people on topics of general interest.
  2. Focus on ideas and vocabulary that are so obscure that your interlocutors have never heard of them and haven’t had the chance to develop coherent objections.

Needless to say, the second is a lot easier. But it also leads to a lot of silliness. Often, obscure ideologies and topics are obscure because they are unimportant or bad. For the same reason, college radio is full of completely unlistenable and obscure music. The problem is that listening to obscure music is a much easier way to look cool than listening to similarly bad music that everyone knows (ELO, Metallica, etc.).

It would be good if people could call out the obscure music and obscure ideology for obscurantism, but somehow that doesn’t work. Just like how “this sucks and everyone hates it” is not an viable criticism of unintelligible music, “this sucks and isn’t practical” isn’t a viable criticism of language or activism. At college, and at non-profits, practical criticisms are dismissed because no one’s really involved in practical projects. Actually getting listeners or winning elections isn’t anyone’s goal. 

So a lot of wokeness’ flaws are really just the flaws of the society it reflects.

And we shouldn’t forget sincere guilt. Educated urbanites are conscious that we are rich, and often feel really bad about it. This privilege gets coded as, “white” because nobody wants to publicly admit their parents’ incomes, but it’s really about class.

This deep personal guilt is a major driver of the meme, “only privileged people can afford to not make everything political, therefore you are responsible to put politics into everything”.

This is a ridiculous statement, really. It’s almost only rich white people who are that obsessed with politics. But in an environment where almost everyone is ashamed of how much money their parents make, it’s wildfire. Especially as social media allows you to be reminded constantly of injustices in the outside world, it can make a focus on anything but politics seem frivolous or even obscene.

Plus, college students today live in a much sparser shared culture than past cohorts. No one can talk about tv because no one has seen the same tv. There are no new books that everyone reads, and there are now as many cool local radio stations as Spotify subscribers.

So politics fills the gap. And that obsession with politics also involves reading a lot of news. If you get your image of the world from newsreading and don’t trust your personal experience to be representative, you’re going to think the world is really bleak. So you’re going to reach out for any possible social change, even if it’s dumb.

Those are basically all the features of wokeness accounted for. It’s the demographics crafting the memetic environment, and social media accelerating natural memetic selection.

But why should this only happen now? America always had hyper-heirarchical colleges and hyper unequal cities. Why did people only get woke recently? I think a lot of it is that the post-Reagan era created a lot of fortunes. A number of people with middle-class backgrounds and bourgeois attitudes found themselves inheriting the fortunes of aristocrats, and it felt wrong to everybody. The first cohort inheriting these large sums of money was the 1990-1995 birth cohort, and they were the first to go woke.

A wokening has happened before, in the ’20s, under almost the exact same conditions. They called it socialism, and it took over the young English professional class. Oxford and Cambridge politics were not race-obsessed but the Cantabs and Corpuscles were just as paternalistic as DEI leftism today. The cause was the same: extremely high inequality at Oxbridge and in society overall, combined with a sense everyone there had of isolation. Their rearing had hid the world for them, and to understand it they had to be awoken to the truth.


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