Thomas's Reviews > Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence

Uneasy Street by Rachel Sherman
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really liked it
bookshelves: nonfiction, own-electronic, read-on-nook

Wow, I learned a lot from this book. In Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence, Rachel Sherman interviews a bunch of super rich people living in New York City about their wealth and how they experience it. She draws a lot of intelligent, astute observations from the interviews. At the same time, her writing feels readable and accessible to a general audience, such that I always felt entertained and never bogged down by jargon or unnecessarily complex words. Some observations from her interviews include how rich people will try to enact a lot of individualistic and internal behaviors and attitudes to alleviate their guilt about their privilege, how they often try to lump themselves into the middle class when they are indeed not part of the middle class, and how they make upward or downward comparisons which affects how they talk about money. Here’s a quote about the upward or downward comparisons I found fascinating:

“Because privilege is always relative, [interviewees’] orientations had a lot to do with which kinds of other people they compared themselves to. People like Ursula, whom I call ‘upward-oriented,’ downplayed their advantages by comparing themselves to others in a similar position or to those who had more. In fact, they were more likely to locate themselves, implicitly and sometimes explicitly, ‘in the middle.’ They tended to recognize privilege only indirectly, using euphemisms such as ‘lucky’ or ‘fortunate.’ They talked less about money unless I asked them directly about it, and they expressed fewer conflicted feelings about privilege per se… ‘downward-oriented’ people, like Keith and Karen, on the other hand, were more likely to describe themselves as privileged and to talk about people with less. They also talked more frankly about money and described struggling with feelings of discomfort about their advantages.”

I appreciated so many of the insights Sherman garners from these interviews. One theme that stood out to me includes how a decent amount of the participants felt so uncomfortable explicitly naming their wealth privilege, even though they all pretty much knew they had it. As Sherman touches on, this theme reminded me so much of white privilege and how white people hesitate to name their privilege because they often feel that having privilege implies they have not worked hard – an untrue sentiment. Sherman does a fantastic job of capturing the extent to which participants in this book would try to legitimize and justify their wealth in response to the guilt they feel instead of focusing on structures and systems that enabled their wealth. I also loved how she captured the gender dynamic in which wealthy men were more likely to try to control their wives’ income, whereas when women earned more than men women did not exert as much control, which reflects both a sexist gender dynamic as well as a conflict between the couple that takes their attention away again from broader systems that perpetuate economic inequity.

As someone with a good amount of inherited wealth reading this book made me reflect more on my own privilege and how I can confront and use it. For example, a small part of me is tempted to write – but my parents are immigrants and they worked hard and sacrificed, or I’m definitely not as wealthy as the people in this book – but instead I will acknowledge my inherited wealth for what it is instead of trying to use upward-comparison or legitimizing logic to minimize it. I do wish Sherman shared about her own class background and other relevant social identities; I’m not sure what the norms are in sociological research, but in qualitative psychological research it’s often the norm for researchers to state their own identities so we can understand how those identities may have affected the interviews. I’m also curious for if Sherman has more specific recommendations for how wealthy people can use their class privilege to deconstruct the systems that perpetuate it, in addition to what she alludes to in the book.

Overall, highly recommended for those interested in an intelligent and well-written examination of the affluent and class privilege. I’ll end this review with a quote from a later section of the book about a broader takeaway from Sherman’s research findings:

“However, I think the larger political task highlighted by these findings has less to do with prescribing how wealthy people should act and more to do with deconstructing this logic of legitimate privilege, which focuses on individual actions and measures behavior feeling, not distribution, with a moral yardstick. What would happen if we stopped distinguishing between individual good and bad rich people and engaged questions about a more egalitarian distribution of material and experiential resources? What would it mean, for example, to say that we should be critical of the fact that J. K. Rowling is a billionaire – regardless of how she came by her fortune, how she spends it, or whether she gives it away – just on the basis of the idea that such wealth is inseparable from extreme inequality, which is both pernicious to society and itself immoral?”
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Reading Progress

October 28, 2019 – Shelved
December 22, 2019 – Started Reading
December 25, 2019 – Finished Reading

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message 1: by Emily (new)

Emily Your thoughtful review, plus the quote at the end-- "such wealth is inseparable from extreme inequality, which is both pernicious to society and itself immoral"-- has made me excited to read this book! Thanks, Thomas!


Thomas No problem Emily! Thank you for taking the time to read and to comment, I'm excited to read what you think of this book. :) Hope you're well.


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