Image Credit: Scott Beyer

American Privilege

Traveling the developing world reveals vast inequality, racism, and sexism—and just how fortunate Americans are.

When U.S. historians look back on the last 15 years—with the election of America’s first black president, followed by the stark opposite in Donald Trump, COVID lockdowns, and the George Floyd protests—they’ll likely term it the “Great Awokening.” It’s hard to define “woke,” but I see it as a larger movement to question the legitimacy of Western culture, namely the U.S. The woke narrative posits that such societies were settled through colonialism, grew through war and slavery, and continue to be defined by injustice.

This critical lens, meant to defy the textbook version of history, becomes a call to action. If the West grew on sordid grounds, there needs to be lots of corrective policy. How can America justify its status quo if that made it a bastion for racism and inequality?

Having just completed a 1.5-year trip to 34 countries in the Global South, this woke narrative looks increasingly ridiculous. America, for all its flaws, remains a paradise compared to the Third World—not just economically, but culturally. Many people I met while traveling, upon hearing I’m from America, begged me to get them a visa. 

Absorb yourself in these societies, and you’ll see they suffer in a much more acute way from all the things activists claim plague America. Some examples:


Third World countries dominate the top of Gini Coefficient indexes, with South Africa ranking as the most unequal country. This isn’t surprising when seeing how these places work. 

Upper class neighborhoods in the Third World are dominated by walls, barbed wire, and on-site security. Lower class ones—which make up the majority of neighborhoods—are without paved roads, running water, sewage, garbage collection, animal control, or other basic government services. Many of them exude total squalor. 

The U.S. also scores high on inequality indexes, but that shows how useless these statistics can be. Our high ranking is driven by prosperity: the rich are extremely rich, while the lower and middle classes are relatively well-off too even if their incomes are way lower. 

But we still have nothing like the chasm in the Third World, with the rich and poor butting up against each other in jarring contrast. In African megacities, you can be in a standardized First World-style real estate project one second, and the next be walking through areas where people effectively live off the land. 


Relatedly, Americans don’t know poverty as it exists in the Third World. 

Our lower-class is anyone making under $38,000. But someone who makes even $25,000 is earning more than double the global median income—and has a way higher living standard. The U.S. lower class enjoys standardized housing (e.g. units with clean running water, centralized sewer, climate control, household appliances), car ownership, abundant food, and public education. These are all things many people in the Third World don’t have.  


There’s no society on earth where the rich won’t be treated better than the poor. But in the U.S., there’s still a sense that everyone is equal no matter what family, class, religion, or neighborhood they were born into. 

This is ultimately reflected in our upward mobility.  Over 90% of Americans born into “the bottom quintile were better off than their parents,” writes the Cato Institute, reflecting other studies. Upward mobility in America isn’t perfect (in fact, it’s held back by protective housing and commerce regulations that I’ve covered in this column), but it’s stronger than in the developing world. In many African nations, income is even going down due to inflation and other factors. 

The Third World is still dominated by caste systems that have kept inflexible social classes in place for centuries. India’s is the best-known, with society organized based on lineage; caste members are expected to marry within them. As a result, underclasses are established, the lowest of which are called “untouchables,” who are consigned to menial jobs. The situation persists despite being technically illegal. Similar structures exist around the world, holding down an estimated 250 million people. 

While I found entrenched social orders to be the case most everywhere I went, one example really jumped out: the rich oil states of the Persian Gulf, such as the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. A majority living there are immigrants, but serve as nothing more than an imported servant class that makes under $10,000 annually and lives in cramped work camps on the urban outskirts. They have no chance at citizenship or equal enjoyment of rights. Citizenship is instead reserved for natives, who get the best jobs and a sizable cut of the oil profits. Contrast this with the U.S., where immigrants are granted by our government a mostly hands-off regulatory regime, some public aid, and ultimately a chance at citizenship. 


America has progressed so far racially that much of the conversation now revolves around “micro-aggressions” and other woke trivialities. In the Third World, race becomes, much like caste, the focal point on where someone stands in society.

The best example is to note the various ways that ethnicity and tribe become a defining characteristic, determining the jobs one works and who they hang out with. 

But beyond ethnicity—which dwells on facial features along with skin color—the racism of the Third World is evident in everyday behavior. Being a white person, people in low-level jobs acted extremely deferential towards me, as if I was above them. It was something I’ve never experienced in America.


As with racism, the conversations about sexism in America are often trivial—concerning “mansplaining” or a “pay gap” instituted by employers that largely doesn’t exist when analyzed under scrutiny.

In the Third World, sexism is, again, encoded by cultural or religious hardwiring, or from the government itself.

In large portions of the world, women are not allowed to work, told how to dress, and cannot hold significant societal positions. Physical and sexual violence is rampant and goes unprosecuted. 

In Saudi Arabia, for instance, despite recent reforms, a male relative is still who grants permission for women to work, marry and start businesses. A plurality of African, Asian, and Middle East countries have laws that restrict female workforce participation

It was interesting to see the difference even during my transition from sub-Saharan to northern Africa. Even menial service jobs in my Moroccan hotel that are usually staffed by women (servers, receptionists, etc.) were suddenly all male. 


I could give many other examples. Homophobia is much stronger in the Third World, meaning you won’t see lots of pride flags and same-sex PDAs, much less laws allowing homosexuality. Health outcomes are worse, with Third Worlders dying of treatable diseases like malaria that don’t even exist in the U.S. 

It helped me realize just how privileged we are, how high are our living standards, and how vacuous are the complaints about America being some deeply flawed society. I honestly think they’re made by people who haven’t traveled much and had the chance to compare how life is elsewhere. 

On that note, I’m glad to be home, and hope you enjoyed this series on the Global South.

Scott Beyer is a Catalyst Columnist Fellow on a 1.5-year research project through the Global South for Catalyst’s Market Urbanism Around the World series. He is the owner of Market Urbanism Report, a media company that advances free-market city policy. He is also an urban affairs journalist who writes regular columns for Forbes, Governing Magazine,, and Catalyst. Follow him on Twitter: @marketurbanist.
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