Tag Archives: economics

Transacting the Humanity out of Society

Commerce. Transcations. Goods. Units. Revenue. Profit. Growth. Market. Market share. Margin. Money. Money. Stuff. Stuff. More. More. More.

More work, more money, more time, more things. So much. So-so, much.IMG_0044

I walked through LA’s Santee Alley in the fashion district. There were crowds of us walking right next to each other looking at $1 sticks of lipstick that claimed to be MAC and $10 shoes that looked exactly like Chuck Taylors save the Converse logo. T-shirts, piñatas, skin tight pants and bustiers went on for blocks and blocks. The people behind the counters or in the isles hocking goods did not appear to be particularly concerned with makeup or fashion, they were interested in transactions. They were merchants, not artisans.IMG_1475

That same day, only a few miles away I strolled through The Grove. The street is wide enough for the double decker trolley to roll on its tracks and still allow the crowds to meander in safety. There the MAC lipstick is $25, the Chuck Taylors are $50. You can easily find skin tight jeans and bustiers (maybe not piñatas) but they will all be much more expensive. Still, the people selling them were just retailers. They may be better funded consumers, but they are not artisans, just merchants.

It is hard to comprehend or appreciate the grand scale of how many dollars and units pass through these places daily, monthly, yearly. The volume of dollars, the hours spent creating, shipping, distributing and retailing is almost incalculable. Almost. No- not true. They are absolutely calculable and that is why they, we, go through the trouble. We are making calculations and transactions because that is what we do. It is how we live. It is who we are, or at least it is who we have become. We are a society of consumers on a grand scale.

Walk through any mall in any suburb in any state and amid all those people buying, selling, and transacting, what you will rarely find is a person behind the counter doing what they love. So many of them, of us, me, are not following passions but just doing things and tasks to get by. We are trying to make it, and by make it I mean pay the rent. Maybe pay for our kids to do something they like. Maybe. Some of the people doing the buying may appear a little happier, but they are only visiting, this isn’t what they do to survive. Many of the buyers in malls are simply enduring. They are on an errand to get some sort of affordable necessity, meaning it is what the other kids are wearing and not conforming will cause discomfort. Maybe they are like me and have gained ten pounds and two inches resulting in the need for a new pair of Hagar slacks. Navy blue non-iron with those invisible stretchy side tabs allowing for the 5 extra pounds still to come. But in that mall is a fountain that no one stops to look at, a sculpture by an artist with no name, and performances attended only by parents and friends.

And the scale is astonishing.

Commerce. Transcations. Goods. Units. Revenue. Profit. Growth. Market. Market share. Margin. Money. Money. Stuff. Stuff. More. More. More.

More work, more money, more time, more things. So much. So- so, much.

I see all those widgets and things and the time and the effort and the dollars going strictly to transactions and I feel dread.IMG_4296

I feel that dread because I have also seen people struggle to pay the rent or buy food. I have known people whose entire existence is a struggle for the day to day necessities of life. I have seen people turn to crime or medication, or wish for death, because they cannot get their hands on enough money to flush the toilet, or heat the stove, or pay tuition, or drive a car. These people will never have need of a financial planner or investment manager. These people will never need a real estate agent, stylist, or consultant. There are plenty of things they will need, they are obvious, but they won’t, or don’t, get them. And what is even worse, is that these people will likely never be able to spend their hours doing things they love. They will look inside themselves and see their own value, and they will feel passion for this or that, and they won’t ever get to go there or do that, for any meaningful period of time.

Anything neglected over time will wither and die. Plants, muscles, passions, and self worth.

I was and have been told, that there is no helping others, at least not on a societal level. I have been told that the problem is the poor themselves. I have heard and been told and been taught, that the answer is God and that things must stay this way till God comes to Earth and everything becomes heaven by magic. I am quoted the scripture that says the poor will always be with us and that I should just do my best to care for me and mine. It is odd that despite my belief in God, real, actual belief, I don’t believe that. I can’t and I won’t.

I cannot believe that we humans must wait for divine intervention because we lack the knowledge will or ability to help the poor huddled masses- because I have seen Santee Alley and the Grove. I have seen and watched and participated in the wonder of producing, shipping, distributing, warehousing, selling, and consuming of piles and piles and dollars worth of stupid pointless things. The drive for dollars and plastic toys or mascara, or a fourth pair of shoes, has made distance from China to Arizona irrelevant. It has made the state of oil in the ground and rubber solidified into soles of shoes the monetary equivalent of a night at the movies. We pay millions to individuals, and billions to businesses, whose sole purpose is getting a ball through a hoop. We spend millions of dollars and millions of hours to risk our lives climbing mountains for the sole reason of saying that we did. We do all of that all of the time.

And we have to wait for God to come to Earth to find jobs for poor people? It will take Jesus and Armageddon to educate immigrants?

It makes no sense at all. None. No sense in that I see the merchants in the alley who do not love these little trinkets and have no passion for taking money in exchange for toys- but yet they do it. Every day they do it. I see the people buying things at the mall and they don’t really love that stuff and the teenagers who work there hate the stuff, and even the manufacturers who make the stuff could care less what stuff they make as long as there is profit. There is no love in it at all and I cannot stand it.

We have sacrificed passion, craft, and humanity on the altar of efficiency and revenue. We killed the unblemished lamb and blessed it with the name of free market capitalism. We have slaughtered the scapegoat and called it communism. We have made these sacrifices and at the end I fear we don’t have blessings just dead animals. I have this fear because I know so many good people doing great things, yet they, like me, remain a foundational part of the problem.

I know a doctor who spent decades studying and suffering to earn the ability to save lives, and now that he does in fact save people’s lives, he bought himself a motorcycle in addition to his every day car just for fun and because he has earned it. Meanwhile the life of the person whose life he has saved is in shambles because the insurance won’t cover the procedures and now he cannot afford to sustain his newly saved life. I know of a farmer who toiled with dirt and with books till he accumulated enough money and knowhow to industrialize. Now he makes a fortune producing food that is shipped around the world to feed the poor yet those who still work on his farm are mostly undocumented because those with rights cannot afford to live off the wages the farmer pays and those without rights have no choice but to try.

We have inhaled so completely the myth of American meritocracy that we feel we deserve the good we get and that others deserve the bad. We believe that the freedom we covet is inherently tied to private property and capital yet turn a blind eye to the correlating truth that tying freedom to those things robs the poor of all hope to be free. Every business person I know will parrot the axiom that it takes money to make money, knowing full well the poor don’t have any, and the act of loaning anything to the poor is so remarkable that doing so at a non-predatory rate will win you a Nobel Prize. Watching and hearing this is infuriating and it is easy to see why so many who care for the poor from some religious obligation could lose hope in humanity and resign themselves to wait for deity. Not me. The deity I know has never really forced the human hand and while there is definitely drama in divine interactions, they are not normally mixed with direct compulsion. Destruction maybe, but not forced action. In addition, humanity has an amazing, even godlike capacity, to strike out and accomplish whatever it is they, or we, decide we wish to do.

So the question is not, nor has it ever really been, “how do we solve world hunger?” or just, “how do we help the poor,” but rather “how do we decide to help the poor?” or “How do we convince ourselves to put people above profit?” It is all about the will. And this lack of will, or our misplaced will, is where my feelings get hurt. Because we, as a whole, have so readily and foundationally dedicated ourselves and our will to something, or everything, that so many of us simply don’t care about.

We dedicate ourselves to daily work, because we believe we have to, and our heart is not in it. Meanwhile, we gloss over or walk past, things, or activities, or people, in which or in whom we would and could so easily invest, but we do not. We cordon off our hearts and passions as extracurricular or as hobbies and see charitable donations as a tax exemption, viewing poverty as a political issue. Some discover and chase passion projects or are lucky enough to synchronize fulfillment and career, and they are almost always beginning in the middle or upper class.

If we can create a world where we can pull oil from the ground in Wyoming, ship it to China where it is formed into a Shopkin, then ship it back to California and sell it by the truckloads at Target for $2 per trinket, we can do anything we want.

Is it possible that we could restructure in a way that those who are currently laboring with transactions with no heart at all could instead follow their passions and still fill their belly? Isn’t that what a 1st world society should be? Would we be less efficient and productive? Probably. Could we craft a true meritocracy that enables the ambitious without crushing the lost and lowly? Maybe. But maybe we would also be better. Not better on an income statement or maybe not even better quality products all the time but possibly we would be better people.

Maybe. I don’t know. I do not have the detailed answers but I am convinced they exist. Maybe the one who has, or who could, decipher the answers is right now making change from a five dollar bill for someone who wants to buy a one dollar stick of lipstick.

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Industrial Tools in a Digital World: or what good is money to a cave man

I once found myself sitting at my desk with a magic check book. I could scrawl out numbers large or small to anyone (except myself) and those checks would clear. I was under the general charge to use those checks to help those in need, and records were to be strictly kept, but other than that, it was all up to me. I was the genie, I could grant wishes, and I really wanted to help. I wanted to do good, to tackle the troubles facing those within my reach and now I had the ultimate tool; a magic checkbook.phillysky

This office was right on North Broad Street in the heart of one of Philadelphia’s most blighted neighborhoods. I was positioned perfectly. I was right where help was needed, with all the money I could imagine, possessing more will to do good than I knew what to do with, and I have never felt more useless and impotent then I did during that time.

I didn’t even make a dent.

This isn’t to say I wasn’t able to do some good or help some folks here and there, nor am I fishing for support with self-deprecating comments. No. I really wasn’t able to fix a thing. I have never felt so utterly thwarted.IMG_0423

I wrote a lot of checks, but not as many as you might have thought. We did our best to be financially responsible by not replicating services available elsewhere and thanks to WIC, food stamps, section 8 and a plethora of slum lords I paid out a lot less on rent mortgages and food than others I have seen with similar check books. I paid for a refrigerator, a water heater, paid tuition, bought subway tokens, patched a hole on someone’s roof, and funded a lot of plumbers and electricians. I also paid for some mental health services. Those ones were tricky, not because the money or service was funny, but because I discovered that those who needed these services most were hard to track down. They kept going homeless and getting arrested or admitted to hospitals. I did pay for some phones. Those were probably the most useful things I wrote checks for.

There was one woman I knew who was battling Cancer. She was unable to work and didn’t own a car that ran. We used to sit in her living room, her reeling from the effects of chemo, me reeling from the stacks of unpaid bills that she kept incredibly organized in a stack next to the couch. She knew who she owed, when things were due, and how much she had, but what she couldn’t get was a straight answer from anyone on the phone. She would be in the ratty recliner queuing up the bill, I would make the phone call and use my best respectable white man voice to try to get some clue as to what number to put on my magic check. Mostly I was put on hold or lectured about financial responsibility or sternly warned about service interruptions.

There was this other retired woman whose inherited house was reassessed and she magically owed back taxes. Old age and epilepsy made getting a job a non-starter so she borrowed money from friends and family to scrape together taxes. Scraping included not paying her water or electricity. She had previously been on a payment plan for both, and these plans included the stipulation that should you ever miss a payment you would be required to pay all the fees that would have accrued had you not been on said plan. I wrote a check for $2,000 to get the water turned on and $1,700 for the electricity. She was incredibly grateful and as we flipped the switch and there was light, she stared off into space and asked, “What am I supposed to do when the tax comes due again next year?” The house wasn’t particularly nice.copandfire

There was the truck driver who was on a rent-to-own program to gain full ownership of his rig. He was forced to forfeit with two payments left because someone rear ended him at a stop light. There was guy in the carpenters union who was laid off for over a year and then billed for two years of apprentice school when he finally took a menial job outside the union. There was even a stripper who didn’t want to dance but was struggling to find a way to pay her bills when she had no other marketable skills. There were all sorts of stories and I wrote all sorts of checks, but what I was mostly unable to do was change anyone’s long term situation.

My endless checkbook’s funds were insufficient in the face of greater contexts.

In some respects, and to some extent in retrospect, the failure was mine. I was afraid of going big and swinging for the fence. Every month I would meet with approximately five other men who had similar checkbooks but with different jurisdictions. They were mostly suburban and they almost always spent more money than me. They were also older than me and more experienced. We would meet and talk about solutions, and principles of work, and the overall theme would be in wondering how we could write fewer checks or get people to stop asking for money. There was much ado about responsibility and self-sufficiency, both of which I was on board with, but as we talked each month they would bring up a small redundant set of scenarios, or even repeat certain family names again and again, and here I was talking about everyone and everything. They would repeat to me some principle about work having it sown value and that rather than handouts we needed to encourage people to take control of their own situation. I would talk about the woman with cancer, or the new taxes, or the carpenter, I didn’t share the stripper because that would have seemed salacious, and they would just repeat those principles. I found it very dissatisfying and I was branded a passionate young firebrand. Whether it was the branding or the caution toward frugality, I never did what I really wanted to do which was to just pay off all of these people’ bills with some sort of trust moving forward, freeing them from the crushing weight of the unpaid bill shuffle or the impending doom of bills yet to come. I wanted to just write some big numbers that would give these people more than just some wiggle room but the solid footing needed to build a skill or chase an opportunity. But I didn’t. No one told me directly not to do it, yet I remained afraid knowing full well how the others interpreted those principles and my magic was rendered impotent.IMG_2057

I remember that check book any time I read policy debates about public school funding, government entitlements, or healthcare. Any time I hear the statement that problems cannot be solved by throwing money at them, I hear echoes of those monthly check writer’s meetings. They sound the same and that same feeling I had there rings and resonates inside me with the same feeling of helplessness and I know that this discussion will fall short. I know this because I am no longer a young firebrand but rather I am a little older and experienced. I know better now and were I to go back to my former self in those meetings and with that checkbook, and in the discussions of policy now, I would write those giant checks.

I would agree that the problems of a post-industrial world cannot be solved by just throwing money at them- then- I would add that any solution that doesn’t include throwing lots of money at it, is incomplete and wrong.

We live in a 1st world country with 1st world problems and those who have the means to become world traveled know this. They point out that the impoverished in America have so much more than almost everyone else in the world. I haven’t been to those places but I get it. I understand. I realize that in some countries people walk miles to get water from a well in bare feet and toil with seeds and soil to pull out rice or yams to eat in their tin roofed shacks with dirt floors. I am reminded of these things or these places when Americans look at our budget deficit or entitlements or failing public schools. We are rich and we are wasting it and we need to stop the bleeding and become more responsible. I get it.IMG_3343

But I cannot tell that retired woman that rather than asking for $2,000 to get her 1st world water turned back on, that she should get a bucket and walk to the well. Because there is no well.

I cannot tell the man from the carpenter’s union to stop wasting his money on rent and use his skills to build himself a tin roofed shack. We don’t allow that here.

I cannot tell that dancer to employ her health in planting and harvesting because she has no land, no seeds, and no time.

And the woman with cancer. Were she in one of those places the answer would be somewhat more direct. She would go untreated and die. Because that is what happens there.

Truth is that in America people need money. If someone has some money, they must spend their time in accruing more in order to keep up with the clock because in America time has a cost. If you happen to have an abundance of money you can buy time, and spend it as you choose. But if you start out with no money you will at some point need to borrow or beg because you cannot afford the cost of living that time demands while you are spending your time in the act of accumulation. And that initial cost of time is the rub.

Time is the rub because it is so much more expensive than we realize and our 1st world has completely adjusted to those who can already afford it. It has taken us quite some time to get here, but we have arrived and if we just deal with now, acknowledging how we got here but willing to deal with the present, we have a lot of work to do and it is going to be more expensive than we realize.

For instance, schools are not only expensive to run, but opening up charter schools and options for parents, is mostly only open to those who can already afford the costs of changing schools, including the cost of time in researching and applying. Retraining those displaced from industrial jobs due to mechanization is not just expensive as it relates to tuition or instruction, but the time it takes to learn and get re-hired. Who pays the bills in the meantime? It is as if any one who finds themselves at zero is being fooled by the goose egg. There is no such thing just as time never stands still. Zero lasts only a moment before it becomes a negative and as soon as you realize you have hit the bottom you are in negative numbers.

So as I remember back to those days where I had the magic check book but was too afraid to write a tectonic check I also remember that one of the reasons I did not, one of the reasons why I felt so helpless, a foundational contributing factor to my in effectiveness, was that money wasn’t and would never be, enough. I knew it then. I couldn’t stop time. I didn’t have enough extra hands, enough hours, enough extra bodies or opportunities, to throw at these people’s problems in addition to throwing money. Because it was instantly obvious that this is what was, and still is needed.

We cannot solve the problems of poverty by simply throwing money at them. Reality is that it takes money and then it takes more. Throwing money and throwing time.

Developed society has left behind the sweat of our brow and replaced it with allowances either purchased or granted. Because of this we cannot expect any progress within the lower half of society unless there is some sort of concession granted by those who control, or own resources. We will never solve poverty in the 1st world till more of those who can afford time, start spending it on helping those who can’t.

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The Invisible Hand is White

Adam Smith wrote that the actions of individuals seeking their own self-interest will have an added societal consequence of wealth distributing itself in line with the greatest societal good. This natural wealth distribution has come to be personified in the idea that there is an “invisible hand” controlling the market. This hand steadies, balances, and distributes wealth and resources. This hand is not regulated by any government or body of law, it is natural.dsc02460

Sometimes we believe that in America, this invisible hand is called “meritocracy”. This market force distributes wealth and resources to those who work hard, who are smart, or in other words, to those who have merit. This idea of making our own way or reaping the rewards of our own labor is one of the founding ideals of the American dream.  In America, if you work hard enough, you can be anything you want. I like the idea and I would even say that in large part, at least compared to many places in the world, we (America) do a relatively good job.

But merit is a funny thing. It can be hard to identify, hard to develop, even harder to measure. Quite often merit is in the eye of the beholder. Perhaps really, merit matters but not in as much a way as we think, or at least it doesn’t matter most. It is difficult for any individual’s merit to carry them outside their sphere of relationships; hence the adage that success hinges on who you know, not what you know. Who you know matters.

Who you know, or better yet, who knows you, matters because that is often who judges what “is” and “is not” merit, and who possesses it.  In a system where individuals and institutions are free to exchange goods or resources as they see fit, those who have the most resources have the most influence on deciding what constitutes merit. Their biases, preferences, and needs are empowered to move, or at least nudge, this giant invisible hand. Consequentially, opportunity and achievement are often based on proximity, availability, reputation, network, and experience.  Merit may play only a sustaining role as opposed to a driving one. It has been that way for a long time. Take George Washington for example.

By all accounts General Washington was full of merit. He worked hard as a surveyor, proactively took risks as a soldier, and his writing shows a more than respectable measure of learning and brilliance. Thanks in large part to this merit he became one of the richest men in America, and even makes the list of one of the relative wealthiest Americans ever. Yet we could, and I would say should, also consider that the one thing Mr. Washington did that had the most direct influence on his wealth and position, was to marry a rich widow. Before that, George was on track to be Nathaniel Green. Mr. Green is respectable by all accounts but he isn’t carved on Mt. Rushmore, doesn’t have a state named after him, and no currency features his face. Washington is the one we all remember yet, by most all accounts, Green was a better general than Washington.

But George was born and lived in a hugely influential tidewater Virginia, and thanks to both inherited and married wealth, George enjoyed a continual revenue independent of his day to day actions which freed him up  to become George Washington rather than Nathaniel Green. But that was a long time ago, things have changed.

People today have infinitely more means and access to build new networks and accrue merit. Public school, Facebook, college, loans, and internships are everywhere and excepting Facebook, have been around for several generations. One result of such network broadening opportunities are instances like the Supreme Court which currently consisting of 8 people, includes 3 women, a Latina, an African-American, 5 Catholics, and 3 Jews. We have come a long way since George Washington. Yet even still with these 8 people with varying backgrounds they all went to either Harvard or Yale. It is not written that one must attend Harvard or Yale to be a Supreme Court Justice, nor is there a class at either school designed to give a student the specific skills they need to be supreme, yet this remains the path.  How and why it matters leaves plenty of room for argument.

Sticking with schools for a moment, when looking at the background of billionaires it is noteworthy that there are groupings of what college these rich people attended. The University of Pennsylvania counts 21 living billionaires among its alumni. Harvard and Yale both have 14. As we move down the list of schools the richest people are largely coming from, or at least passing through, the oldest, richest, and most prestigious universities. Again, is it the curriculum that is creating graduates who go on to such wealth? Do they learn something there that translates to money? Some, like Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates who both dropped out of Harvard, don’t ever graduate so their merit cannot be directly tied to their degrees. Yet still there is that clustering or concentration of wealth and success.

We could easily assume that going to college, marrying rich widows, and becoming a billionaire is all part of our meritocratic country where this invisible hand is scooping all the best and brightest into certain schools, is rewarding suitors who are best suited to manage dowries, and simply rewarding those who do the work and are most deserving. But then what about those who catch a bad break? There are of course many who through no fault of their own, are born in unfortunate situations. How does this hand deal with such? Our lore says this hand simply rewards their merit. Meritocracies allow for individuals to pick themselves up by their own bootstraps.

Abraham Lincoln was uneducated and failed at election time and time again. But Honest Abe worked hard reading books and got back in the race after every defeat. Sure he also benefited from a fortuitous marriage, but we could easily argue that he earned that too (winning Mary Todd’s favor and whatnot). Abraham Lincoln was without a doubt, a great man. I make no argument that he did not earn or deserve his renown and place in history.

So does this mean that this free market invisible hand and meritocracy work? Maybe.

But then there is Abraham’s contemporary, Frederick Douglass.

Mr. Douglass, born a slave, was not only never taught to read, but was legally prevented from doing so. But he did. While Abraham Lincoln might have given out country’s most well-known speech, most every one at that time would have agreed that Douglass was a better orator. Douglass escaped slavery, educated himself, and become the first free black man to visit the white house when he went to go plead with President Lincoln for the better treatment of black soldiers. Douglass was indeed able to accomplish great things with his merit, yet he isn’t the one carved on Mt. Rushmore.

Mr. Douglass and Lincoln lived in a time where the law of the land dictated that the rewards for a black person’s merit were expected to be delivered to white people. In fact, in many, if not most cases, the merit of black people itself, not just the rewards, were ascribed to their white masters. For instance, when modern visitors tour George Washington’s home, they are told of Mrs. Washington’s prowess in the kitchen, you can even buy her cookbook in the gift shop. But she wasn’t the one who did the cooking. Black people were doing the cooking but their skills, or merit, were attributed to Martha. A visit to the website today further illustrates how the invisible hand of the 1700’s still effects the modern memory. http://www.mountvernon.org/george-washington/martha-washington/mistress-of-the-household/

But today many Americans see slavery and segregation as unfortunate blips in our ideology or system bearing little effect on our situations today. As if in those days the invisible hand had a finger on the scales of justice, but not anymore. Now the hand is back to balancing markets and allowing merit to be rewarded freely. We have set a new starting point, new zero, called “now” and we just move forward. Is free always fair? Of course not.

I argue a better question is if this modern freedom is just.

If we are living in a true meritocracy then we can assume that those who are rich deserve it, and those who are poor deserve that too. I do not argue that our society believes this specifically, but it does appear that we believe it generally. This belief drives how many of us vote, what we choose to study, and many of the decisions we make in life. It is a foundational idea in the American philosophy. It is part of who we are…

If we are white.

Do black Americans live in a meritocracy? (Do women?)If they do is it the same one as the white men?

For centuries the flow of resources and opportunities were artificially steered away from black individuals. This was not done strictly through laws and regulations but also through ideas. For example, when Thomas Jefferson was writing to persuade the world that a society where all men were created equal and should be free to pursue happiness without being obstructed, he also wrote that this freedom need not apply to black people because they were inferior (Notes on the State of Virginia). Jefferson argued that black people possessed less merit by nature and were incapable of managing resources directly. After reconstruction politicians were quite overt in campaigning on the idea that governing was best done by white people. Many were afraid that black people lacked the necessary skills and intelligence (merit) to govern, or even vote, and that allowing them either would lead to national destruction.Even when laws did not dictate segregation or discrimination, there was an idea that black people were not only less than white people, but were/are also more dangerous. This idea has been rampant and persistent in literature, music, news, business and media since our foundation.  This is not to say that all messages have been so, but these messages have always been in the environment.

This affects our meritocracy not only in that the spheres of influence and opportunity been limited for black people, but also in that the minds of those who determine and measure merit have been marinated in an ideology of white superiority. We as a nation believed that white men naturally possessed more merit.

Most of us are uncomfortable with this idea-that our minds are tainted- so much so that we have re envisioned how we collectively remember Martin Luther King Jr. and Mohammed Ali. We have honored Rosa Parks and lauded Booker T. Washington. We have worked hard enough to remove this mental poison that many of us now believe ourselves inoculated.  We in, large part, believe our society is free and safe from smallpox, mumps, and racism. Perhaps there may be the odd case or diagnosis, but they do not apply to the public. The meritocracy is safe.

Is this true? Are we a meritocracy?

When neighborhoods and schools are segregated both racially and economically, but laws do not require such, how do we explain or interpret the situation? When there is a disparity between black and white along the lines of wealth, academic achievements, and health, how do we explain that? Why the gap if our meritocracy is sound? Why are black people stopped, arrested, and incarcerated at rates higher than their white peers?

Why?

Are we all just getting what we deserve? Are we all simply rising to the appropriate level with regard to our merit? We have had black doctors, a black president, black secretary of state, black Supreme Court justice, and black billionaire, so there is apparently no strict cap on American black achievement. But yet that gap. These success stories are not the statistical or relative norm.

Why?

Maybe the invisible hand is white.

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Racism Without Even Mentioning Race

Joan owns a house. She isn’t rich, she works hard, she doesn’t have a lot but she has that house. Sarah and her family move in next door, and now Joan’s house is worth less money. Sarah isn’t bad, she works hard as a stay at home mother and her husband is a plumber. Joan doesn’t hate Sarah, but that house represents everything she has and if the price goes down any more, her retirement is ruined. Joan cannot risk that. She cannot risk another family like Sarah moving in, so Joan puts her house up for sale.

Is Joan a racist?street

The whole reason Sarah moved into the neighborhood was because the schools were good. Education is Sarah’s passion. She has pinned her hopes for her children to those schools. After Joan left, another family just like Sarah’s moved in. This happened all across the neighborhood and the school district. Before long the whole area has turned over. House prices hit the basement and more and more people who wanted that good school moved in; motivated hard working people.

But now the school wasn’t the same. Many of those who moved out were the teachers. The school was funded from property taxes but now that property values had plummeted, so had school funding. Word got out real quick that the school wasn’t the same and now hiring good teachers to replace the ones who left got harder.

Sarah still owed 25 years on her mortgage and the real estate agent just couldn’t find her family anywhere else near enough to her husband’s job.

Meanwhile Joan lives a bit further out in the suburbs and is struggling to adjust to her new surroundings. She misses her old neighborhood, but at least here, her family and retirement are safe and the schools are good.

So again, does this make Joan a racist?

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The question isn’t meant to be a setup, and no, the scenario didn’t even mention race at all, so how could anyone, Joan or otherwise, be called a racist? So no, I’m not asking the question to trick anyone but rather in hopes that we might all truly consider the scenario. Of course in the real life American scenario, whether I say it or not, Joan is white and Sarah is black, or Latino, or Asian, or something not white. When non-white people move in to an area the housing prices drop, no matter what Joan or anyone else thinks or feels. Joan and Sarah could be best of friends, soul mates of sorts, and the market would still react. It is our economic reality.

No one has to use the words black, or white, or even race, but school funding shifts, people move, and reality changes.

So the question isn’t only whether Joan is racist or not, but does it even matter what Joan thinks?

At the end of the day, almost no matter where Sarah and her family go, this reality follows them. Sometimes there is, or was, financial shelter if somehow a black Sarah moves in and then no one follows, the market stabilizes. For the most part Joan will always be alright, but not always. Sometimes Joan’s don’t get out in time and they lose a nest egg. Or they are stuck in a school that they see sinking into the abyss through no fault of their own.  All of this without anyone saying they hate anyone because of their skin.

But this is how race functions.

So today…img_0844

I see and hear so many white people, the good white ones not the crazy ones, the ones I think are just like me (because we all think we are the good ones), reacting poorly when  black people complain about racism. We get up in arms or defensive and reactionary pointing out that we don’t hate anyone. We look around at each other in wonder because so many of us have never called anyone the N word and we almost never even talk about race and cannot fathom why ‘they’ keep bringing it up. We want to know where all the racists are because they aren’t us and we don’t know them. We get so caught up in who does or does not hate who and why.

But all the while the Sarahs of the world live in sub par housing markets with bad schools and if they call it race, they are asked to name a name and point a finger and none of us are willing to be pointed at. We are so concerned that it not be us, because we don’t hate, that me get annoyed at the conversation and frustrated and say that parents just need to be more involved in ‘their’ kids’ lives. We say that all lives matter. We say that microagressions are just another word for thin skin and we are tired of being blamed for all your problems and why is it always about that when no one is even talking about that. I mean Joan has problems too. Joan had to move, Joan has to work hard, Joan might lose her job but all everyone cares about is race and I want my neighborhood back!

So at the end of the day is Joan racist, and really, does that even mater to Sarah?

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