Re-Enforcing Inequality

Friend and regular reader Phyllis sent me the link to a David Brooks opinion piece in the New York Times entitled “How We Are Ruining America”. The piece affected her profoundly, and she asked if I might extend the conversation by writing a blog post about it.

It’s easier to see what Brooks is talking about when I visit Panama, where bright people like Gloria and Jorge are excluded from opportunities by having been born in the village, with poor schools, and without the combination of luck, personal drive, and resilience that allowed Daira and Lily to climb out of those same circumstances. In another world, Gloria would be an operations manager and Jorge and artist, graphic designer, or something that would utilize his creative talent. As it is, Gloria has spent most of her life as a servant, and Jorge is a laborer. He’s too tired when he gets home at night to do any art, and no one in his small world cares much about it anyway.

I was struck in the article when Brooks talked about unthinkingly taking a friend with a high school education to a gourmet sandwich shop, where the friend was befuddled and uncomfortable with the choices. Noticing his mistake, Brooks asked if she would like to go somewhere else, and they went to a Mexican restaurant where both could order comfortably.

I recall making a mistake like that during my consulting years, when I was working with a church that served a poor Rochester neighborhood. The church was struggling with the question of whether it had enough resources to open its nursery school the following year. I remarked that they likely had a time deadline to announce the verdict, to give parents room to make other choices. The pastor looked at me, bemused. “These families have no other choices. This school is in the neighborhood, they can walk their children here, and the care is affordable. Most of the parents, if they work, go on the bus. They can’t get their kids to other locations, then get to work — even if they found a place within their means.”

In Panama I’m well aware that access is a deliberate process: you have to know how to enter a situation, and how to behave once you’re there. I teach that explicitly to the kids: here is how you order from a menu. Here is how you claim a place to sit at the pool. Here is the restroom by the pool — you go there, not in the bushes. Here is how you think of getting a good job at the hotel, even if you don’t see any other people who look exactly like you working behind the front desk. Here is how you respectfully answer the security guard who asks if you belong here.

I’m less aware, I know, in our own culture. Yet what Brooks writes about certainly rings true. I’m aware of the opportunities that we all work to make available to Archie and Else, and that Jerry and I worked to open for Sara and Matt. I’m quite dazzled by Archie’s vocabulary as a nearly-six year old, and I know in passing that he’s been exposed to many more words than some of his less privileged age peers.

If you have time to read the Brooks piece, Phyllis and I would be happy to know your thoughts.

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