Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Other 1%

Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in the NY Times today about his own troubled interaction with schooling, and his dream that his son not experience the same failures he did.  Coates' parents grew up poor, but found consciousness and knowledge.  His father, Paul Coates, eventually became a black panthe,r and through his devotion to the power of literature, founded the Black Classic Press, "one of the oldest independently owned Black publishers in operation in the United States."

In his memoir, Coates describes growing up on the mean streets of Baltimore, having to force himself to act tough when his real interest lay in sports and comic books.  His father took pains to reinforce this defensive ability and enrolled him in a notoriously violent school.  One might imagine his father was not only interested in imparting street smarts, but so too a conscious perspective of black struggle.  This was the real black experience - poverty, ghettos, violent schools and thuggishness - all conspiring to deplete consciousness.  Incarceration, low-wages, single-parenthood and broken homes were all a part of the reality of the underclass, a class black people had been propelled into over centuries of oppression, and only now was it finally becoming possible to see the light at the end of the tunnel.  Clearly, the work was not done, and Coates' father knew his son had to be a part of the struggle.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is now a senior editor of the Atlantic.  Although he struggled in school, and eventually dropped out of college, he picked himself up after landing a job writing for the Washington City Paper.  His is the kind of boot-strap story that America loves to tell itself.  Anything is possible.  All it takes is hard work and determination.  Anyone can be successful.  If a poor kid from Baltimore can do it, so can anyone.

Yet the reality of these stories always belie their falsity.  The truth is that Coates had advantages that most young men in his neighborhood did not.  Not only did he have a bookish temperament that would later serve him well by the norms of larger society, he was raised by a father who, though not without flaws, obviously was incredibly smart and exposed his son to a world of intellectual aspiration that was exceedingly rare.  Indeed, if every father in the ghetto had the consciousness of Paul Coates, there would be no ghettos. 

It takes no great imagination to see how the privilege of the "1%" virtually ensures their legacy of wealth for future familial generations.  Yet so too does the privilege of an intellectual 1%, imbuing as it does a consciousness that forms the basis of agency-building human capital.  This is the stuff of societal capital, a concept I return to frequently on this blog.  Paul Coates' represented great resources of societal capital that in turn allowed Ta-Nehisi to develop the human capital that would eventually parlay into future social success.

A fundamental flaw with boot-strap stories is that they assume the possibility of self-created agency - as if we somehow design our efforts to be successful.  Coates did not, as a boy, decide to be a bookworm instead of a thug.  It came naturally to him.  It comes "naturally" to all of us.  In fact, when it does not come naturally to us, it is due to some lesson of circumstance that forces upon us some new way of thinking or being.  The term naturally itself seems defined by the idea of forces beyond our control, outside our powers of influence.  Coates bookishness, combined with his father's guidance, put him far beyond his less-developed peers.

This cannot but lead to a vision of inequality as injustice, as our relative successes or failures cannot be separated from determining factors in our lives.  This uncomfortable logic worries many into denying it post hoc.  Yet when we examine human behavior, we see interactions between society and temperament that leave little room for determination that does not come from circumstance, in other words self-created self-agency.

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