The Redistribution of Luck

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There’s one fact every feminist, machista and Godfather of Soul can agree on: “This is a man’s world.” A socialist might add, however, that this is actually a rich man’s world.

Last month Georgetown published a study showing that if you want to reach the vaunted American Dream — the house, the spouse, the 2.5 kids, the tire swing — then you’re better off being born better off. Or, to give it straight, it’s better to be rich than smart. According to the study, poor kindergarteners with high test scores are far less likely to “succeed,” in the rich-man sense, than rich kindergarteners with low test scores — and it’s even worse if the poor kindergarteners are black or Latino.

I have to quote the report at length — and remember, this is the rich man’s Georgetown University saying this, not UC-Santa Cruz or Spelman:

“The American Dream promises that individual career success is a foregone conclusion at birth or talent will be rewarded, regardless of where one comes from or who one’s parents are. Based on this ideal of equal opportunity, it’s tempting to believe that education and career outcomes reflect a natural sorting according to merit. But this presumption risks suggesting that those who do not thrive in school or the workforce lack talent—when, in fact, they more often lack sufficient systemic support on the journey to reach their full potential.

“For most children from low-income and working-class families, especially those who are Black or Latino, academic promise alone is not enough to secure their place among the middle or upper class. When poor children succeed, they often do so in spite of environments that impede their success—without access to the material supports and social advantages that protect and propel affluent students. Historic and ongoing segregation and discrimination create additional challenges for Black and Latino children, and those challenges are compounded if they are from poor families. As a result, their academic and career success is less certain. For Asian students, the story is similar in some ways, but different in others: in kindergarten, poor Asians are less likely to have top test scores than their poor White peers, but by the end of the academic pipeline, they are more likely to attain a college degree than those from other racial and ethnic groups.

“In general, money trumps talent when it comes to the prospects of the poor and the working class. In other words, if you come from a poor or working-class family, the chances are slim that you’ll be able to be all that you can be. Conversely, innate ability has a much better chance to shine through for upper-class children, who predominantly are White. For these more advantaged youth, signs of high potential in early childhood accurately predict success in college and the labor market. For the most part, if you come from a more advantaged family, you get the best shot at being all you can be.

“People of all abilities and backgrounds experience false starts and stumbles. But advantaged students in the middle and upper classes are guided by helping hands that usher them along the academic pathway. Meanwhile, economically disadvantaged students, even those with academic potential and performance similar to those of their affluent peers, are more likely to fall and stay behind. When students from affluent families stumble, they have a softer landing and assistance getting back up, while those in adverse environments land on rocky ground that does little to help them bounce back.

“Thus, children from families with low socioeconomic standing and racial or ethnic minority status are too often left behind in our schools and in our society. For a majority of these children, upward economic mobility is not within reach. Among students from families with low socioeconomic status, half who had high test scores in kindergarten have already fallen behind by eighth grade. And Black and Latino students, regardless of class, face additional systemic barriers to achievement. The picture for Black students is particularly bleak: among economically disadvantaged students, 6 in 10 Black students who had above median test scores as kindergartners have been left behind by eighth grade, compared to fewer than 4 in 10 White and Latino students and 2 in 10 Asian students.”

Poor people have known all of this for a very long time, too long in fact, especially poor black and Latino people — it’s the rich white people who barely have a clue. You can’t blame them though: “successful” people of all colors tend to believe their success is based mostly on their personal qualities, not on some socioeconomic lottery. And successful white people especially hate to even entertain the possibility that everything they’ve achieved may be based merely on the color of their skin. Who would? No, it’s better to believe your success is due to your brains, your work ethic and your own talents, and maybe a little luck. To believe otherwise might make a rich white man start to feel like he doesn’t deserve everything he has — though it also might make him realize that the poor, unsuccessful people may not deserve everything they have not.

Anyone raised in an immigrant, working-class family is taught, that to make it in this world, you have to work hard and be smart, with the first being 10 times as crucial as the second. And because the media regularly feeds us rags-to-riches stories of someone beating the odds through sheer determination and luck (with the promise that, the harder you work, the luckier you’ll be), a lot of Americans carry the illusion that success can happen to anybody willing to roll up his or her sleeves and grind (like a gear in a machine). Clearly such thinking is useful for a system in which an ocean of toilers slaves away for the swelling profits of a shrinking elite. Should the all-powerful working class ever begin to realize that hard work doesn’t pay off — that, in nearly every case, to be born empty-bellied is to eventually die empty-bellied — they might decide the rich man’s system doesn’t work for them. And what can the rich man do or say then? What is a soft, blissful 10 percent against a hard and enraged 90? I’ll tell you what it is — doomed.

Most of the hardest-working people I know are the poorest and most out-of-luck, working long days or nights in brutal, often dangerous jobs, “lead[ing] lives of quiet desperation.” These same men and women are usually the best and most valuable workers at their companies, and they only half-laugh when they say they know and do more than their higher-ups, who are almost always rich white men, or at least white. I find it hard to believe the higher-ups don’t know it, too. But hubris is dumb, deaf and blind.

Growing up, I was usually one of the smartest kids in my class, and one of the poorest. My mom was a Honduran immigrant raising three kids on her own and driving a forklift during the graveyard shift at a screw factory. That she had been in the Navy didn’t seem to help a thing. We were pretty much homeless during one and a half of the four years I was in high school (I went to two high schools, of course), with us staying with my aunt and my two younger cousins, or with my grandma in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood. A lot of nights I slept over a friend’s house, with little more than a change of underwear. (I remember the day my friend’s mom bought me a toothbrush to keep at her house.)

Meanwhile, I had been selected as Chicago’s Young Author of the Month back way back in second grade, and my test scores consistently landed me in the top ten percent of students in the country. And I was very proud of the 25 I got on my ACT on the very first try, not having studied or taken those fancy prep courses the other kids had. I entered DePaul as a psychology major, and I guess I did pretty good on the entrance exams, because I was promptly redirected into the school’s honors accounting program. But the rest, as it turned out, is history.

I have often wondered what I might’ve made of myself had I been born into a middle-class family, or at least a working-class family with two parents. A man can drive himself ragged tinkering with the facts of his past, and it’s a complete waste of life anyhow. Que era, era. All I can control is what I do today, how I act and react in the world now.

But I still resent having to contend with a system that actively redistributes luck and opportunities to people whose parents had lighter skin and more money than mine. I resent it not only personally but civically. A system that rewards wealth and whiteness above merit is a system that makes a genius a janitor and a moron a mogul. It isn’t Mexico that isn’t sending us its best, but capitalism, and the institutionalized racism which works to ensure that nearly all the people who benefit the most from capitalism are white. Think of the inefficiencies and incompetencies bred by such a system, all the wasted talent and human potential. For all my brains, good looks and drive, my mind stays on all the smarter, better looking and harder working black and Latino men and women out there who will never have half of what I’ve managed to obtain (through my wife, mostly, and a lot of luck). It isn’t fair, it isn’t right, and it certainly isn’t smart.

Then again, what’s smart got to do with it?


Featured image: Glen Bledsoe/Flickr

Hector is the editor and publisher of Enclave. A Chicago writer now floating on the edge of Las Vegas, he is also the former deputy editor for Latino Rebels, as well as the former managing editor for Gozamos, a Latino art-activism site based in his home town. He has contributed to RedEye, a Chicago daily geared toward millennials, and La Respuesta, a New York-based site for the Puerto Rican Diaspora, plus a number of publications, including The Huffington Post. He studied history (for some reason) at the University of Illinois-Chicago, where his focus was on ethnic relations in the United States.

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