Lani Guinier visited the University of Michigan on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. She gave a speech in which she emphasized that poverty is an issue that must be dealt with alongside of the issue of racism–see Speaker Explores Racism, Poverty Link. She said, “We are not going to solve the problem of racism in this society if we don’t also solve the problems of poverty in this society.”
In this Summer 2002 interview, Guinier makes related points about economic inequality and the “American Dream” that she calls a myth:
- Race still matters even as many more people of color, as individuals, are moving into the middle class. For example, those blacks who are now middle-class in terms of income do not enjoy access to the same wealth as whites who are middle-class. The average net financial assets of middle-class whites is nearly 55 times greater than middle-class blacks earning comparable income. Social mobility, in other words, does not compensate for what Melvin Oliver and Thomas Shapiro call “asset poverty.”
- What this tells us is that race and racism are much more complex phenomena than individual prejudice, individual skin color or individual mobility. Race is more than what you look like and racism is more than what you, as an individual, think or feel about others. Racism is a political, social and economic phenomenon that is used to support a social and economic hierarchy constructed to keep some people “in their place” at the bottom and others on the top. Racism drives the narrative explaining and justifying the stratification of society and ensuing inequities in resource distribution. Unraveling this story involves linking race to power because those in power are telling the story. And the story they tell is designed to hide their power and privilege.
- On the other hand, race is not just about stigma or disadvantage. Race can help us see the persistent contradictions between our espoused values and the dysfunction of many of our democratic institutions; race can help us imagine a more democratic and just society.
- This is because race tracks power. Used as a diagnostic tool, the experiences of people of color render transparent the real factors influencing decisions and policies related to the distribution of resources. These decisions not only disadvantage people of color, they also and predictably disadvantage poor whites, women and other excluded groups as well.
- The “rags to riches” mythology of the American Dream individuates poverty and wealth. Those who work hard and play by the rules get ahead, while those who are lazy or cheat lose. It naturally follows that rich people play by the rules and poor people just don’t have it together to succeed. This is a commonly held emotional truth even if it falls apart with any examination. For instance, although it was true that a large portion (roughly two-thirds) of the very wealthy started out poor in the early 1900s, by the 1970s, only four percent of the wealthiest Americans started out poor. Most working-class and poor whites are unlikely to rise above the status in which they were born–especially as an increasing share of the nation’s wealth is concentrated in fewer hands.
- The American Dream mythology uses race as an explanation for the declining fortunes of middle-class, working-class and poor whites. People, especially politicians, have used race to shift the blame onto blacks or Latinos, or “illegal” immigrants. As beneficiaries of government largesse, these individuals have somehow hijacked the American Dream. But the story doesn’t end there. Having less government means eliminating aid to the undeserving poor (read lazy, primarily people of color). This will reduce the tax-burden on the middleclass and other hard-working (read white) people, allowing them their birthright–getting rich. Thus the truth about our social and economic realities is disguised through a highly racialized account of the American Dream.
These ideas forwarded by Guinier (and by many others) cause me to question the means by which so many address inequality.
I have the impression that most of the activism related to inequality is focused on race. People often address the lopsided spread of certain minorities over the economic spectrum. What it seems that they are actually seeking is a proportionate distribution of wealth in this or that minority group that parallels the proportionate distribution of wealth in the races that are at the top of the economic hierarchy (White, Jewish, Asian, . . .). So the minority group seeks to have the same percentages of its population poor, middle-class, and rich–the same percentages as the mainstream races.
This is a worthy step in the goal of achieving equality. But is it a reasonable end? Is it okay for the world’s most powerful country to have a class of people living in poverty (the numbers are growing, by the way, and, yes, the middle class is disappearing), just so long as this poverty is spread proportionately through all races? Are we only seeking equal inequality?
I don’t mind having rich people as long as they don’t usurp control of our government and lives and as long as we don’t have people living in poverty. My father once told me that you can’t have rich people without having poor people. But our system could be structured to take care of the poor: provide health insurance; decent wages; affordable daycare; safe, quality homes; quality education; equal opportunity; etc. We could do it if we could pry some money out of the hands of the rich. Easier said than done. Besides, some say that we haven’t given the trickle-down theory a chance. Yah, give it some time, and we will have a nation run by a relatively few who control and own the relatively large masses of poor. These “trickle-down” people have been reading too much Ayn Rand. I’ve seen her books pushed like copies of L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics book. There might be a cult connection.
Some will call me a commie. I’m not (I don’t like the concept of central command, but I have already many times pointed out that our current governance by corporations is the same thing as central command. I want freedom and equality). Call me a socialist, maybe–if that is what you call one who seeks a country that does what is necessary to keep its people out of poverty, to keep the standard of living at an acceptable level, to prevent the gap between the rich and the poor from growing to a point where the system becomes de facto slavery, to truly provide all its citizens with the opportunity of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I think that this is what Lani Guinier is talking about.
Ultimately, I would do away with privilege. I have always believed (felt? Sensed?) that we should all start off at the same level, with the same opportunity–a truly level playing field. It should not be that the wealth of one’s parents and of one’s community dictates one’s future opportunities. Children, by race or by economic background, should not have their opportunities limited to becoming a drug dealer, going to prison, joining a gang, taking low-level jobs (yes there are exceptions in our current system, but it is obvious that poor children don’t have the same opportunities–else they wouldn’t be called exceptions, statistical anomalies, outliers, etc.). All of our schools should be equal in quality and funding. I don’t think that parents should be able to pay more money (than poorer parents) so that their children get better educations–which just means that they get a better slot in the hierarchy. Better to have it so young people determine their own place in the hierarchy–without any privilege giving them an advantage. This by no means restricts the potential to have variety in our schools and in the development of our children. If anything, I would make changes to our education system to offer more variety. But the quality of the education provided from school to school should be relatively equal.
We should do away with inheritance. Let the money go to the state. Let each person, on achieving adulthood, after having had an education just as good as any other’s, set out to make his or her own life/career/fortune. I know it’s counter to that parental instinct to provide for one’s children. We should strive to be good parents and provide our children with fulfilling childhoods and happy homes. This does not require money–at least, not in a society that does not allow poverty to exist.
I don’t know what Lani Guinier would say about this last part. Her children (if she has any) will grow up privileged, having an educated mother and living in an upper-class community (I’m assuming here). Of course race would still be a limiting factor, and I seek to do away with those limitations. But I also argue that we do away with economic limitations that hold back children who are raised in poor communities, regardless of race.
In our country, we preach the American Dream of opportunity and equality all of the time. Guinier pointed out how we allow the contradiction of what we preach and what we practice to continue because it masks the corrupt system of privilege that benefits the rich in our country. It hides a system by, of and for the rich. Is this really the American way?