Recent news based on last year’s census data reported on how severely the recession has impacted different ethnic groups in the United States. The report speaks in opposition to one of our longest-held cultural myths. Specifically, it refutes the capitalist, often conservative belief in the bootstrap mentality. As the legend goes, success and wealth go hand in hand with hard work and self-reliance. This current economic downturn has proven it untrue yet again. If all things were equal, which they are not and have never been, that old myth might have some validity. But the issue here is a question of starting points. They are not and never have been the same. Whites have long had more capital to begin with, and those non-white have had to make do with much less.
Seeking to put the matter in a broader context, I’ll take a different tact altogether. For an analogy, I’ll reach back into our nation’s past. As a native Southerner, I’ve seen the results of economic inequality for years. The antebellum South was in many ways a wealthy region, but most of its money was concentrated in the hands of a few wealthy planters. The majority of whites were poor subsistence farmers. Some participated directly in the plantation system. Others had no connection to it at all. African slaves had no power or money at all, of course. The elites at the top of the food chain ran the show. Ironically enough, on paper, the Southern states were the wealthiest, but only a small amount of what they made ever trickled down. No middle ground existed in between those who had everything and those who had not much at all. A middle class had begun to coalesce in the North, but not so for its Southern cousins.
The Civil War utterly destroyed the South. The top heavy distribution of wealth which in many ways rivals our own today is part of the reason why the devastation was so intense and long lasting. With the growth and spread of industrialization in the North, the South slipped further behind the rest of the country in the years following the conflict. Its fate would be cruel enough if another catastrophic event were not to arrive. This time, it took the form of the Great Depression. Whatever income the South was able to accumulate was then wiped out by the Depression. And it wasn’t until the Post-World War II economic boom that a phenomenon called the Bulldozer Revolution brought the beginnings of modernization to the South.
Even with that effort, the South has always lagged behind when it comes down to progressive ideas and basic infrastructure. Concentrated wealth and education in one spot usually does facilitate innovation. Evening the score is a bit like asking someone to run a race when another runner has been given a thirty second head start. But to return to the column that provoked my reply, racism, if not overt, then certainly institutionalized is to blame, in part. But essentially the system’s failing is that that so many of us place full faith in a system designed to concentrate wealth in small pockets and disinclined to assist those who do not have the privilege of favorable birth. Capitalism provides no incentive to do anything more than make money and to hang on to what it already has. I think constantly about how lucky I am to have been born middle class. Having some degree of income that carries over from generation to generation influences everything: our basic physical health, our standard of living, how satisfied we are with our life, our level of education, what jobs are available to us, and many others crucial factors.
Income disparities create the ills that confound us as a society. Instead of fixing them fully, we devise band-aid solutions which sound effective but only treat the effects of a problem, not the causes. The way to solve a crime wave is not to build more jails. The way to address unwanted pregnancies is not to shame, guilt, and otherwise seek to humiliate young women. The way to get children and adults to eat healthily is to provide the resources needed to buy healthy products, not condemn them for being overweight. We can no longer wash our hands of the problem, or worse yet, outsource it to someone else. This is no longer somebody else’s riddle to solve. Should we be unwilling to act, we should never be allowed to complain about the aftereffects. It’s easy enough to pull yourself up by your bootstraps, but impossible when someone steals your boots.