It’s Who You Know

There’s an old saying to the effect that it isn’t what you know, it’s who you know. There’s a lot of truth to that, and it’s why cities are so important.

The other day, I read one of those pious rants from a privileged old white guy–it may have been Charles Koch–about how the minimum wage is bad for poor people because it makes them dependent. It’s easy enough to mock people who see no connection between the government goodies they enjoy–the business subsidies and tax breaks and the like–and government rules that benefit poorer folks–but these lectures betray another aspect of their cluelessness. I’d be willing to bet that Charles Koch and his ilk don’t really know any poor people.

They may have servants who are poor, of course. But that’s a lot different than living in a economically diverse neighborhood, or riding public transportation with an assortment of city dwellers, or having your kids go to school with children from varied backgrounds.

Even in cities, of course, we see increasing economic segregation. But there was a lot of truth to that wonderful old rant The Urban Archipelago —

Look around you, urbanite, at the multiplicity of cultures, ethnicities, and tribes that are smashed together in every urban center (yes, even Seattle): We’re for that. We’re for pluralism of thought, race, and identity.

The real virtue of urban diversity is that it bestows a larger framework for understanding the world and the variety of people who populate it. If your only contact with “poor people” is on television or through the writing of ideologically compatible pundits–if you view “them”only from the comfort and distance of your gated community,or through the window of your air-conditioned Mercedes– it’s easy to make assumptions about their lives and habits.

Many years ago, when my sons were in high school (Tech, in downtown Indianapolis), a girl began calling my middle son every night at dinner time. After the fifth or sixth time, annoyed, I indulged a sexist stereotype and snapped “Tell her to stop calling you, that boys call girls; girls don’t call boys!” To which he replied, “But mom, I can’t call her. Her family doesn’t have a phone.”

I don’t think I’d ever known anyone who didn’t have a telephone. But my sons’ lives and moral imaginations have been immeasurably enlarged because they did.

Stereotyping of all kinds depends on ignorance. That’s true of racial and religious stereotyping, and it’s equally true of economic stereotyping. The virtue of cities is that “smashing together” of real human beings–a smashing that makes it harder (not impossible, but harder) to substitute assumptions about other people for actual knowledge of them.


  1. Stereotyping does indeed depend on ignorance; ignorance depends on a lack of knowledge and a closed mind, not level of intelligence. My 2nd husband, a black man who was extremely intelligent and had many white friends but he and a few of his friends talked at times of how much better all white people grew up regarding their economic level and living conditions. One day I had listened long enough and jumped into the conversation; initially, they didn’t believe how I – a white person – could grow up in such living conditions as I described. My father did have a decent job; our house consisted of four rooms; living room, large kitchen with one cold water faucet, two bedrooms with a small room off the back bedroom that contained a toilet. The house was heated – using the term loosely – with a kerosine stove in the living room. My father raised the house on lifter-jacks, dug a partial basement, installed a coal furnace and all duct work himself. He then installed a bathtub in the room containing the toilet and installed the water heater and a hot water line to kitchen and bathroom. When the sewer stopped up due to the neighbor’s weeping willow tree, he dug up the front yard, dismantled and cleaned out the sewer line himself – no roto-rooters in those days. Some of our neighbors still had outhouses, my grandmother living nearby had a toilet in a dark closet behind hanging clothes and a pump on her wooden kitchen sink. She also had an ice box due to no electricity. Many homes in the area were more modern but certainly not all. Don’t believe only white folks stereotype other races; it goes both ways and even if someone tells people the truth of living conditions, many hang onto their stereotypes regarding those who are “different”. My second husband grew up in a large house containing four small apartments, all had plumbing and electricity but he grew up without his mother who died when he was four. Our friends were all ages, came from all socio-economic levels from judges to the driver of an ice cream truck; they were black and they were white and they were all open-minded to the truth. We learned and we taught because we shared and we listened. Much of our thinking does depend on who we know; I have been fortunate to know so many of those “different” people. It has broadened my horizons, increased my intelligence level tremendously, and opened my heart. I paid a steep price by loving and marrying a black man but I have gained much more than I have lost in my lifetime.

  2. I forgot to include that my second husband’s father owned that big house with four apartments; they lived in one and rented out the others. His father also had a full time job; retired from IPL after many years. His sister was head surgery nurse at a local hospital. They did not fit the stereotype given to me by my family about black families, nor did I fit the stereotypye they had been given. Assumptions vs. knowledge

  3. I always enjoy listening to the rich old white guys proclaim that subsidies and minimum wages cause people to be lazy. Providing for people just makes them lazy.

    Then, without missing a beat, the rant about the need to leave every single penny to their children, who miraculously won’t become lazy . Providing for their children somehow causes industriousness, not laziness.

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