I And We

The other day, someone posted the following to my neighborhood listserv:

“An anthropologist showed a game to the children of an African tribe… He placed a basket of delicious fruits near a tree trunk and told them: The first child to reach the tree will get the basket. When he gave them the start signal, he was surprised that they were walking together, holding hands until they reached the tree and shared the fruit! When he asked them why you did that when every one of you could get the basket only for him! They answered with astonishment: Ubuntu. ‘That is, how can one of us be happy while the rest are miserable?’ Ubuntu in their civilization means: (I am because we are). That tribe knows the secret of happiness that has been lost in all societies that transcend them and which consider themselves civilized societies.”

“I am because we are.” When you think about it, that’s pretty profound. In western cultures, it might be considered a way of understanding long-term self-interest.

The post especially resonated with me because I get so annoyed by all the evidence of very short-term self-interest displayed by people who clearly don’t understand how much they depend upon what I like to call “social infrastructure.”

I still recall a discussion with one of those “self-made”businessmen in which he insisted that anyone willing to work hard could succeed, that what I identified as barriers were really just excuses for sloth. I responded that, if that were the case, there evidently were no “hard workers” in the slums of India or Bangladesh. Surely, the rather obvious lack of social and physical infrastructure wasn’t their problem…

I don’t know what keeps so many people from understanding the various ways that social systems operate to enable or deter individual prospects. That “self-made” man was tall, White, college educated, with parents who had also been college educated (and at a very selective college). I assume his social circle simply didn’t include people without the means to access higher education, or people from “bad” neighborhoods or marginalized groups, and he obviously lacked the imagination and/or empathy needed to understand the realities of people unlike himself.

Are there lazy people in every society? Sure. Are there people who lack the skills and/or ambition to succeed (however one defines success)? Of course. In a functional society, the object should be to provide a floor, a starting-line beyond which individuals can go as fast and far as their talents take them. Equality of opportunity–not equality of result– is the goal, but equality of opportunity requires a reasonably level starting-place and an absence of invidious discrimination.

Think of life as a footrace.

If I’m running a race and several of the people competing with me are required to carry ten-pound sandbags on the run, I have an unfair advantage over them. If none of us are made to tote those sandbags, but contestants of color, or those with different sexual orientations or religions are only allowed to start the race five minutes after the rest of us, most of them will be unable to make up the difference.

Removing those impediments is no guarantee that everyone running will get to the finish line at the same time–or at all. But they’ll participate in a race and society that gives its citizens an equal opportunity to go as far as their individual gifts and hard work will take them.

And that takes us back to the insight captured by the post to the listserv: individuals do better, and are demonstrably happier, in a supportive society that looks out for everyone. In the long term, a fair and humane society is in our individual self-interest.

Ultimately, ubuntu is wisdom. Good people really cannot be happy in a society where substantial numbers of other people are miserable.


Facts Are So Inconvenient

There’s what we believe, and there’s what is true. Sometimes those two things align; often, unfortunately, they don’t.

Most of us have yet to sink to Trumpian levels–in fact, it never ceases to amaze me that Trump can tweet out some nonsense, or make an idiotic statement at a news conference, then blandly deny that he said any such thing. It takes a certain type of mental illness to forget that there is actual evidence rebutting you.

We may not approach Trumpian levels, but most of us do cling to certain “truths” that we desperately want to believe. I’m no different–it took me a long time, well into adulthood, before I realized that my view of America’s past was seriously deficient–heavy on the Founders’ ideals, light on some of their slaveholding behaviors, and pretty much void of what was done to Native Americans, among other things.

Then there were my fond beliefs about America vis a vis other countries. Social mobility. Equality. Rule of law.

I now know–unfortunately–that our once-vaunted social mobility is worse than that of many countries. This helpful infographic shows us 27th--not dead last, but not exactly in bragging rights territory.

In the Age of Orange, I’m not even going to talk about the rule of law; as a concept, it’s  beyond Trump’s limited intellect, and as a principle, it has apparently been abandoned by the Mitch McConnell wing of the Supreme Court.

And then there’s equality.

Now, as I tell my students, there are a lot of different ways to think about equality: genuinely religious people will say that we are all equal in the eyes of God; our constitution  requires government to treat equally-situated people equally, irrespective of the color of their skin or the beliefs they embrace.

And clearly, we don’t come into the world equally talented or beautiful or intelligent…

But about civic equality as a goal: Another visualization I stumbled across recently–this one from Time Magazine– made me aware of just how unequal Americans are. It uses neighborhood data to pinpoint metropolitan areas with high and low levels of equal opportunity, by searching for areas with relatively small gaps between the highest- and lowest-ranked neighborhoods. (It didn’t help my frame of mind that my own city, Indianapolis, was represented by a dark red dot indicating highly unequal neighborhoods.)

As the text explained:

This information is useful because, even when places have the same opportunity level overall, actually living in those cities can be a very different experience. For example, Colorado Springs and Detroit both score an overall opportunity level of 55. But in Colorado Springs, a typical high-opportunity neighborhood scores an 87 and a typical low-opportunity one scores 24. That might seem like a huge gap. But Detroit’s high is 95 and its low is 2: a much less equal city.

The problem was, when we found areas with small gaps between neighborhoods, those cities tended to be racially homogenous. In other words, children in Provo, Utah, and Boise, Idaho, have access to comparatively equal opportunities, regardless of which neighborhoods they live in—but those cities are more than 80% white.

When combined, in all 100 metro areas covered by the study, neighborhoods where white children lived had a median score of 73. The median neighborhood score for Asian children was 72. It was 33 for Hispanic children and 24 for black children. Black and Hispanic kids live with considerably less opportunity than their white and Asian peers almost without exception.

The disparities are especially wide in certain parts of the country. Milwaukee and its surrounding area has the widest racial disparity in the U.S., despite having a high overall opportunity score. A white child there lives in a neighborhood with a median opportunity score of 85. For a black child, the median neighborhood score is 6.

Once this pandemic is over, there is a long “laundry list” of situations in our country requiring attention and repair. That list needs to be based on facts, not beliefs.

Add equalizing children’s prospects to that list–and put it near the top.