A Close Look at Individuals

In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander finds a common ground between Republicans and Democrats when looking at who we consider change agents in our system. Both groups look at the power of the individual as the driving force of America and see the individual as the mechanism through which change and a better future are possible. The two camps may see the actions of the individual a bit differently, but nevertheless both focus on the individual.

 

Throughout her book however, Alexander is critical of the idea that the individual is capable of creating and instigating the changes in America that are necessary to overcome enormous challenges. There are too many structural barriers for individuals to overcome, and even if the individual does rise to the top, the idea that they can lift an entire group is unrealistic. The individual may play an incredible role, and in America the strength of the individual may be fantasized by popular culture, but the individual exists in a complex society that can only truly change and advance through the mobilization of entire social groups. I agree with Alexander that the structural barriers are too great for us to address on our own, and I want to look at how we think about the individual versus the collective, and examine the ways that Alexander believes this plays out in our criminal justice system.

 

Since our founding, the idea of the individual has been a palpable force in shaping our democracy. Protestant settlers tended to believe that their hard work would be rewarded with great riches from above, and success was (and still is) viewed as an individual’s divine blessing, given by a greater power to those who are hard working, virtuous, and special. If one was successful it was because a divine being had recognized and rewarded them, and through this same view, those who were not successful were in their position due to individual moral failures. On this foundation we built a nation and a constitution that centered around the strength and responsibility of the individual for personal gain. Our primary responsibility was to be a good Christian so that God would bestow great bounty upon us, and if we all focused on this goal as individuals, collectively we would all find an everlasting success. Failure was a result of individuals not living up to the contract from above, and within this lens we developed the idea of the deserving and undeserving.

 

From this foundation our nation has developed to where we are today. Describing the role of the individual in The New Jim Crow, Alexander writes, “Here we see both liberals and conservatives endorsing the same meta-narrative of American individualism: When individuals get ahead, the group triumphs. When individuals succeed, American democracy prevails.” Alexander is critical of this theory and I think she is right to criticize the focus on individualism. I do not believe there is a liberal and a conservative America, because when we use those terms we mean different things in different contexts, so I will drop her terms and simply use Republican and Democrat because party identification is more consistent and to me seems to be more causal than liberal or conservative ideology.

 

Alexander describes the Republican Party as being focused on individuals changing the system through entrepreneurship and insight. The individual can create great innovations if they are not constrained and limited by the system within which they operate. The Democratic party sees the individual as the flagship leader, raising up and pulling the status of the group and the fortunes of others up with them. Both of these views see power as resting with great individuals and leaders, and see exceptional leaders as the key to growth, progress, development, and a better future. Alexander finds this narrative lacking and dangerous, and I agree with her that it is an incomplete view.

 

To me, this focus on individuals is misplaced. What we get from our focus on individualism is instability, delays, and stagnation as often than we get flashes of brilliance, advancement, and progress. An incredible leader and voice may come along to lift up an entire group, as Dr. King Jr. did during the Civil Rights movement, but expecting a great leader to instigate meaningful change causes delays in achieving justice, making scientific advances, and solving substantial problems that impact people’s every day lives. This focus also creates instability since people change and die, and pinning all of our hopes on an individual leaves movements of change and advancement  vulnerable, as the assassination of Dr. King Jr. demonstrated.

 

The real power of the individual is not in change and progress as both Democrats and Republicans would hope. The true power of the individual is in the status quo. It is the power to defend the injustices that exist, the power to delay advancement and equality, and the power to be a barrier that limits other individuals. The reason why an individual has greater power to be a pest and not a hero is because we live in a society that requires collective action. The Republican Party has demonstrated that a few high minded individuals with great influence can derail the ideas of societal responsiveness and democratic representation. As an example, Grover Norquest’s anti-tax pledge is a commitment to abandon the collective more than it is a commitment to improve society. The Koch brother’s campaign against moderate candidates (candidates who more accurately reflect the majority of the country) is a demonstration that a few individuals can block progress and block the strength of our social groups while upholding structural barriers. President Donald Trump clearly shows us that a single individual can reverse and hold up equality and group advancement, while President Barack Obama showed us that even the best among us can only make so much of a dent without the support of broader communities.

 

In America we love our superheroes that pull the world back from the brink of destruction and manage to triumph in the face of adversity. We focus on what the individual can achieve and use material and financial success to demonstrate our value as individuals. What hides below the surface of our love for the individual is the fact that no one can be a superhero without some form of support from a larger group. What we hide in our past is that those who became incredibly wealthy in the early days of our society did so by exploiting the black body, justifying their actions as divinely ordained and rightful by biology and manifest white destiny. This attitude continued and the white individual was able to achieve their own success while holding the entirety of black society back. If we focus on individualism we allow such evils to persist. We must find a new way to be individuals and be successful on our own, but with the understanding that our individual success in terms of wealth, possessions, jobs, and family has as much  to do with with us as individuals as it has to do with the stability and protection offered by the larger society in which we live.

Returning to Self Sufficiency

I’m not sure what it is that makes us want to do things on our own and show that we are independent and strong. Perhaps we have a drive to escape from the dependence of our families and parents to show that we are no longer helpless children, and that we can survive independent from the structures that raised us. I’d imagine some of us have this feeling more strongly than others, something that our ancestors might have needed from some members of society when we lived in small tribes. At that time, for humanity to survive and grow, we needed brave individuals who could venture out on their own to find new resources.

 

I’m a middle child, and perhaps for me, part of my feeling of independence comes from my upbringing as a middle child, receiving less attention than my older sister and younger brother. I feel a strong pull to show that I can do things on my own, that I don’t need to rely on help from others to complete an assignment at work, to hike a new trail, or to find my way in a new city. But the reality for me, and for all of us who feel a strong drive toward independence, is that we are hopelessly, hilariously dependent on others for everything we do. But this dependence on others and on society does not mean that we cannot still be self-sufficient.  Recognizing that we can be both dependent on others and self-sufficient can take away a lot of stress and help us have more healthy relationships with the people around us.

 

In Letters From a Stoic Seneca writes, “As long as he is allowed to order his affairs according to his judgment, he is self-sufficient-and marries a wife; he is self-sufficient-and brings up children; he is self-sufficient-and yet could not live if he had to live without the society of man.” We cannot necessarily order all of our affairs as we would like, but we can always do our best to order the thoughts within our mind in a way that will allow us to be self-sufficient. Even at our best and our most independent moment, we still rely on the structures around us and we dependent on our society to allow us to be self-sufficient.

 

It is important to recognize how much we rely and depend on others, and it is also important to think about what it means to be self-sufficient and independent at any given time. When we lived in small tribes, we were still dependent on others to bring offspring into the world and raise them to continue humanity. As humans evolved, our levels of dependence have changed and today we depend on our society for everything from keeping our homes warm, to having clean water, to being entertained on the weekends. Seneca’s quote tells us that it is ok to rely on others in this way, but that we should learn to be independent of a sense of need of many of the things we come to rely on. Without being distant and disengaged, we should take full advantage of the society we rely on, and yet understand that our relationship with the thing could change, and we could still survive without at least some aspect. Enjoy what you have, but don’t be reliant on it for complete happiness.

An Idea of Inner Moral Views

In Letters From a Stoic, Seneca writes, “The Supreme Good calls for no practical aids from outside; it is developed at home, and arises entirely within itself. If the good seeks any portion of itself from without, it begins to be subject to the play of fortune.”

 

Seneca seems to be suggesting that we can turn inward and recognize a sort of moral philosophy entirely introspectively. What is good and what we should do can be reasoned on our own, without requiring the input of other people and society. Individually, Seneca suggests, moral ethics, values, and a good life are possible.

 

The views that Seneca puts forward remind me an idea I have had for a while. The idea is that we should individually live in a way that embraces free will. We should live as though what we are going to do will shape the world in a meaningful way and deliver us to the future we want. But when we look at society, we should approach others as if they do not have free will and are limited by their experiences and surroundings in what they can truly accomplish. This pushes us to do our best and achieve great things, but without putting us in a place where we feel better than others and where we don’t put people down because they did not manage to achieve the same level of success as us. In a similar way, we should live our lives believing that we can develop our independent moral values and structures and be a good person without relying on others to tell us we are good, but when we look out at society we should try to work with other people to develop a clear definition and picture of what we think is good, moral, and just. We should view society as operating as though each person is dependent on others and incapable of individually changing the world without collective action. I’m still working through these two contradictory views of self versus world, and while they conflict, they seem to be able to create a narrative that is functional for us.

 

I feel that Seneca’s quote argues for deontological ethics, the idea that we have a duty to do things that are good entirely on their own. I usually take a more teleological view of ethics, which can be defined more as a form of ends justify the means type ethics. I see a deontological view of ethics as being easier to stand on its own without need of justification where teleological ethics is more utilitarian and consequentialist, holding that are actions cannot be deemed to be good solely based on whether we feel they are right, but are tied in some way to the fortune of the outcome that they produce.

 

Perhaps we should live as though our moral philosophy is deontological, telling ourselves that we are going to adopt a set of beliefs and habits that are morally good on their own, simply for their own sake. But we should in reality be living a more teleologial life. We should think about the consequences of going to the gym, of being nice to others, and of making smart donations to Givewell.org recommended charities. We can put on a deontological face, but be almost entirely teleological behind the mask, doing the best to maximize the good we actually achieve while telling others that we engage in good actions simply because the actions are good all on their own. This is again the kind of contradictory split I mentioned above, viewing how we should act in one light, and viewing the way we think about society in an entirely different light. I know it doesn’t make sense to combine and put together into a larger view, but for me it does create a situation where my thoughts and actions align in a way that makes me more empathetic to society and more responsible for my own decisions.

Truly Impressive

“Impressing people is utterly different from being truly impressive.”

 

Ryan Holiday wrote this quote in his book Ego is the Enemy which I read a couple years back. I was thumbing through some of my highlights in the book last week and saw this quote and it has been in my head non-stop. In my own life, I have experienced numerous times where I have been motivated by recognition and I have wanted to get involved with something because I wanted to be seen actively engaging with what I thought looked impressive. Quite frequently I have made decisions that sounded good and sounded impressive even when I knew the thing I was choosing was not a good fit for me or not I wanted or would bring me the most value. For much of my life, I have tried to impress people, but I have not been willing to put in the work to be truly impressive.

 

I have been afraid to work really hard on something and either fail at that thing or to just not like where I end up. I have had great ideas of things I could do to make an impact, and then I have been afraid to get engaged and going with those things because I was afraid that the time commitment would be too much or that I would have to put in too much effort to try to convince other people that what I was doing was important.

 

In all of the examples above, I have been worried about my own ego and my first thought has often been, “how can I impress other people without having to try too hard and without having to put myself in a risky position?” What I should have been asking the entire time has nothing to do with other people’s perception of me or with being impressive at all. What I should have been asking is, “where is there a gap or a great need in our society, and is there something I can do to help make that better?” The focus here is not on identifying an area that needs improvement for the glory of being the one to step in and save everyone, but instead, the focus is on living purposefully and using our time, energy, good health, and other resources to make a positive impact on the world. In this way, being impressive is not a goal but an byproduct of doing meaningful work and engaging positively in society.

 

If we set out to be impressive, we will likely do less and feel more stressed about who we are and where we find ourselves. If instead we set out to help alleviate the pain, suffering, and shortcomings of our society, we will end up doing more impressive things and becoming a more impressive person overall. In the end, impressing others has nothing to do with becoming an impressive person or doing meaningful work. Impressing others is really about boosting our ego, and is short lived. To really be happy with oneself and to know that one is making a difference, one must set out to do meaningful things to help others rather than oneself.

Benefitting from Doing Good for Others

A quote from Marcus Aurelius that I keep returning to is “When thou hast done a good act and another has received it, why dost thou still look for a third thing besides these, as fools do, either to have the reputation of having done a good act or to obtain a return?” The quote reminds me that I should focus on doing good work and not on being rewarded or praised for doing good work. Simply knowing that I am helping others and making a positive impact in the world should be enough to justify the effort put into a good deed. At the same time, however, I do want to be recognized for my hard work and ability. I am ultimately unable to escape the human side of me which evolved in small tribes over hundreds of thousands of years desires recognition and enhanced social status as a result of my good actions.

What is important to remember is that the recognition I seek and the praise I desire has nothing at all to do with the good actions that I may undertake. I am not able to control who sees me doing a good deed, and I am not able to control their mental state and the extent to which they will thank me or praise me for what I have done. The only control I have in this context is control over my decision to do a good deed or not. With this in mind, another quote from Marcus Aurelius shapes the way I think about the positive things I do, or sometimes avoid, and why I do them (or not!). In Meditations he writes, “Have I done something for the general interest? Well, then, I have had my reward. Let this always be present to they mind, and never stop [doing such good].”

Aurelius is not talking about altruism in the quote above but simply talking about the reality of doing things that help the general population and not just our individual selves. As a practical day-to-day example I often think about unloading the dishwasher at work. It is not part of my job duties to empty or organize the dishwasher, but I know that if I take an extra minute or two, then everyone will benefit from having dishes put away and having more space in the dishwasher for dirty dishes. It may be extra effort and something I think everyone should do (not just myself or the office manager), but everyone benefits from my couple of minutes of extra effort, including me. The reward and benefit that I get from emptying the dishwasher is the same as everyone else, regardless of whether I am thanked or not. A lack of help and participation in doing a public good does not diminish the benefit that society or even oneself receives, even if there is no direct reward from a third party.

Aurelius’s idea is what forms the core of public service and volunteering and his idea is what we need so that we can improve society today. When we focus on doing something good for the general interest, we are rewarded by helping others and improving some aspect of the world for everyone. It is incredibly tempting to only take action that benefits us directly as individuals, but looking beyond our self-interest and doing something that is in the general interest can have a much longer and much broader impact. This cannot be done if we don’t become aware of our actions and motivations, and if we don’t get past the idea that we must be rewarded and recognized when doing positive and beneficial things.

Design Matters

One of my favorite podcasts is Debbie Millman’s Design Matters. She interviews architects, artists, marketers, designers, and other creative people about their work and their place in the world. It is an excellent show to learn about people who see the world differently and to see what people did to reach success, often without following a traditional path. A common theme running throughout Millman’s show is that design matters. It matters a lot when we look at the built world around us and ask questions about why things operate the way they do, about why people behave the way they do, and about why society is designed the way it is. Design matters because the built environment and the societal structures we adopt or inherit shape who we are as people. Everything hinges on the design we give the world around us: our futures, our possibilities, our idea of what is possible, and our understanding of what is reality.

it is incredibly important that we think about design as a society because poor design leads to inequality and bad outcomes for individuals and for society as a whole. I thought about this when I returned to a sentence I highlighted in Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow. Alexander writes, “The unfortunate reality we must face is that racism manifests itself not only in individual attitudes and stereotypes, but also in the basic structure of society.” When we think about design we can begin to connect the inequalities, the disparate impacts, and the problems with society today to the attitudes and behaviors of the past. In his podcast series, Seeing White, on his show Scene on Radio, host John Biewen reflects on the structural elements of racism in our society as opposed to the individual elements. Individual racism is easy to see, easy to condemn, and easy to change, but structural and institutional racism is hard to see, hard to understand, and very difficult to change. However, just because it is hard to see and understand does not mean that structural racism is any less of a threat to society or any less real for the people impacted.

We should be honest with ourselves and accept the idea that structures and systems designed by people who were openly racist can still impact the lives of people today. System and procedures were designed with the interests of white people and white culture in mind, and part of the decisions that were made involved the oppression, the limitation, and the containment of black people. We still must deal with many of these systems, even if their design has been slightly changed, because the original design was effective in allowing some to prosper while others were limited. These designs mattered, and they still matter today. A system that deplores individual racism while supporting hidden and structural racism can influence and shape the lives of individuals and the direction of society arguably more effectively than a system that encourages individual and open racism. To move forward, our nation needs leaders who can be honest about systems and structures and understand that design matters when thinking about government, society, services, communities, and neighborhoods. By becoming more aware, all of us can recognize the way that systems which are currently in place can shape our quality of life and the perceptions we all share, and we can push for new systems that compel us to interact more with our fellow citizens, and encourage us to see each other as people as opposed to enemies.

Colorblind

In her book The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander is critical of our criminal justice system and the ways in which mass incarceration has impacted the lives of people of color throughout our country. Alexander argues that racial discrimination never truly faded away in our country after the end of the Civil War and after Jim Crow segregation. She points to disparities between white people and black people in regards to outcomes such as wealth accumulation, incarceration rates, and employment rates, arguing that institutions and systematic thought in our country have created a new form of racial discrimination that is as damaging as a racial caste system. However, this new racial caste system as described by Alexander is largely unnoticed in our country since outwardly racist displays of white superiority are scorned and an idea of colorblindness is emphasized. In her book she writes,

 

“The popular narrative that emphasizes the death of slavery and Jim Crow and celebrates the nation’s “triumph over race” with the election of Barack Obama, is dangerously misguided. The colorblind public consensus that prevails in America today – i.e., the widespread belief that race no longer matters — has blinded us to the realities of race in our society and facilitated the emergence of a new caste system.”

 

Our colorblind society is unable to see the dangers of racial disparities and inequities today. We see successful black people in entertainment, sports, and increasingly in politics and assume that racial barriers have been overcome and that we no longer live in a country defined by race and exploitation, but when we take a step back and look at the actual outcomes that people of color are likely to experience relative to white people, we can see that race still plays an important role in determining how society relates to individuals and how individuals experience their society. Because we all claim to be colorblind, and because we equate racism with individuals and their beliefs and actions, black people today cannot discuss racial resentment or discrimination. Their complaints against an unequal system fall on deaf ears, because no individual sees themselves as being guilty of racial bias, even if they operate within and support a system that was originally designed or unintentionally functions as a way to suppress minority populations and people of color.

 

Ultimately colorblindness leaves us in a position where we tell everyone that all people are equal on the surface, but then criticize some groups for not achieving the same level of success despite not having the same advantages and opportunities. We look at President Obama and see a black man who rose to the presidency by overcoming obstacles and assume that racial parity exists. When black people try to raise objections to the way that they are treated and when they try to point out the challenges that black people in this country have faced since our founding, their arguments are discredited by the same group that claims to be colorblind.

 

More than being neutral and meritorious, being colorblind means that we choose not to see the advantages white people have relative to black people. It means that we choose not to acknowledge the ways in which recent history limited the opportunities and possibilities for minority populations. Colorblindness also means that we ignore the realities that black people face in terms of systematic discrimination that dates back to times when discrimination was legal. Ultimately, it is a way to discredit claims of racial discrimination and the existence of disparate impacts from our policies and systems.

Pointing Out What is Wrong

America has laws to protect whistleblowers within corporations and within government because we understand how important it is to shine a light on the negativity and unfair practices of those with impure motives. When we turn this idea toward society, however, we suddenly become quite disdainful of those who acknowledge and speak out against the lack of racial progress, equality, and fairness within our nation. In a system of capitalism there are winners and losers, and the American system of capitalism has a history of creating winners at the absolute expense of other people. This is what happened with slavery and was maintained through legally sanctioned segregation and discrimination with Jim Crow laws. The protections we offer corporate and government whistleblowers disappear completely when the light is pointed toward market failures that advantage one group over another or when that light is pointed toward things that we associate with positive parts of our individual identities. My belief is that this relates back to our tribal nature as human beings. Pointing out the flaws of corporations and government is an attack against the other team and against someone else with more power, but observing the inequities in social systems that benefit us is a direct attack against our tribe and against who we are. Criticizing the system that has helped us be successful individually is criticizing us and taking away from what we did to become successful.

 

Ta-Nehisi Coats in his book, Between the World and Me, observes this phenomenon from the side of an African American living in a society that is in some ways divorced from reality in terms of opportunity, justice, and equity. He writes, “But part of what I know is that there is the burden of living among Dreamers, and there is the extra burden of your country telling you the Dream is just, noble, and real, and you are crazy for seeing the corruption and smelling the sulfur. For their innocence, they nullify your anger, your fear, until you are coming and going and you find yourself inveighing against yourself.” The idea that Coats shares in this quote is that any observation of racial injustice is frowned upon in our society, and that the only approach to racial observation that is allowed is a criticism of black culture.

 

Arguments suggesting that society is not established or operating in a way that extends equity and justice toward minorities are forbidden by a pervasive sense that they are wrong or that they are simply an excuse for failure. Many of the arguments and tensions in society today are related to this idea. Most people are not outwardly racist but instead unintentionally discriminate against minorities by failing to see where inequities exist, and then by challenging observations of inequities and labeling them as excuses meant to protect lazy people who fail to overcome obstacles and make smart decisions. Moreover, if we accept that black and brown people have faced greater obstacles than we have, we admit that we have had advantages that were not extended to others. This puts our idea of personal responsibility at risk because it becomes clear that our success is not completely dependent on our own greatness, hard work, and smart decision-making, but was helped along by simply having the right skin color and benefitting from a society that discretely favors white people at the expense of minorities. Not only does this take away from our success, but it questions the level of success we have achieved, forcing us to ask if we should have become even more than we are given the advantages we have experienced. The threat that white people face when asking whether society has truly been just and equal for minorities is a threat against them, against their responsibility for their own success, and against their achievements.

 

Our country fails to give any legitimacy to those who call out our injustices or to the claims they make, and punishes individuals who make such claims. We offer protections for those who shine the light on corruption in business (if it is a business we dislike or are afraid of) and government, but those who call out the injustices of society are scorned. They are pushed back and told the problem is not with society, but with the individuals who are being discriminated against or who have failed to become successful in the eyes of society because this response is easier and preserves the image that white people want to have about themselves. If we want to move forward and reach a place where we are more equitable, white people need to be able to drop their ideas of personal responsibility and success. White people must drop  their ego and accept that their success, or image of success, is not truly connected with who they are as a person or individual. Only if we change our relationship with personal responsibility and success can we begin to see the importance and value of extending equity to minority groups and the value of honesty in our reflections on racial equality within our country.

Never Achieving Alone

The United States is focused on achievement and success and we use a few basic measuring sticks to compare ourselves to others and to display how successful we have become. Money is our main yardstick, tied to other measures of success such as home-ownership and the size of our homes, the number and types of vehicles we drive, and so on. When we talk about our own success and reflect back on our path we tend to look at the tough decisions and sacrifices that we made along the way. We focus on the obstacles we overcame where others faltered and we create a highlight reel in our minds that emphasizes our good qualities in the face of adversity and downplays the help we received from others or the advantages we started with. When we do this we begin to develop a false sense of what was truly necessary for us to get to where we currently are, and we begin to overestimate ourselves, our importance, and our relation to society as a whole.
In his book Between the World and Me, author Ta-Nehisi Coats reflects on his life journey and the lessons he learned in a long form essay to his son. He at one point reflects on the poets and writers who were influential to him at college and includes a quick note to his son that stood out to me. Coats writes, “It is important that I tell you their names, that you know that I have never achieved anything alone.”

 

We often miss how dependent our lives are on those around us. We look at the smart decisions we had to make and praise ourselves for being disciplined, for not getting in trouble, and for being more industrious than those who are not as successful as we are. Money becomes the measure of how well we have done on our own, and fancy cars and houses become the way we display our value as human beings and our self-reliance through tough times.

 

These displays and our memories however, do not reflect the realities of our lives and our interdependence on other people. We never truly do anything alone. Our lives do not take place in a vacuum and we are not born as the amazing all-stars we make our selves out to be. We are dependent on other people from the very beginning, and often times, the success we achieve can be attributed to luck, to meeting the right people, and to having the right support at the right times in our lives. We have a large role to play in along this journey, and our attitudes, decisions, and work ethic greatly influence where we will end up, but we never truly achieve something without the help of others. We do not choose our parents and we do not choose our genetic pre-dispositions to things like disease, addiction, physical height and weight, or mental focus. Each of these areas could be managed and improved through personal decisions, but it is important to recognize that many of us do not start with equal footing and we do not all face the same levels of adversity.

 

In a quote written to James Harmon for his book, Take My Advice, philosopher Martha Nussbaum wrote, “even though we develop a degree of mastery and independence, we always remain alarmingly weak and incomplete, dependent on others and on an uncertain world for whatever we are able to achieve.” Great business decisions and adventures can never be undertaken alone, and sometimes the people around you explain more of the success of your business than just your own hard work. We influence the outcome, but we never truly control where we end up. Even the best business idea and the best team focused on reaching smart goals can be taken down in an unpredicted market collapse.

 

In Meditations Marcus Aurelius wrote, “a branch cut off from the adjacent branch must of necessity be cut off from the whole tree also. So too a man when he is separated from another man has fallen off from the whole social community.” What Aurelius is explaining is that we are connected to others and dependent on others to grow and thrive. Like a branch cut from a tree, we will wither away on our own. We may be able to become successful through smart decisions and hard work, but constantly operating in the background is a society that supports us. Cory Booker in United writes, “our rightful, long-cherished veneration of individual freedom and self-reliance and our faith in the free market must not be accepted as excuses to fail in our individual responsibilities to preserve our communal treasures.” One of those communal treasures is a society that still manages to support others and create opportunities for others through our connections and collective abilities. What makes us great and has allowed us to grow did not occur on our own, and it is up to us to reflect that support back onto others.

 

Ultimately, our money and wealth say nothing of our value or of the obstacles we overcame to get to the place we find ourselves. Looking back, it is easier to see our sacrifices and hard work, and harder to see the advantages we had. We are dependent on society at the same time that society depends on our best efforts. Being aware of how we benefitted and the advantages we received will help us make better decisions and live less selfishly in respect to others and our society.

Failure in School

Everyone knows it is important for children to be successful in school and to grow to be more thoughtful and successful later in life. One of the challenges with the current school model that Ta-Nehisi Coats points out in his book Between the World and Me is the way in which our education system is designed for a specific culture with specific expectations for specific students. Those who match the culture and who have the right support from parents and teachers find success, but those who don’t fit with the culture of the schools, who don’t have support from parents, and who don’t have safe environments are left behind. Our individualized culture, focused on self-reliance and self-responsibility often looks at schools as though they are an equalizing force, giving each student an equal opportunity to grow and succeed, but Coats views schools differently.

“The society could say, ‘He should have stayed in school,’ and then wash its hands of him,” Coats wrote about the system he found him self in as a child. The great equalizing power of school, was an equalizing of blame, moving the responsibility for success or failure from society on to the individual. This meant that the child whose parents worked two or three jobs, the child whose parents dealt with substance abuse, and the child who had to walk home along dangerous streets was now on equal footing with the children in gated communities with parents who could afford to stay at home and pay for private tutors. In this model it is not the parents, not the society, and not the culture of the school that are responsible for whether kids learn and grow, but rather the children themselves who bear the responsibility of success in school.

When we criticize those who do not complete school and resign them to low paying jobs, poor housing, and exclude them from society, we are reducing their future based on factors they could not control growing up. For me it seems unreasonable to ask so much of a person at such a young age, to demand that they not make mistakes and demand that they become more than human before they are 18. For Coats, it was unreasonable to demand academic success from young children who lacked the support and guidance of parents, who had to learn in schools that  did not accept the culture of the child, and who have to navigate the tough social realities of concentrated poverty. The most challenging part of the system, as revealed by Coats, is the idea that school was a great equalizer, and that after someone failed in school, they could be forgotten by society.