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Privilege and Opportunity

By       Message Larry Butler       (Page 1 of 1 pages)     Permalink

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We Must Talk About Generational Poverty
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A friend of a friend recently expressed his disgust with hearing about white privilege. It's not real, he implied. And because he has worked hard all his life, worn his cap with the bill facing forward, and never allowed his trousers to slip below his butt crack - he's earned every bit of his success. He concluded his post with the observation that, perhaps, he has enjoyed a degree of mainstream privilege.

I agree.

Years ago, I was a college dropout and a free agent in the labor market. I had no interpersonal skills, charm, or good looks on which to draw. But I did have one important thing - membership in an established suburban community church. Word got out that I was looking for employment and I was invited to interview with three companies - a utility, an insurance company, and a bank. It happened that executives of each of these companies were members of First Baptist Church. So opportunity came my way even though it's unlikely I was the best and most qualified candidate for any of these positions. Being white didn't hurt either - the church roster didn't include any significant number of black or Hispanic members in those days.

Did I enjoy white privilege or was it mainstream privilege? And so what - who did it hurt anyway?

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Every time an unearned opportunity is offered to one person, an earned opportunity is denied to another person. No doubt, families and communities will always take care of their own. And some are more affluent than others. This leads to a perpetuation of affluence - or of poverty - and it's a cycle that's hard to break. The opportunities that come our way are more affected by the circumstances of our birth [1] than anything else - there's no substitute for winning the birth lottery. And the persistence of this unearned advantage is remarkable. Gregory Clark observes that family privilege lasts ten to fifteen generations! [2]

So unearned privilege is economic, not just racial. But wait - we're only perhaps six generations beyond emancipation. And maybe four generations beyond native suffrage. And who can deny that racial prejudice has kept the economic mainstream white-ish even in the 21st century? If Clark's observations are correct, white privilege and mainstream privilege are one and the same. And taken a step further, both racial inequality and economic inequality are the inevitable result.

US public policy has always fostered economic inequality. Funding public education through local property taxes inevitably perpetuates poor education in poor neighborhoods. Subsidizing the formation and deployment of capital rewards the rich and perpetuates wealth inequality. Taxing the employment of labor creates unemployment and suppresses wages, perpetuating poverty. Until the 1960s - and possibly until this very day - public policy has also fostered racial inequality. Understanding the interaction between privilege and opportunity can help us correct the public policies that threaten our economy, restrict our freedom, and foment social unrest. [3]

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We all like to believe that we live in a meritocracy - especially those of us who have enjoyed some economic success. And we sure don't want to feel guilty about the opportunities we've been given. But we do need to face up to the nature of those opportunities - and the privilege that might have been required for them to open up to us in the first place. We can be proud of making the most of our opportunities, no matter how they come our way. But it's just naive to believe that opportunities are distributed evenly and equitably throughout society.

[1] click here

[2] click here

[3] click here

(Article changed on September 2, 2017 at 14:18)

(Article changed on September 2, 2017 at 14:22)


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Years ago I made a decision to commit to a life of business management. After thirty five years as a small business consultant, CFO, and university educator specializing in quantitative business and economic modeling, everything changed. A (more...)

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