Getting What We Deserve? Wealth, Race and Entitlement in America

Everywhere you turn, conservatives are bemoaning the so-called “mentality of entitlement.”

To hear such folks tell it, the problem with America is that people think they’re owed something. Of course, income support programs, nutritional assistance, or housing subsidies have long been pilloried by the right for this reason — because they ostensibly encourage people to expect someone else (in this case, the government, via the American taxpayer) to support them. But now, the criticisms that were once reserved for programs aimed at helping the poor are being applied even to programs upon which much of the middle class has come to rely, like Social Security, Medicare, and unemployment insurance.

Increasingly one hears conservative politicians and commentators arguing for cuts in these efforts as well, and critiquing those who rely on them for health care, retirement, or income in-between jobs. To the right, the elderly and unemployed apparently refuse to do for self. They aren’t far-sighted enough, one supposes, to invest their money in a high-growth (and high-risk) private retirement plan; they aren’t responsible enough to purchase good health care, and they’d prefer to sit at home collecting a couple hundred dollars a week in unemployment insurance than find a job that might support them and their families. In other words, there’s something wrong with these people: they’re lazy, have the wrong mindset, and need to get out there and show initiative, presumably the way rich people do.

Though this critique is not solely aimed at persons of color, there is little doubt but that the history of growing opposition to social safety net efforts — which were wildly popular among most whites from the 1930s through most of the 1960s — mirrors, almost perfectly, the time period during which black and brown folks began to gain access, for the first time, to such programs. While blacks, for instance, were largely excluded from Social Security for the first twenty years of its existence, and while very few people of color could access cash benefits until the 1960s, by the 1970s, the rolls of such programs had been opened up, and the public perception was increasingly that those people were the ones using (and abusing) the programs. So in large part, the critique of “entitlement” has been bound up with a racialized narrative of the deserving and undeserving, which can be seen, in many ways, as a racist meme.

But if we look and listen closely, what we discover is that the mentality of entitlement and expectation is far more embedded among the affluent and among whites than among the poor or people of color.

Exploring the Fallacy of “Earning What You Have”: Entitlement Thinking Among the Wealthy

Let’s first consider class status, apart from race for a second. When someone with money insists that they “earned everything they have,” and therefore, they resent their tax burden, or various government regulations that might affect their business in some way, what is that, if not evidence of an “entitlement mentality?” After all, they didn’t really earn what they have all on their own. Our professional status and income owe much to circumstances beyond our own efforts and initiative.

So, for instance, those with money have benefitted directly from substantial public investment in schools (either for themselves or their employees), roads, technology and communication infrastructures that have been publicly subsidized, as well as fiscal and monetary policy aimed at making capital available to businesses. We make choices as a society, through instruments like the Federal Reserve, to either tighten or loosen the reins of credit — either of which decision can have a huge impact on whether or not you can hire new people, build a new plant, or expand your business — as well as what types of things to subsidize via the tax code (investment, home ownership, hiring, advertising, etc.), all of which can be made more or less costly due to the existence and size of various tax credits for each.

In other words, the wealth of individuals is only partly about their own hard work; more so, it is the result of the cumulative decisions made by lots of people. So if I have a successful business that relies on technologies and knowledge generated by others before me, I am not really “self made,” in that I am, to a large extent, “free riding” on the labor of others. Likewise, without the labor of my employees (without whom my “good idea” would mean nothing), I would be devoid of wealth or status too. And without public roads, rail lines, and subsidized air transport, there is very little that even the most ingenious entrepreneur could accomplish on their own.

Then of course, there is the little matter of intergenerational inheritance. Although we like to deny it, the fact remains, a large amount of wealth and status held by those at the top, and their high incomes as well, are the result of having started out with advantages relative to others. They are not things they “earned” under any rational definition of the term.

According to the available research, if your father’s wages rank in the top fifth of all income earners in the country, you’ll have nearly a 60 percent chance of surpassing your dad’s status over time. On the other hand, if your father’s earnings fall in the bottom fifth, the odds that you’ll do better than him one day plummet to less than 5 percent. And not only is mobility itself limited, it appears to be diminishing relative to previous generations. As a recent study for the Boston Federal Reserve Bank discovered, among the nation’s poorest families, the percentage that were able to climb simply to the next quintile (still far from well-off), fell from over half in the 1968-78 period, to only 46 percent in the period from 1993-2003. Additionally, the study found that poor families are 10 times more likely to remain poor than to move into the highest income quintile, while those who started out rich are 5 times more likely to remain there, as to fall into either of the lower two quintiles of earners.

Another study found that persons who start out in the bottom fifth of all income-earning families as children are twice as likely to remain there as to jump even into the middle class as adults, while those born to families in the top fifth of earners are more than two-and-half times as likely to remain there as adults, as to fall into merely the middle class.

When it comes to wealth and asset status, the problems with mobility are even greater than for income. Research has determined that at least 45 percent — and perhaps as much as 80 percent — of an individual’s wealth is accounted for by intergenerational material transfers, either during the life of one’s relative or upon death. This suggests a deeply embedded and structural advantage for those who are born to affluence, which owes nothing to their own hard work.

Additional research that examined families from the 1980s through 2003, discovered that about three-fourths of where an individual ends up in terms of wealth is explained solely by the wealth status of that person’s parents. Only about 10 percent of those who start out wealth-poor ever attain high wealth status by adulthood, while most who start out at the top remain there.

Even persons like Bill Gates, who are regularly touted as “self-made” simply because they were not raised by millionaires or billionaires, were born to advantage nonetheless. Gates’s father was a successful attorney (who went to college, it should be noted, on the publicly-funded G.I. Bill), and his mother served on the Board of Directors for First Interstate Bank (her own father was a bank president). The Gates family was comfortably upper-middle class, and were able to afford to send their son to the prestigious Lakeside School, in Seattle, where — thanks to proceeds from a “rummage sale” put on by the wealthy parents at the school — the resources existed to purchase, for the students, an early computer system. It was this early introduction to computing (which Gates would not have obtained at any Seattle public school, or even many other private ones), that launched him on his career path. A combination of class advantage, timing, and frankly, luck combined to create the Bill Gates we know today. This is not to dispute his own hard work and ability; it is simply to say that circumstances also play a huge role in where people end up.

Likewise, even in those rare cases when someone rises from poverty to affluence (or upper-middle class status), by the time they pass down any of that advantage to their children, the notion of meritocracy and entitlement has surely been vitiated.

So, for instance, several years ago I was making a presentation to high school students at an affluent prep school in Massachusetts. While most of the young men at the school came from well-off families, there was one young man who wanted to make clear to me that he was not among them. His father had been dirt poor, he said, and had worked in the mills for years, doing backbreaking labor to make a better life for his children. He had worked and worked, and saved and saved, and because of his efforts, now his son (this young man) was able to attend the prep school in question. When he was finished, I told him how much I appreciated his being willing to share his story. In a society as class-conscious as ours, it isn’t easy, after all, when surrounded by affluent classmates, to acknowledge that one comes from far more modest means. I then noted that his father sounded like a great guy, a hard-working role model, and like someone who absolutely, positively had earned his way into the prep school where his son now sat. The young man looked at me, puzzled. What did I mean, he wanted to know, by saying that his father deserved admission there? I explained that his father sounded like a paragon of hard work and personal virtue, which was great. But, I asked, what did that have to do with him, the son? He was fifteen and had done nothing but get born to the “right family” in terms of his father’s work ethic. Did he, therefore, deserve the education he was receiving, more so than, say, some other kid who was equally capable but whose father (or single mom) hadn’t achieved as much?

Unearned Advantage and its Opposite: Race and the Structuring of Inequality

The role of inheritance and the transmission of pre-existing advantage is especially important in explaining racial disparities in well-being. To begin, white families are two and a half times more likely than black families to be able to bequeath assets or wealth to their children, and the value of those bequeathments is far smaller for blacks and other people of color than for whites. In large measure, this is why even young, college-educated black couples with incomes comparable to those of their white counterparts, typically start out with $20,000 less net worth than young white couples: simply put, they are not able to get a head start from their families (in the form of down payment assistance on a home, or assistance paying off college loans), nearly so often as whites can.

And when people of color start out behind, they typically remain there. Three-fourths of black families that start out poor remain poor, compared to only 44 percent of white poor families, according to the above-mentioned study done for the Boston Federal Reserve. Even more disturbing, the ability to retain one’s relatively high status differs markedly by race. For instance, according to research that followed persons over a 15 to 20-year period, 60 percent of whites who were in the top wealth quartile at the beginning of that period remained there by the end, compared with only 22 percent of African Americans. Overall, 55 percent of white children who grow up in wealthy homes remain there as adults, while only 37 percent of African American children raised in wealthy homes are able to retain that status into adulthood.

My own story proves instructive in terms of how racial inequity can be intergenerationally transmitted. I grew up in a modest 850-square foot apartment for the entirety of my youth, before leaving for college shortly before turning 18. I had no immediate class advantage in the sense of actual money or other material items given to me by my parents: no car, for instance, no spending money, no personal credit card which they were able to pay off for me — nothing of the sort. I worked for what little spending money I ever had in high school, at a job that, it should be noted, was procured for me because my grandmother knew the owner of the business and put in a good word.

In any event, although my family had very little money, my mother was able to procure a loan for $10,000 with which to help finance my first year of college, after I had turned in my financial aid forms too late to obtain sufficient assistance to cover the cost. She had no collateral herself, but was able to get her mother to co-sign the loan, using her house as collateral at the bank. My grandmother lived in that house because of two things: first, because my grandfather (who had been dead for six years by that point) had had a steady if not lucrative career, first in the military and then in civil service; and secondly, because being white, she and my grandfather had been able to move into the nice, suburban community in which they settled, in ways that no people of color had been able to do. Even my grandfather’s middle-class career had been bolstered by whiteness: at the time he had entered Officer’s Candidacy School, people of color were ineligible for such opportunities; and the civil service jobs he obtained were also largely off limits to anyone who wasn’t white.

So in a very real sense, I could not likely have attended the expensive, elite college from which I ultimately graduated, had it not been for pre-existing racial advantage, and this, even in a family that was far from wealthy. My grandmother died two years ago, and I received no inheritance after that fact; but then again, I had already benefitted from her “estate” more than two decades previously. That had had nothing to do with me or my hard work. And had I not attended that particular school, I wouldn’t likely be doing what I am doing right now. After all, it was there that I met the two men who would give me my first job out of college, doing antiracism work in the campaigns against neo-Nazi political candidate, David Duke, who was running for Senate and then Governor in the early 90s. So if I don’t go to Tulane, I don’t meet those men, get that job, and then develop the talents obtained therein into a career as an antiracist educator and writer. But I don’t go to Tulane at all if it isn’t for the pre-existing advantage held by my family, which itself was connected directly to being white.

In short, to suggest that where people end up is earned — either high status because of hard work and ability, or low status because of its opposite — is to ignore the truth about the structural advantages and/or disadvantages to which persons are subjected in this society, due either to class status, racial identity, or a combination of the two.

Though conservatives would no doubt reply by claiming that the intergenerational transfer of advantage and disadvantage largely reflects the differences between the haves and have-nots in terms of certain talents, efforts or ambitions — in other words, this transferring of advantage is not unjust, but due to the children of the haves simply possessing better work habits than those of the have-nots, by and large — such an explanation is wholly unsatisfying. If such differences in values or effort really could explain persistent wealth gaps over time, why would there be such differences in the ability of affluent blacks to pass on upper class status to their children, relative to whites and our children? Why, after all, would black youth who grew up in successful, affluent homes, be any less likely to work hard and set high standards for their own achievement, than whites from such homes?

More to the point, even if it were true that affluence and poverty both correlate with certain mindsets or norms that can be passed along to the next generation — either to their benefit or their detriment — what would that fact, if true, have to do with “merit” or entitlement? If I happen to be lucky enough to be born into an affluent home, where high achievement is expected, and am therefore imbued with a set of values and expectations that correlate with success, while someone else is born into a poor home, where, perhaps the expectations are lower (because the opportunity horizon seems far smaller), how are either of us to blame or credit for that outcome? In other words, the “values” that we may, in turn, be manifesting, are still largely ascriptive characteristics. It would hardly be due to my own internal development of certain values that I was likely to work hard and achieve; so too for the poor kid whose sights might have been set lower, through no fault of their own.

But I “Earned” That College Slot (or Job): Entitlement Backlash Against Affirmative Action

This is among the reasons I find it so aggravating when other white folks complain about things like affirmative action, and argue that such efforts seriously put us or our children at a disadvantage, relative to people of color. The only way anyone can say that and not literally die from embarassment at the absurdity of the claim, is because we have ignored the way in which our entire existence has been bolstered by an embedded, systematized form of affirmative action, which however invisible it may be to us, continues to skew the larger opportunity structure.

To become angered by affirmative action in college admissions, for instance, is to ignore the ways in which we as whites have been favored throughout the K-12 educational process. As I note (and fully document) in my books, Colorblind, and Affirmative Action: Racial Preference in Black and White, we are one-tenth as likely as our black or Latino counterparts to have attended a concentrated poverty school; we are twice as likely to have been taught by the most experienced and qualified instructors, and half as likely as kids of color to have been taught by the least qualified and experienced; we are 2-3 times more likely to have had access to a full range of honors and advanced placement classes; and the schools we attended receive, on average, about $1000 more per pupil, per year than the schools that serve mostly black and brown kids. Yet despite our longstanding advantages, over and again we hear the same arguments about how people of color are taking things away from whites — and specifically things to which we are presumably entitled.

But why do we feel entitled to these things, be they college slots or certain jobs? It’s a question no one typically asks, perhaps in part because the hallmark of an entitlement mentality is that you rarely explore the underlying reasons for it, and whether or not those reasons, in the end, can really hold up to scrutiny.

So, on the one hand, I know the answer that the critics of affirmative action offer for their position. They feel that “more qualified” whites are entitled to those college slots, because they had better test scores, or better grades. In other words, they are entitled because of their accomplishments. This, they believe, is a legitimate kind of entitlement, as opposed to one that simply stems from one’s racial identity, as is the case (in their minds) with affirmative action. So far so good, but are those “accomplishments,” which they believe entitle them to slots in the nation’s most selective schools, truly valid reasons for them to obtain those slots?

First, consider the rather obvious (but usually unacknowledged truth) that all accomplishments take place within a larger social context. No one achieves anything in a vacuum, as mentioned before. This is true not just for the obtaining of large fortunes, but even on a smaller level, as in the case of academic performance in school. So, if I obtain a high standardized test score, good for me; but let us remember the overwhelming amount of research suggesting that such scores are directly correlated with family income, the quality of one’s prior schooling (over which students have little if any control), and even racial identity, thanks to something called stereotype threat, which refers to the way in which even highly qualified and capable students of color, for instance, often underperform on high stakes tests, due to the anxiety generated as they take the test, trying valiantly not to confirm common racial stereotypes about their ability.

To presume that one’s test scores or superior academic performance should automatically entitle one to admission at a particular elite school, is to ignore all of this; it is to ignore the way in which those credentials were obtained, too often times, within a context of unequal opportunity. If I’ve had advantages, I’m supposed to look better on paper. But why should that entitle me to still more advantages? That would be like having a race where some runners had a five-lap head start, and then when they crossed the finish line first (surprise, surprise), calling them the fastest runners. In fact, the folks who started five laps back but finished perhaps 4 laps back, or 3, are by definition faster runners. They are trying harder. They are better in a real and measurable sense. But in a winner-take-all society, the critics of affirmative action would punish them for having started behind, or having “run the race” so to speak, while dealing with various class or race-based obstacles.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly however — and this is a point that is almost never made despite how obvious it should be — colleges and universities do not exist to serve as reward centers for one’s high school achievement. How incredibly narcissistic one must be to think that Harvard, for instance, or for that matter the public college across town, exists for you; to believe that its purpose and mission is to simply dole out goodies (known as admissions slots) to people because they were the valedictorian of their graduating class

Colleges exist to create communities of learners. They are not trophies to be accumulated — however much our society has commodified them and caused us to perceive them as such, as mere gateways to power and money — but rather, they seek to create a community of scholars who have diverse backgrounds, abilities, interests, and yes, racial and ethnic identities, along with economic status, geographic background, and a host of other things.

Once upon a time elite schools existed to perpetuate the existing class domination of a certain claque of rich, white, Eastern families, and they were the worse for it intellectually. Thus, the “gentleman’s C” became a standard to which many a Yale man (like George W. Bush) could aspire without compunction or shame. But as these institutions became more national in scope (and mostly to the benefit of other whites, rather than people of color, since the former still make up about three-fourths of those admitted to such schools), they became both more diverse and better schools. Under any measure of academic talent, creativity, scholarly production or anything else you can think to assess, colleges are far more intellectually rigorous places now than they were thirty, fifty or a hundred years ago. This is not solely because of racial diversity, to be sure; but it is because those schools broadened their conception of merit and ability to encompass a much larger range of talents than what once mattered to them. And they have both the right and responsibility to do this, as they attempt to fashion a community of learners.

When someone is rejected for admission to such a school, they have no right to claim they were deprived of something to which they were entitled, unless we accept the fundamentally preposterous notion that schools exist only to engage in test-score bean counting and should have no leeway to construct a class using broader criteria. In which case we should just replace all admissions officers with a computer, into which test score information would be fed, and then we could hand out admissions slots from 1-to-whatever on that basis. Of course, even if we did that most whites who didn’t get into a given elite school still wouldn’t get in, since most such colleges receive far more applications from qualified whites alone than what they can admit. Harvard, for instance, receives enough applications from valedictorians and students with perfect or near-perfect SATs to fill out their freshman class several times over. So, one can only wonder what these white folks would find to complain about then.

That such a score-based scheme would create an entirely hierarchial educational system, in which there were a few elite schools, followed by lots of mediocre ones, followed still by a bunch of schools for the academic so-called “bottom feeders,” should be obvious, as should be the harm of such a scheme. Anyone who thinks those schools, or the country would be better off with such a system clearly lacks the acumen to even enter this debate.

Much the same is true for the world of work. To say that people are “entitled” to certain jobs because they are the most qualified begs the question as to how we measure qualifications, and what credentials we consider important? Are quantitative factors, like seniority and raw experience what matter, or are qualitative factors like accomplishments what matter most? And even if we say the latter, which qualitative factors should matter most, and how do we compare them?

For instance, several years ago, while I was facilitating a workshop on equity and race for a company in Bermuda, an executive there shared with me an experience that highlighted the inherent subjectivity of the notion of merit and qualifications. He discussed a recent hiring decision they had had to make, for the position of insurance underwriter. The final two individuals vying for the job were women, one white and one black. As part of the ultimate evaluation, each was required to take a timed, 20-question exam. At the end of the testing period, the white applicant had answered all 20 questions, while the black applicant had only gotten through 14 questions. Now, if what matters is speed and efficiency, then clearly the white applicant is the “most qualified.” But, as it turns out, the black woman, though not finishing all items, got all but one of the 14 she answered correct. Meanwhile, the white woman had answered all the questions but she had missed four or five. So what matters more: speed or accuracy? One could, I suppose, make the case for either. But the point is, merit, and thus, the entitlement to a job that we think flows from it, is not nearly so cut-and-dried as it seems.

And once again, employees who have had more opportunity (and race, gender and class status certainly contribute to that greater opportunity), should be expected to look better on paper. The question is whether looking better on paper should entitle one to a certain job, when there might be others, who didn’t have the same opportunity — and thus might not have as impressive a resume — but who can perform at an equal or greater level. Employers have to be free to consider the ways that race, gender, identity and other factors could have artificially served to limit the apparent “qualifications” of certain job applicants, not merely so as to be fair to all aspirants, but even so as to serve their own interests in finding the best people for certain positions. If all they are encouraged or allowed to do is to look at outward indicators of merit, they will end up overlooking some of the best possible employees, to the detriment of equity and their own institutional needs.

Conclusion: Redefining Merit and Entitlement for Both Equity and Excellence

Rather than continuing to go round-and-round about who’s qualified for certain things, or who earned certain things, or who is entitled to certain things, be they jobs or college slots, perhaps we would do best to engage a broader conversation about what it is we’re trying to measure? What are the standards that we think are important indicators of ability and talent in the modern era? Surely most people wouldn’t want to limit those to test scores, grades, or seniority, but would want to include certain other characteristics, like perseverance in the face of substantial obstacles (among these race and class barriers), as well as leadership traits, a proven ability to work collaboratively with others, an openness to new ideas and differing perspectives, and (in a society that will be half people of color within 30 years), the proven ability to work well across racial and ethnic lines.

In other words, while multicultural competence might not have mattered much in American higher education or the business world of the 1950s, it certainly does now. White folks who score well on traditional indicia but lack in these other categories can hardly complain about being overlooked for slots in colleges or certain jobs, when those colleges and jobs will increasingly be serving a diverse society. If we have, by our own insularity and provincialism, turned ourselves into anachronisms, that is hardly the fault of people of color. The fault is ours. If we have run to white communities, and sent our kids to white schools because we thought this would be “better for them,” what we may now have to face is that we harmed ourselves and our children, by ill-preparing them for the world as it is, and depriving them of the tools needed to succeed and fit in within a society that no longer reflects their racial background alone.

Likewise, for class status, we should engage a broader conversation about entitlement, about who has what and why? We should discuss, all of us, the way that working class peoples continue to fall farther behind, regardless of constantly expanding labor productivity and hard work. We should be asking ourselves, our children, and our politicians why the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans now owns roughly half of the financial wealth of the nation, whereas in the 1970s they owned “only” 26 percent of it. Did the wealthiest 3 million or so people double their work effort? Do they not sleep any more, so busy are they creating jobs and the other wonders of the modern society? Or is it because of tax policy, fiscal policy, monetary policies, and trade policy that favored these few at the expense of the others? And if the answer is the latter (and it is), then what are we going to do about it? Not so as to “punish” high achievers, but so as to create a society in which high achievement is more broadly spread throughout the society, where people can live up to their true potential, and where reward will follow actual effort, not ascriptive characteristics like who your family was, what connections you have, and whether or not you lived in the “right” neighborhood.

Until we engage these matters, we will be in for many a year of rich, white whining and hand-wringing on the part of people who think they are the victims of injustice, just because now they are having to share some of the spoils of the society’s wealth with those working class and darker skinned folks who helped create the vast majority of it, but who up to now have received little of the reward. We are not entitled to the advantages we are losing (however slowly), and people of color and the poor are not obligated to listen to it, for one more minute.

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