Societal Expectations and Outcomes

It seems to me that a great deal of human outcomes are shaped by society in ways that are not always clear or obvious. Beyond arguments of nature versus nurture, our daily actions seem to be limited, encouraged, prevented, or otherwise influenced by our society and culture. What society tells us is desirable and acceptable makes a diffence in what we want and what we can do, and at the same time social stigmas and taboos keep us from behaving in certain ways. This is important to think about when we look at racial minorities in this country, the way that our society treats those groups, and the outcomes those groups experience. In her book, The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander addresses this idea and looks at how society has, over time, reinforced the idea that black men and women are dangerous, less worthy of social assistance, and culturally flawed in ways that prevent them from achieving success.

In the United States, our society is comfortable talking about how bad criminals are, and about how sever punishment for criminals should be. What gets mixed up in this discussion however, are ideas of race. We police and arrest black communities and individuals at much higher rates than white communities and individuals, and then we place severe social stigmas against people who have been incarcerated. Once an individual has been let out of prison, they return to a society that is unwelcoming, will not employ them, does not offer them housing assistance, and rewards those who denigrate the formerly incarcerated. In her book, Alexander shares a quote from Frederick Douglas that demonstrates how this approach is counter productive for reducing crime and changing behavior, which is often described as the main goal of the criminal justice system.

“In Frederick Douglass’s words, “Men are so constituted that they derive their conviction of their own possibilities largely from the estimate formed of them by others. If nothing is expected of a people, that people will find it difficult to contradict that expectation.” A society that sets low expectations for black people, arrests them at unreasonably high levels, calls them criminals, and reduces black culture will produce more black people who fit the description and expectations that society has created. When we do not create environments that encourage everyone to succeed and demonstrate to everyone that they can participate and be welcomed to engage and grow, then many people are left behind and not helped forward.

We see this happening today. A recent paper from Raj Chetty demonstrated that black youth at the top of their class in math and science are less likely to go on to become inventors and file patents relative to white youth with average to below average performance in math and science. What is limiting our children is a lack of support and the lack of a vision of entrepreneurship. A classmate of mine, Chris Dickens, is a youth parol officer, and he explained that children who receive fee for service Medicaid during their time as a ward of the state see a reduced recidivism rate of about 50%. These two examples indicate that crime, success, and opportunity are not simply matters within our own power, but are shaped by the society and environment around us. If we celebrate a culture that criticizes and demeans those who have been marginalized, then we will constantly isolate those who need the most support, and our actions will create the very evils and social outcomes that we claim to dislike.

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Believing You Are Doing Right When Doing Wrong

A trait we all share as human beings is the ability to rationalize our actions and find fitting excuses for our decisions, priorities, shortcomings, habits, and behaviors. We can take the worst part of ourselves and put a positive spin on it, explaining away the negativity or at least explaining why we are justified in our wrongdoing. Ta-Nehisi Coats looks at this human ability in terms of racism in his book Between The World and Me.

 

Coats quotes Solzhenitsyn and writes, “‘We would prefer to say that such people cannot exist, that there aren’t any,’ writes Solzhenitsyn. ‘To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good, or else that it’s a well-considered act in conformity with natural law.’ This is the foundation of the Dream—its adherents must not just believe in it but believe that it is just, believe that their possession of the Dream is the natural result of grit, honor, and good works.”

 

In the passage above, Coats refers to The Dream as the false history and false memory of our nation’s founding, of slavery, and of our nation’s reconstruction following the Civil War. The Dream is not any one particular thing, but a set of experiences and life expectations afforded to white people in America but historically denied to African Americans. At the turn of the 20th century The Dream was denied to African American’s based on a false understanding of biology, genetics, and race, and allowed stereotypes to mascaraed as evidence based truths, lodging deep within our countries consciousness and as Coats would argue, still affecting us today.

 

We do not see overt racism very often in the United States today and it is generally quickly condemned by all. With overt segregation behind us, it is easy to assume that we have opened the doors of opportunity to all, and to assume that our success as an individual was no more likely than the success of any other person. We all had to make good decisions along our path and we all had to fight through obstacles with a sense of pride. Surely if we could do it, then so could any other person. Our focus on ourselves and the challenges we surmounted blind us to the reality that other people did not have the support, the starting point, and the random good luck that we had. What Coats refers to as The Dream is a set of circumstances that provide opportunities to some (opportunities that are hard to see) and criticizes those who do not achieve the same level of success without also having the same opportunities.

 

We think that what we are doing is good and just, but we are failing to recognize the ways in which we are maintaining division within society. We explain away our failure to act to help people by focusing on the sacrifices we had to make, on the frugal decisions we made with our money, and on the challenges we overcame. We do not see how our jokes, our inability to act, and our hidden acts of segregation (hiding behind economic household segregation) change the lives and opportunities of others.

 

This way of thinking allows systems to operate with unjust consequences and outcomes for racial minorities. Our human mind finds ways to take the blame off us and to place it on others who suffer, face greater challenges without support, and have historically been discriminated against. The act of recognizing the opportunities afforded to us but not others, and the act of recognizing how much we would struggle in another person’s shoes without the same opportunities is quite humbling, and takes away the facade of The Dream that Coats describes. Ultimately though, if we cannot recognize our self-interest and our brain’s ability to manipulate how we describe our self-interest, we will never reach a point where we are more just in our actions and decisions.

Our Environment, Incarceration, and Societal Responsibility

In my last post, I wrote about Cory Booker’s reactions to meeting inmates at a prison when he was in law school. Having a chance to speak with inmates and ask them about their lives, the environments they grew up and lived in, and how they approached life in jail was very impactful for Booker. He began to look at people in prison as real people, and began to look at them beyond just the negative things they had done. In short, he began to see a more full picture of who the people he met were. Reflecting on the experience Booker wrote, “I could walk out of that place instead of remaining not just because of my own choices but also because of the abundantly privileged environments in which I had lived.” It was where Booker grew up, the support his family provided, and the schools Booker was able to attend that shaped his life and the choices he could make. Throughout his life he has certainly had to make smart decisions and has certainly had to work hard, but because he grew up in a more affluent part of New Jersey and because his family was able to provide for him (both financially and in terms of being role models) Booker saw a true avenue and opportunity to make the right decisions.

 

Many of those who end up in jail do not start out with the same advantages as Booker. It is not to say that we can excuse the crimes and mistakes they have made, but if we truly want to correct behavior, and if we truly want to put an end to crime throughout society, we must think about what we provide for others and what the environment is like where these individuals grow up, work, and live.

 

As Booker left the prison he thought about the people society has left behind and the decisions society has made to lock problems away in prisons. “I walked out of the prison free, and yet I was shackled to what I now knew,” Booker writes, “I was implicated. I couldn’t take my full measure of pride in our greatness as a society if  I was not willing to take responsibility for our failures.” In America we place a lot of responsibility on the individual and we celebrate individual achievement and success to a high degree. We are also quick to point out the moral shortcomings and negative traits in others that lead to failure. Our society is quick to celebrate individual accomplishments and we are able to view ourselves in the success stories of others, taking pride in one person’s accomplishments as a reflection of the potential within our society. When one fails however, we are not quick to latch on to their negative outcome and identify ways that their failure could be attributed to society.

 

Great  wealth is a result of a superior capitalistic society and freedom, when local sports teams win it is a result of community support and fandom, and when a new business opens up it is because our community is so vibrant and wonderful that we attract the interests of those who want to give us more. Failure on the other hand, is a result of an individual being unable to accurately read the economy. Crime stems from personal moral failures. And poverty exists because other people are lazy and don’t want to take jobs. This split in how we all share success but view failure as individual shortcomings is an inaccurate and shortsighted view of society.

 

Booker’s time visiting the prison helped him to see that how society is organized impacts the opportunities that people face. How society supports or abandons people makes it easy for some to make good decisions and generate wealth, and it places others in positions where crime and poverty are hard to avoid. It is hard to take pride in society when we leave behind so many people and focus all our attention instead on a relative few that achieve great success.

Quarrels

Cory Booker starts one of the chapters in his book United with a quote from John F. Kennedy, “So let us not be petty when our cause is great. Let us not quarrel amongst ourselves when our Nation’s future is at stake”

 

The first couple of paragraphs of the chapter that starts with this quote from Kennedy introduce Booker’s dad and his diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. Booker writes about the incredible courage shown by his dad in the face of such a devastating disease, and what it meant for Booker to watch his dad fight through Parkinson’s while Booker was campaigning for the Senate.

 

It is easy to be caught up in the day to day relationships we have with the people around us and to focus on our interactions with people at the office, our neighbors, and our family without thinking about a bigger picture and the greater context we find ourselves within. When our perspective is narrowed, it can be easy to allow simple quarrels to shape our behaviors and actions and it can be easy for us to be tossed around by our emotional reactions to small things. Our daily interactions with others begin to take on more meaning than they warrant as we imbed meaning to meaningless actions and behaviors.

 

The quick story about Booker’s father and his fight against Parkinson’s brings Kennedy’s quote to life. It shows us that our lives are worth more than the quarrels we allow to drive our behaviors and out reactions to people and the world. When we loose sight of how important our lives are (not in the sense of galactic or history shaping importance) we allow the unimportant and petty to drive our experiences. When we step back and understand that this life is all we have, that our perceptions and experiences are all we have, we can become more self-aware of our behaviors and the way we use the precious time we have in our life.

 

Each action on its own may not shape the direction of our nation’s future, but our actions do shape the direction of our lives. Allowing petty disagreements and jealousies to shape the way we go about our lives prevents us from seeing that we have great opportunity simply by being alive in this century. As Colin Wright wrote in his book Act Accordingly, “You have exactly one life in which to do everything you will ever do. Act accordingly.”

Challenges Today

In Cory Booker’s United, the U.S. Senator relives moments from his past that shaped him and his politics. In his book he shares the story of a night when he and his father were out for drinks, and heard gunfire on their walk back home. Booker rushed toward the sound of the gunfire, arrived as one of the first people at the scene, and attempted to stabilize a man who had been shot. He explains the almost shock-like state that he was in following the incident, and examines a thought that he and his father wrestled with after the shooting.

Booker’s father was born in 1936 to a poor family. He was bright and hard working and rose to be a regional sales leader for a large company. Booker’s mother was also a trail blazer, running up the ranks in another company, and together Booker’s parents moved from poverty to wealth and to a suburb in New Jersey that had been almost exclusively white. Booker’s parents pushed to give their children new opportunities and pushed to make the United States better for black people, but the thought which challenged Booker’s father was this: “All this work, advancement, and progress, yet a kid like I was faces more challenges today than ever before. How could it come to this?”

It is very popular to write about the death of the American Dream and many people feel as though current generations do not have the same opportunity today to live better lives than their parents. Throughout American history my sense is that people believed their lives would be better than the lives of their parents, but this seems to no longer be the case, and seems to contribute to the sense that the American Dream is dead or dying. My personal sense is that this is especially true among black and minority families. The pressure we put on minority youth and the social decisions we have made regarding our responses to crime, education, and support have created a system where the American Dream is not equally encouraged and provided to everyone, but instead limited and offered to only a few.

I don’t want to say that any single factor has contributed to the sense that American across the country share regarding the death of the American Dream, and I don’t want to say that minority populations have a greater claim to the feeling of despair than others. I think we must take a more nuanced approach to the way we think about the opportunities we provide to children today, and recognize areas where we can make a difference. There is indication that we live in neighborhoods today that may be less racially segregated in the past, but are far more financially segregated, and research supports the idea that economic segregation leads to a stagnation in social mobility. There is also research suggesting that there are fewer social groups and community groups proving services, help, and support to people in local communities today, and this may further the isolation that so many people (especially young people) feel.

What is important to do in regards to our nations racial challenges, our sense of the decline in the American Dream, and the thought that Booker’s father wrestled with is to recognize that we are united, that we share a common future, and that we will be in that future with other people from our community. We must recognize and try to understand how people are thinking and feeling, even if we think their thoughts are misplaced. By learning to listen and understand others, by pushing past the urge to tell someone that their feelings and interpretations of the world are wrong, we can connect and begin to help and aid people in personal ways, even if that is just by listening and acknowledging the challenges they face.

If You Could Not Fail

Before Senator Cory Booker had taken up politics, he went to law school and dedicated much of his time to civil rights and helping those who had the fewest resources. Throughout law school he had only a vague idea of what he wanted to do, and focused on helping people who did not have the means to help themselves. As every young person going through college, he was bombarded with questions about what his next steps would be and what his plan looked like. Booker did not have a clear path toward a large law firm, the way many of his colleagues did, since he was instead motivated by social issues and injustice in the communities around his hometown in New Jersey. Questions about plans and the future haunted Booker, as they have so many young people, until one day, his mother posed a question that changed his narrative.
In a conversation with his mother she referred back to biblical teachings and switched Booker’s thoughts of fear into perspectives of untold possibility. The question posed was not what would he do after receiving his degree but rather, “ask yourself what would you do if you could not fail? If you knew for sure you would be successful, what would you do?”
Booker writes about his reaction to his mother’s question saying, “It was a question that began to keep me up at night—not with anxiety but with energized thought. The question awakened my imagination again; it ignited dreams. What would I do if I could not fail?”
The question posed by Booker’s mom is an excellent shift in the way we think about the challenges and hurdles ahead of us. It is easy to get sucked into a space where we can only seem to focus on the negative possibilities of failure rather than the various forms of success that we may find along our journey. We often view failure as if it is a final end and a defining characteristic of our life, but in reality failure is just one of many experiences that we have throughout our lifetime, and we should not let it hold us from our dreams and pursuits.
When Booker’s thought process switched he recognized the power of the thoughts he was living with. He recognized how damaging his narrative about himself had become. “The most powerful conversations we have in any day,” he wrote, “are the conversations we have with ourselves.” Focusing on the negative and the fear of not knowing what his next steps would be had limited Booker and trapped him in fear. Shifting the focus to what he could do gave him new energy and inspiration to accomplish great tasks.

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

One of the things that struck me about Cory Booker’s United is  the way in which he draws unusual connections between people in society, particularly the connections he highlights between people who live during different times. Going back several generations, Booker’s family had lived in poverty as the descendants of slaves, something Booker did not actually know until he had an ancestry check as part of a television show. His parents were able to escape a cycle of poverty that had dominated both sides of his family. Growing up, his parents made him deeply aware of the sacrifices made by his family and by people in the United States that allowed him to have greater opportunities.

 

He writes, “I’ve said many times of my generation that we drink deeply from wells of freedom and opportunity that we did not dig, that we eat from tables prepared for us by our ancestors, that we sit comfortably in the shade of trees that we did not cultivate. We stand on the shoulders of giants.”

 

The saying, “shoulders of giants” was originally used to demean a politician, but Booker repurposes it to show how close we  truly are to the people who came before us. We benefit from the choices and decisions of our grandparents and ancestors and owe much of who we are to the people whose hard work helped create the situation and environment we were born into. Through our childhood we are supported and dependent on others to prepare a life for us where we can truly survive and thrive.

 

In a recent episode of the Brookings Cafeteria Podcast, Brookings Scholar Richard Reeves shares a section from his recent book, Dream Horders, and the section he shares describes the American Dream as an opportunity for man and woman to reach toward their full potential, unhampered by society. For so many of us, this potential is only possible thanks to the members of our family who made choices that paid off not so much for them, but rather for us. Booker recognizes how much our lives are influenced by what happened before we were born and when we are infants, and he points directly to the benefits we enjoy that we did not earn.