Lately, circumstances such as the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movements have pushed masculinity issues, appropriately, to my personal back burner.   Instead I have spent increasing time trying to understand the dilemma of how we can achieve greater racial justice in our society.  Extreme views on either end of the spectrum have not enhanced constructive dialogue.  I have written the following essay expressing my sense of what is missing in the racial justice debate. I understand it is not the typical blog post for this site, nevertheless I did want to share it with you.

Middle Class Privilege

Let me clear from the onset. I am not attempting to discount the notion of white privilege which has become a foundational principle of the Black Lives Matter movement. I know it exists but it is far too simplistic to attribute racial and economic inequality solely to white privilege.  The dictionary definition of privilege is, “a right or immunity granted as a peculiar benefit, advantage, or favor .”  Considering the trajectory of my life and that of my older sibling the peculiar benefit or advantage that we had was not about being white but being raised in a home with a value structure that is commonly referred to as middle class values.   

All four of our grandparents and our father were immigrants who arrived in the US with nothing but their ambition and the clothes on their backs.  Our grandparents got by, raised their children but did not pass on any wealth or property to their offspring. Their legacy was middle class values. Those values that were instilled and modeled included a two parent family. We had a mother and a father who were always present in our lives and basically got along with each other.  Mom was a stay at home mom until our teen years and Dad went to work every day trying to earn enough to support his family.  We lived modestly in rented apartments with my sister and I sharing a bedroom until she got married.  The first apartment I lived in until I was seven years old had one bedroom which I shared with my sister while my parents slept on a pull-out in the living room.  Getting a good education was the mantra that we constantly heard.  Despite the fact that neither of our parents attended college, going to college was instilled as a basic requirement to secure our future. We were made keenly aware that education was the springboard to success no matter what career we intended to pursue.  There were books in the house that our parents read and our school grades were carefully monitored.   Mom became active in the PTA and one year was elected  president of our elementary school PTA.  

Structure was an essential value for Mom.  We ate dinner at the same time every evening, often without Dad who worked later than Mom’s definition of when children should have their dinner.  TV time was limited and bedtimes were enforcedDad, who worked six days a week, insisted that Sunday was family day and up to our teen years we did something together as a family almost every Sunday. We were assigned household chores and did them with little complaint. We were expected to save money, a modest allowance and earnings when we were old enough to find jobs in the neighborhood.  When I wanted a new bike my father decided that I should pay for half the cost of the bike from my savings.  Religious studies for both of us was required up to the age of 13 and then it was left to our own choosing.  Discipline was rarely physical and we were permitted to at least plead our case before consequences were determined. I do not want to give the impression that I was a perfect child.  A few times I shoplifted toy soldiers from the local Woolworths, started smoking at 15, and I constantly stretched the boundaries my parents set in my desire for freedom and independence.   However, there was always that little voice that would keep me from doing anything really stupid.  The voice said don’t disappoint your parents or risk your future.  The voice and good luck in not getting caught got me through my adolescent rebellion without any long lasting damage.

Our parents did not have enough income to save for college tuition.  Therefore, the only choice we had was to live at home and attend a branch of the New York City University System where tuition was free.   High school grades combined with SAT scores determined which college you could attend.  If we did not choose to attend college full time we were told we could remain living at home as long as we had a job and attended night school.   

Eventually my sister and I both earned doctorate degrees and achieved some degree of professional success.  I attribute much of our resilience and achievement as a product of middle class values not white privilege.  We were not unique. In addition to friends with similar stories to our own Colin Powell’s story comes to mind.  Colin, an African -American, had an equivalent pathway to success. Powell’s parents were immigrants and he lived in an apartment in the south Bronx and attended public schools graduating from CCNY, my alma mater, before embarking on his military and political  career.  Powell’s upbringing was reflective of middle class values obviously not of white privilege.

Unfortunately, the black pride movement of the 60’s labeled middle class values as white values therefore disparaging some of the fundamental values that regardless of race or socio-economic status are essential to achieve a productive and fulfilling lifestyle.  We hear stories of Black students putting down high academic achieving peers ascribing their behavior  to acting white.  The message that taking education seriously is somehow a betrayal of Black culture.  Maybe if we rename middle class values and call them values for success it would gain less resistance.

It is not difficult to summarize values for success. They include a reasonably stable and supportive family life, an appreciation and reinforcement of the value of education, the ability to defer gratification and work hard toward long range goals, spiritual exploration, financial literacy and a belief in one’s ability to succeed. 

I am not naive.  I understand that poverty and discrimination breeds  hopelessness which kills ambition and the motivation to sacrifice, plan for a future and defer gratification.  Free tuition has gone and hopefully will make a comeback this election cycle, affording availability and success to those that persevere.  I also know that wealth alone is clearly not a unique path to practicing success values.  There are numerous examples of people of means not living success values.  The recent college admission scandal orchestrated by the super rich highlighted how people of considerable means feel they can cheat and model to their children immoral behavior.  However,  those individuals, other than elite athletes and celebrities, who do break the cycle of poverty do so by adopting success values.

The difficult message that needs to emerge from the Black Lives Matter movement is that much needed structural change in eliminating the scourge of racism is not sufficient.  The Black community must also look inward and foster and encourage the success values that will help create the just society that we desperately need.   

4 thoughts on “PRIVILEGE”

    1. I had been struggling with this issue as well and couldn’t put it to words quite the way you did. Thank you Richard!!!!

  1. Thanks again for sharing openly. I just wish I had such an ideal upbringing as you did. Or maybe I don’t.
    I was the first in my entire family to go to college. None of my siblings or cousins on either side attended college, unless they took some classes in prison.
    The lesson my father taught me was this; you want to make something of yourself, well don’t expect your family, the government, or anybody else to give it to you, make it happen for yourself. So I did.
    No allowances for me or my siblings. Anything aside of basic shelter, food, and hand-me-downs clothing, was something we had to go out and earn. That set me up for my future.
    Thank you dad.
    We were raised colorblind. My sister dated the only black boy in our high school. My second wife was born in Africa and my third wife was born in Vietnam. It is the person, not the pigment in their skin.
    It pisses me off when I hear people tell me that we should pay repatriations to all black people because of slavery that they didn’t experience, that didn’t exist when my family immigrated here, and when other blacks that moved here in the last 50 years don’t want or expect, while they go on and make something of their life.
    We as a society need to quit supporting this victim/entitled mentality. Racism is vial, and by the way against the law. Don’t just keep compensating, just enforce those laws and move forward hand-in-hand.

  2. Hi my friends and thanks for your great insights.
    Writing is not my strength but I’ll give it a go.
    Although I agree with many of your points I can’t help myself from thinking what is missing.
    I know you all do agree about this point to some degree.
    Unless you are black you may not know what it’s like to be black.
    When a black person moves to an all white neighborhood. This happened in my neigborhood and because I grew up in a racial way the thought is there and I let it go but surprises me it comes up in my head.
    When a black person does a great deed and it reaches the media and are living in a gang neiborhood maybe a target of the local gangs they fear their life is in danger or threatened to some degree. One threat is from their own people one not. This happened many times in South St Pete during my living there for 3 decades.
    When the applicant has the same credentials and the person hiring interviews the person and they look similar to the the black person they see portrayed as a criminal might interfere in the process for them to get the job. What if you looked like that! (Wrong full judgement.)
    When a black man is pooled over by the police there is more things going through their mind than maybe a white person. Once pulled over black person may remember their parent/or parents/guardian/grandparents who raised them of the conversation of their life could be at risk just because the way they look. The fear might be there if they are not more careful something bad can happen to them even if your sleeping in your car.
    I never had to have a conversation with my kids about that.
    Interesting was when my Asian boy was having a hard time fitting in with the majority white kids just because he looked different he was welcomed by the black kids because they can relate. He felt excluded but was excepted by those that also felt excluded.
    One black friend at my workplaces said his extended family warned him that he can’t respond to the police like her agressively open behavior of lot of lot black mothers modeled which they have towards the police. Because being a black male is more threatening.
    Examples of black males pulled over and are highly successful and educated still feel the fear that things can easily get out of hand are also taught to be very careful because you may identify with high profile type criminals.
    I say until we walk in a black mans shoes we will never know but let’s put the gloves down and really hear the fear they have lived with and work together to find the solution.
    As one black women said that went viral recently. We don’t want revenge we just want to be treated equal. Just treat me the same.
    I remind myself now to see what bridges us together comes to the forefront to understand our differences and not what bonds me together due to my deep inside my mind learned prejudices. We all have them though it’s like admitting to the shame of them. I’m reprogramming mine seems daily. That is what this unrest is doing for us. May we all reap from the lessons and find common ground not to seek out the blinding fearful differences that drive us away from each other that are prevalent in the scenes of today’s media.

    Love you all.

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