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 enforced. Dad, 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 at least on the community college level, 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.