Opinion Columns & Blogs

Is U.S. lottery land, or land of opportunity?

Three generations of my blended family just spent a week together. The center of attention was the youngest — a healthy, happy 5-month-old baby. Adults spent hours contorting their faces and devising tricks like pulling off socks for the reward of a smile — even better, for a raucous laugh.

She is a lucky baby. Her mom had health insurance and a maternity leave that extended through the first six months of her life. Her dad was able to negotiate time off from his job as well. Her mom and dad are able to keep her safe and well-tended. She is completely on track to get a good education and a measure of freedom about what a meaningful life will look like.

In this, she’s like all of my kids and stepkids. She’s like me, my parents, some of my grandparents. We have been born into opportunity by virtue of our families — our class positions. That opportunity is compounded, as interest can be compounded, by my race. I’m white.

Unlike my husband, who experienced a rigorous education beginning in primary school and continuing through a university in South America and thinks critically about the world, I grew up in the middle of a country that celebrates individualism and discourages even the slightest references to economic class.

Molly Ivins made fun of our class-blindness when George Bush was president. If you imagine life as a baseball game, Bush, she said, by virtue of his birth to an elite family in the U.S., was born on third base. But since we don’t have social class in this country, just individual merit, rather than understanding his place as one of privilege, the former president understood himself to have been born an excellent baseball player.

But class does matter. So does race, because race compounds the advantages or disadvantages bestowed by the class position one is born into.

We have long wrestled with ways to keep class struggle invisible. Others have struggled to find ways to change the interlocking system of class and race. In the late 19th century, Booker T. Washington founded the Tuskegee Institute to educate black people in spite of the Jim Crow laws that were quickly put into place after the Civil War to protect economic interests and maintain white supremacy.

Washington’s goal was to help black people develop skills to earn a living — and then, with that measure of economic independence secured, Washington believed that political equality would follow. Reasonable human beings (whites) would recognize the merits of other human beings (blacks) through the demonstration of responsible and productive behaviors.

Washington’s peers, including W.E.B. DuBois, disagreed. Men can’t win political equality without the right to vote. Change won’t come without struggle.

In response to Washington’s famous address at the Atlanta Exposition, DuBois wrote that black leaders who argued against Washington’s approach “do not expect that the free right to vote, to enjoy civic rights, and to be educated, will come in a moment; they do not expect to see the bias and prejudices of years disappear at the blast of a trumpet; but they are absolutely certain that the way for a people to gain their reasonable rights is not by voluntarily throwing them away and insisting that they do not want them; that the way for a people to gain respect is not by continually belittling and ridiculing themselves; that, on the contrary, Negroes must insist continually, in season and out of season, that voting is necessary to modern manhood, that color discrimination is barbarism, and that black boys need education as well as white boys.”

Educated in the U.S., I am relatively new to thinking about class and its links to race. Thinking about babies — my own and others’ — helps me think better. I agree with DuBois’ argument that black boys need education as well as white boys, regardless of class position.

But the education kids have access to is determined in large part by family income — from preschool through college. That’s not a problem a family can solve — we have to do it together.

If we aspire to being more than lottery land, where accidents of birth determine our fate, we need to change the minimum wage to a living wage, provide adequate housing for everyone, and change the way we fund education so that a family’s income doesn’t determine the quality of opportunity. That’s a lot to do for babies.