The Land of Second Chances

October 21, 2010

Purple Mountain Majesty, October 21, 2010. Source: http://bojack.org

I’m so tired of hearing commentators talk about how this is a country that gives people second chances. “What? Really? Are you insane?,” I think when I hear such drivel from people like Tony Kornheiser and Joe Scarborough. Do these talking heads even think about who they’re talking about or what they mean when they say the words “second chances?”

Seriously, true second chances in this country are reserved for folks who are among the elite — rich, famous, public officials, entertainers, athletes (sometimes), usually White, almost always male and heterosexual. For these folk, America is a land of second chances. For most of us, this isn’t even a land of first chances, much less second ones. As Bruce Springsteen would say, “born down in a dead man’s town, the first kick I took was when I hit the ground” is an apt description for a majority of Americans.

The working-poor and living-from-paycheck-to-paycheck middle class, while doing all they can to improve the life chances of their kids, ultimately are dependent on breaks provided within our society for their kids to have a chance. It comes down to a decent, if not happy family life, with no major financial or job disruptions. And living in a decent neighborhood, along with being able to attend an above-average public school or having parents willing to scrape together the money for private or parochial school. Not to

Little Pink Houses, Carole Spandau, Uploaded October 21, 2010. Source: http://fineartamerica.com

mention finding opportunities for outside opportunities for their kids to explore themselves, like through art classes, soccer teams, travel, and so many other things that make growing up more than just a biological process that occurs in chaos.

If anything goes wrong, if a kid makes even a relatively minor mistake, that first chance will go away. Homelessness, bankruptcy, poor grades, even minor criminal activity or rebellion against authority figures will short-circuit chance number one. For kids of color, especially males, a robbery, playing around with marijuana, a fight at school or repeating a grade puts them in jeopardy long before they may realize that life doesn’t grant them a whole lot of first chances to begin with.

If these kids are lucky or disciplined enough to make it to adulthood with a high-school education, that may open a door, but it still won’t grant even the first chance. As comedian Chris Rock would say, many of these kids have to “make miracles happen” — force open doors — for that first real chance for their lives.

Not so for the likes of Eliot Spitzer, Ben Roethlisberger, even (to a lesser extent) Michael Vick. These folks aren’t struggling to find themselves while living in obscurity, and have more opportunities to work with in any given day than the average American person will likely have in their lifetime. But for White males with money and/or the public spotlight, second chances are almost automatic. Spitzer has his own show on CNN. Roethlisberger would’ve only lost his job if he’d been convicted of rape. Former Boston Globe columnist Mike Barnicle is still a respected journalist in many circles, even though he’s a proven a plagiarist and fiction writer. Vick, meanwhile, only got a second chance after he served two years hard time for dogfighting.

Even for the famous and financially fortunate — yet of color — the second chance remains elusive. Tiger Woods didn’t break any laws, didn’t commit a crime, but has spent the past year as a pariah (no need to go into the psychosis that comes with race and males of color, Black ones in particular). Jayson Blair will probably never have another shot at hardcore journalism. Maybe Blair shouldn’t have a second chance, but then, neither should Barnicle.

To be sure, John Edwards, Larry Craig and Jim McGreevey won’t be running for office again. But they are exceptions to the rule. Edwards could’ve jeopardized the Democratic Party’s ’08 election with his scandal, while Craig and McGreevey were outed as closeted gays involved in down-low activities. We don’t give politicians like these second chances.

So, we are a land of second chances. At least for those with the keys to the kingdom of the public arena. You just have to be straight, White, male, affluent, committed a crime before the age of twenty-one — and one that didn’t involve murder or Black-on-White crime — to have them.


Class Silence

September 20, 2010

Mum's the word on class.

One of the things that has driven me nuts over the past three decades is how we in this country walk in silence around issues of wealth and social class. We must never speak of our wealth, or poverty, lest we risk embarrassing ourselves or appearing arrogant. All Americans with an income between $20,000 and $20 million a year are middle class, not upper middle class, not affluent, not rich, just middle class.

Any mention of the top three percent in income (people whose income is more than $250,000 a year) amounts to class warfare, even though they control some 35-40 percent of the nation’s $57 trillion in wealth. No, poverty and affluence are relative, not absolute, and can only be measured subjectively,

Atacama Desert in Chile. Driest desert on Earth and place to stick our heads. (Public Domain)

through one’s own experience. Which is why any mention of our troubles is closer to sacrilege than declaring that there isn’t a God, especially in a nation that prints “In God We Trust” on its money.

There are ways to measure affluence and poverty regardless of cost of living and inflation. And please spare me the comparisons between the poor in the US and the poor in the Global South (Third World to those of you who like making other distinctions between fellow humans that actually dehumanize). I’ve seen too many corrugated roofs in Arkansas and Louisiana (all before Katrina), too many outhouses in rural Arkansas and Mississippi, too many families sleeping in the streets in San Francisco and New York, too many malnourished kids in Oklahoma and in DC to hear that “our poor are the richest poor people in the world” song-and-dance.

It’s simple really. Truly middle class people own a car and a home, or at least, have the option of doing both, with a steady income from a permanent job or from an established niche for work. If folks have one and rent an apartment or home, and aren’t really in a position to buy, they’re right on the borderline of the American middle class, but not quite there.

Of course, this definition does not mean that everything’s all right. Tens of millions of Americans, including yours truly, are struggling to pay car notes, student loans, mortgages and rent — not to mention credit card and other debt — and maintain a middle class or lower middle class lifestyle. Unfortunately, there are millions more who are working toward middle class, but aren’t quite there. They may say they’re middle class, but they’re really working-class or working poor.

Upper middle class or affluent Americans do more than own a house or a car. They own quality homes and quality cars, a Volvo or an Acura, maybe even a Lexus. They take at least one vacation a year with their families or friends, to other parts of the US, and on occasion, international trips. They eat at restaurants with their families at least as often as they eat a home-cooked meal. When shopping for groceries, sales are fine, as long as the sales aren’t on off-brand products like Faygo or Giant, Safeway or Krasdale. They have life insurance on every family member, 529 plans for their kids and contribute at least half as much to their 401K as their employer does in any given year (more than that if self-employed).

I’m certainly not arguing that the lives of the upper middle class or affluent or sub-rich are like being on Real Housewives or Keeping Up With the Kardashians. Yet so many in our public discourse make their lives now and times growing up sound humble, as if they grew up like me or others I’ve known over the past thirty years. People like Bill Cosby, Bill Gates or Bill O’Reilly, Dinesh D’Souza or Rush Limbaugh. It’s well beyond dishonest. It’s disgusting, and it helps to perpetuate the myth that the only reason all of us aren’t affluent is due only to our lack of hard work.

As the richest country on Earth — for the time being, at least — we’ve never reconciled our democratic ideals with our capitalistic obsessions. What helps maintain some sense of order, though, is our silence and quiet, desperate acquiescence to ever-increasing economic divisions in a country full of allegedly middle class people. As a song from Enigma goes, however, we should “question the absurd” here, as “silence must be heard.”


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 614 other followers