America Law vs. American Justice

Many years ago at a party when I first moved to New York City after college, a freshly minted lawyer shared with me a joke that all of his colleagues told about their powerful Park Avenue law firm:

Why are the senior partners so supportive of our pro bono work?  They want us to practice on some poor jerks life and liberty in order to be certain that we can be trusted with the property of our rich clients!

Ha-ha-ha.

This exquisitely cruel joke amply illustrates a tension that has haunted our high ideals since our nations founding: How do we ensure that each American receives an equal measure of justice?

It has, we all know, often been the case that those with wealth and connections receive preferential treatment from our supposedly impartial system of justice, and laws many times have been written to explicitly protect the interests of the haveswhile harshly punishing the have nots.  To take an extreme instance from our nations deeply conflicted history, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 required that the government do whatever was necessary to help frustrated slave owners regain their runaway property and so quash that slaves strongand, from the slave owners perspective, incredibly inconvenientdesire for life and liberty.  This was all, of course, perfectly legal, but it was morally and ethically wrong to a degree that strains the credulity of our minds today.

The obvious and well-worn political answer to the problem of injustice under the law has been to gradually codify more legal protections for those with limited means or who live outside societys mainstream; the right to free legal counsel and expanded rights of appeal have certainly been an immeasurable help to many who in the past would have been railroaded by a legal system more concerned with expedience than actual justice under the law.  In addition, the power of crusading newspapersand later radio and televisionto highlight instances of justice denied or deferred have provided a very public check on abuses that might have previously gone unnoticed.  This scrutiny of the legal justice system has, of course, reached a new and startling apogee in the age of the Internet and social media, which now facilitates a degree of worldwide scrutiny that forces many rich and powerful malefactors to squirm uncomfortably under the unrelenting gaze of hashtag activism.

Nonetheless, the United States is still wrestling with the reality of continued injustice, which is sadbut unsurprising.  Any expectation of perfectjustice from fundamentally imperfect human beings is both naive and plain silly.  Human judgment, human perception, and human memory are inherently unreliable, so mistakes will be made.  

The real question is just how quickly and effectively we can address those miscarriages of justice that will inevitably occur.  Wrongful convictions that are finally overturned after decades of incarceration seem resoundingly hollow victories, so we need to streamline our processes for appeals.  Moreover, in order to catch problems before they happen, we also need to re-examine our courtroom evidentiary rules; oddball and capricious judicial decisions about what evidence to introduce or suppress at a trial too often defy any reasonable standards of fairness or common sense.

We have, however, veered into an entirely new legal territory over the last decade or so.

Extraordinary efforts now being made to facilitate the re-entry of criminals into mainstream society.  This has produced a novel three-pronged strategydecriminalizing that which was once illegal, expunging more and more criminal records, and forbidding the use of criminal background checks in housing and employment decisionsthat raises many questions about what is justiceand what is not.  The logic seems to be that reducing what is considered criminal will lead to fewer crimes, and those who have previously committed crimes can be counted upon not to do it againif only the stigma attached to their past crimes can be somehow erasedbecause most crime is but an unfortunate artifact of a overly repressive and punitive society.

Legitimate concerns regarding whether removing consequences from behavior that is often anti-social and sometimes dangerous will only incentivize more wrongdoing are typically brushed aside by those who see criminals and criminal behavior as nothing other than the logical and reasonable reactions of those oppressed by a deeply unjust societyand legal system.  If, as The Rolling Stones once sang, Every cop is a criminal and all the sinners saints, it naturally follows that the boundary between the crooks and respectable citizens is both porous and arbitrary.  We are, therefore, encouraged to see those who break the law as simply unlucky individuals who are actually little different than those who are fortunate enough to live in more privileged circumstances that allow them to easily remain on the straight and narrow.

This is all, of course, a remarkable national experiment that neatly dovetails with both academic theories of systematically unequal societal and economic privilege and the intense desire of many in government to reduce the often steep costs of policing, courts, jails, and prisons.  Whether we will see the desired outcomesless crime, more social harmony, and a more egalitarian countryis still an open question, and acrimonious and unending debates regarding the collection and interpretation of crime data going forward will be as predictable as daffodils in the springtime.

Those who advocate on each side of the equationdemanding more rights for either the victims or the lawbreakerswill each have key roles to play in determining the ultimate political and cultural outcomes of this unique inquiry into both the possible redemption from human weakness and the true boundaries of human forgiveness.  Whether we will soon be celebrating a new era of community peace and respect or frantically polishing the rust off the bars at the old county jail will likely determine the social and cultural milieu of America for many decades to come.

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How Do We Make America More “Fair” For All?

Two stories recently in the newsproposals to pay reparations to Black Americans to compensate for the legacy of slavery and the SATs new adversity scorethat is meant to quantify the unique personal challenges faced by some college applicantsspeak to our nations desire to lend a helping hand to those who have suffered through no fault of their own.  We have traditionally distinguished between those whom we deem complicit in creating their own problems and those whom we believe are innocent victims of circumstances beyond their control.  This dichotomy explains why, for example, Americans are typically far more sympathetic to the plight of undocumented Dreamerswho were snuck into the U.S. by their parents as children compared to our often more punitive attitudes toward adults detained for illegal entrywe perceive that adults have choices but children have none.

The quest for equity both drives and complicates our political discussions today.  The desire of many to promote policies that encourage diversity in many facets of our public lifeparticularly in education and employmentis born of the belief that discrimination and its resulting inequities must be remedied through the direct intervention of affirmative action programs.  These policies, however, often collide headlong with our other commitment to meritocracythe belief that it is the most fair that positions or promotions go to the most talented or most qualifiedbecause some believe these meritocratic systems are reinforcing historic wrongs by penalizing individuals whose ancestors were denied advantages that more privileged groups now take for granted.  

It could be reasonably argued that a great deal of the stark political divide in America today revolves around vastly differing ideas regarding who is actually victimized by the non-meritocratic systems now often used to create a more fair society.  Those who are favored by affirmative action policies see it as a case of justice deferred being finally set right; those who feel college admissions or jobs are being handed to someone with fewer qualifications than them believe that their hard work is being ignored in pursuit of someone elses social justice goals, which are denying them opportunitiesor ruining their lives.  

The old joke that a conservative is a liberal who has been muggedmight actually be more accurate today if it stated that many conservatives are formerly liberal (or politically moderate) individuals who believe affirmative action policies have harmed them or their families.  I suspect that the shock of the 2016 Presidential election might be less surprising if we paid more attention to this perhaps pervasive factor, which is less indicative of systemic racism or sexism and more about an individual frustration with remedies that seem abundantly unfair to those caught on the wrong end of societys great solution to all that ails or divides us.

Our individual supportor lack of itfor affirmative action programs, reparations, or other programs and ideas designed to enforce fairnessare often directly related to our own beliefs about the current prevalence of racism, sexism, homophobia, and other attitudes that lead to discriminatory attitudes or behaviors.  Having no direct and reliable method to measure what is going on in everyone’s minds at each particular moment, we seem to have taken a better safe than sorryapproach in many educational and workplace situations, presuming that everyone has some level of hatred or disdain in their hearts and heads, which accounts for the popularity of workshops and training that are meant to promote greater sensitivity and tolerance toward all.  The obvious added benefit of teaching everyone how to be polite and sensitive is, in the minds of managers mandating more and more of this type of activity, the implied promise of avoiding the legal or regulatory actions that might result if everyone at your school or workplace has not signed a form confirming they have been explicitly informed that acting like a jerk is strictly forbiddennever underestimate the power of lawyers who crave a big payday when it comes to shaping our daily lives.

Those who look at the diversity of our political, cultural, and entertainment icons and see a cross-section that captures the amazing richness of our nationcombined with the election (and re-election) of Barack Obama to our nations highest officefeel that this is clear evidence our country has left its history of overtly hateful behaviors and laws far behind us.  Others, however, point to the election of Donald Trump and his administrations apparent lack of interest in pursuing affirmative action policies as equally persuasive proof of a white backlash that aims to quash the aspirations of many by reasserting discriminatory policies disguised as meritocracy.

All these discussions become even more fraught when matters pertaining to the use of standardized testing for school or college admissions are added to the discussion.  Many believe that evidence-based studies prove that these tests are either themselves discriminatory or actually act as proxies for measuring outcomes, such as family wealth and the resulting ability to afford pricey test prepcourses, that are nothing more than artifacts of historic discrimination.  Therefore, the continued use of these tests to determine admissions might perpetuate inequities and deny diversity.  

On the other hand, others point to the predictive value of these standardized tests regarding long-term academic and career success.  In addition, they believe that quota systems meant to circumvent themwhich in some cases have reduced the number of seats available to Asian-American students in order to admit Blacks and Latinos who scored lowerare a perverse and damaging rejection of the color-blind meritocracy these tests purport to promote.  

The resolution of the many lawsuits regarding these matters will likely only further inflame tensions regarding whether reliance upon standardized tests in admissions decisions is fairor not.  In addition, we have no assurance that the best efforts of schools and colleges to mitigate the effects of the many factors that impact academic readiness or success will not result in other types of subtle discrimination if human judgments and intuitions, which are sometimes flawed or easily manipulated, suddenly become the ultimate factor in determining admissions.  

Moreover, we have to worry whether ditching these standardized tests will ultimately result in the return of the old boy networkof personal connections in admissions decisions, which is exactly what the use of these tests was designed to end.  Will seats at the best schools end up going to children whose parents know how to twist the system and, sadly enough, return us to an incredibly unfair reality that at one time allowed those with wealth and power to readily and regularly perpetuate their advantages across generations by subtlyand often invisiblyusing their influence to open doors for their own children?

It is good that we have these conversations.  Our nations ongoing commitment to justice is a feature of our nation that we should celebrate at every turn, and the passions that inform these discussions are a tribute to the continued vibrancy of our civic culture.  The debate regarding the form, function, and outcomes of traditional meritocratic systems of placement and promotion has become a mirror reflecting a broader societal evaluation of our nations progressor perhaps lack thereofin creating a nation that is more welcoming toward all.  

How we parcel out seats at selective colleges and universities, whom we choose to govern us, what factors we feel are important in evaluating employee talent and performanceand ultimately how we choose to define ourselves and our communitieswill be that which will determine the direction of our diverse, fascinating, and argumentative country in the years and decades ahead.  Although the discussions of these issues often feature the worst insults and stereotypes being tossed about by some, we need to continue to pursue an evaluation of these questions and encourage thoughtful consideration of the moral and ethical matters that are inevitably raised as we proceed.

The Great Schism

As far back as Sodom and Gomorrah in The Holy Bible, cities have been seen as centers of sin and degradation and were often presented in stark contrast to rural towns and areas, which were considered the wellspring of sobriety and piety. This duality has run through the history of civilization, and it has influenced every facet of the arts, politics, and social mores for every society.  Country life was pure and wholesome, the city was rife with immorality and greed, and each viewed the other with distrust and condescension. 

As with any stereotype, there is perhaps some truth buried there.  Cities are often a place where people flee to escape the shackles of traditional beliefs and morality in order to reinvent themselves free of constraint; rural areas are generally populated by those who are comfortable with the values bequeathed to them by their parents and grandparents and so are more suspicious of change for change’s sake.  However, this does not necessarily translate into the more insulting stereotypes of ignorant and bigoted rustics pitted against conniving and degenerate urbanites.  The truth is, of course, far more complex, and both good and bad individuals can be found both in the country and the city—neither has a monopoly on either decency or vice.

We are, however, today experiencing an unusually high degree of disconnect between our major cities, which are invariably controlled by Democrats, and rural areas, which are almost exclusively controlled by Republicans.  The great electoral prize for both sides are obviously suburban voters, who do not generally align as rigidly with either of our two major political parties.  The geographic entrenchment of both parties—Democrats in big cities and college towns with Republicans controlling virtually everywhere else—was a vivid and telling aspect of the electoral map in 2016, and these differences have seemed to only further hardened in the years since.  The mutual cultural and social disdain that urban and rural residents have historically directed at one another has now taken on an acutely political dimension that is further dividing our nation.

There are obvious economic reasons why this divide has worsened in recent decades.  As cities have become ever more reliant on technology and finance jobs—manufacturing having been mostly driven out decades before—escalating real estate prices and their ripple effects on retail and services have created urban economic conditions that are extraordinarily (perhaps even dangerously) bifurcated.  At the top of the pyramid, we see wealthy and cosmopolitan urbanites who see themselves as citizens of a new internationalized economic order that allows them to generate enormous personal wealth.  Everyone else is left to scramble to scratch out a daily existence made enormously challenging by a cost structure that makes even paying for basic daily needs such as groceries a significant problem.  

Because of the extraordinary disconnect between the very rich and very poor that is now characteristic of city living, America’s urban areas are filling up with the homeless and the hopeless, and city streets are increasing being overrun with street encampments, rats, feces, and discarded needles, which unsurprisingly leads to louder and louder calls for government action to “solve” a problem that is largely attributable to highly restrictive zoning laws and wild real estate speculation, both tacitly if not openly encouraged by city leaders, that serve the needs of the wealthy at the expense of everyone else.

Those who live in rural areas of the nation look at the obvious dysfunction of many of our nation’s big cities and the desire of big city politicians to keep raising taxes to pay for more services to deal with those dysfunctions—and are repelled.  The idea that some Republican politicians in Illinois are now floating to cast Democratic Chicago adrift like a plague victim in a lonely lifeboat is related to proposals in California to separate the major cities on the coast from the inland areas and the eternal dislike of so many New Yorkers for New York City and it’s seemingly parasitic ways.  Rural residents look at the crime, filth, and insane costs of city living (“$25 for a PB & J?  Seriously?”), want to stay as far away as possible—and believe government is too often held hostage to the greed, immorality, and corruption of big city politicians whosneer at their simpler and perhaps more sensible lives.

Given the choice between free spending urban Democrats who apparently have never met a tax or fee they didn’t like and rural Republican politicians who often view government as a necessary evil, it is hardly a surprise that so few of the “Deplorables” voted for Hillary Clinton, whom they saw as just another big government swamp creature, in the 2016 election.  However, looking at it from the perspective of urban voters who felt that Hillary Clinton’s loss was an outcome of the racism, sexism, and xenophobia indicative of “white frailty”, the election results only confirmed their worst stereotypes of the ignorant and bigoted country rubes parading around with their assault rifles, abusing their simpleton wives, denigrating their repressed daughters, and mocking those who are not white and Christian.

This mutual incomprehension is more comprehensible when you look at the manner in which politicians often actively work to divide us in order to solidify their own block of voters.  Only today I read of one Democrat in Congress calling Republican voters ignorant and a Republican in the Senate calling Democrats extremists.  Add to this the incessant cable news gabfests that seem to exist only to create a ready demand for Prozac and the unending bile of so many on social media and what remains of the legacy mainstream media, and we can more easily recognize why efforts to understand have been replaced with a desire to destroy.  

The urban/rural divide is also driving an electoral dynamic that is creating a great deal of ill will at the moment.  Given the enormous pluralities for Democrats in coastal big cities, we could continue to see Presidential elections where the popular and electoral college votes continue to diverge as they did in 2016.  Even if a Democrat can win 100% of the vote in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and elsewhere and so win the popular vote, it may not result in national victory if the rest of the nation is turning into an inland ocean of Republican red. 

This may not be a concern in terms of purely local matters, but given the ferment concerning the larger national issues that continue to divide us—particularly immigration and abortion—it is leading to efforts in many state legislators to circumvent the electoral college by pledging those states’ electoral votes to whomever wins the national popular vote, which will have the net effect of disenfranchising the voters in those states if their statewide totals are at odds with the national ones.  Whether these bills will be able to survive the inevitable appeals up to the U.S. Supreme Court is almost beside the point.  These efforts are indicative of a complete lack of faith in our traditional democratic processes and a frightening disregard for the collective wisdom of our nation’s voters.  Of course, why would anyone have faith in the judgments of either “Deplorables” or “extremists” when it comes to choosing a President?  It seems many now feel the American election system must be rigged in order to generate the desired outcome, and this is further corroding an already strained relationship between elected officials and voters.

Watching reporters after the shock of the 2016 election fan out into the middle of the nation like 19th century explorers off to investigate some exotic foreign land, it was hard not to wince at their incredulity when they came face to face with perfectly decent people who own a gun but have no plans to shoot up a school, believe homosexuality to be a sin but would still love their son or daughter regardless, praise their neighbors but insist they reside here legally, and would rather raise a child with Down Syndrome than “murder” a baby with an abortion.  By the same token, it hurt to listen to harrumphing pundits explain the problems caused of “low information” (read: stupid) Americans who voted for fear and hatred by pulling the lever for Donald Trump and other Republicans rather than encouraging their viewers to respect the election outcome, analyze the pros and cons of differing viewpoints, and thereafter work to find common ground in order to solve our nation’s problems.

City and country may never see eye to eye, and we have seen other great historical movements—the crusade to pass Prohibition a century ago springs immediately to mind—that have pitted our rural and urban areas against one another in a battle for the soul of our nation.  However, this disconnect, this great schism between the two, is at least one of the factors driving our terrible political polarization today, and the continuing geographic self-selection by urban Democrats and rural Republicans is a significant factor in making it even worse.  

Perhaps like a terrible fever this battle between brothers and sisters will break and subside into a more generalized moderation of thought and action, but I am not counting on this any time soon unless we consciously work to dial down the inflammatory rhetoric and uncompromising attitudes in all regions of our nation.

The Privilege Walk Of Life

The college admission scandal now consuming our news cycle speaks to the many contradictions that now confuse our discussions about privilege and power in America today. To be shocked that the rich are able to buy their way into opportunities closed to the average person speaks to either an enormous naïveté or ignorance about the power of wealth across the timeline of civilization. Money has always been the lubricant of choice to make life a smooth and untroubled path for the fortunate few, and the wealthy always exert outsized influence on the world around them. To presume otherwise is sheer foolishness, and this is the primary reason why those with money and power are typically obsessed with yet more money and power—it is always nice to be very, very rich.

This scandal also is an object lesson in the importance of social and cultural signifiers in a world where developing your “personal brand” is now far more important than being a thoughtful and decent individual. Given that a degree from one of the most elite colleges in the United States—the ones with the name recognition necessary to improve your coddled child’s personal brand—is now considered a critical life accessory by the fashionable elite of Hollywood stars and corporate heavyweights, it should not be a surprise that a well-paid industry of fixers exists to plow the road to admission. A CEO whose child has to settle for a degree at a state college in East Podunk sees this “failure” an implicit rebuke of the parenting abilities of mommy and daddy, so such a sad state of affairs simply cannot be allowed to exist. Bring before me the “consultants” who will ensure my spoiled scion will succeed and reflect well on me!

However, this scandal perhaps most clearly points out our misunderstandings about privilege—and who actually has it—in America today.

Several years ago a former colleague related to me the dismal failure of the “privilege walk” she had her students complete. For those who are unfamiliar with this activity, it requires individuals to stand in a line and then take steps forward or backward based on “privileges” granted them by society. Below is a list of these privileges and deficits (you might want to grab a cup of coffee first), courtesy of Pennsylvania State University:

  • ​If your ancestors were forced to come to the USA not by choice, take one step back.
  • If your primary ethnic identity is “American,” take one step forward.
  • If you were ever called names because of your race, class, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation, take one step back.
  • If there were people who worked for your family as servants, gardeners, nannies, etc. take one step forward.
  • ​If you were ever ashamed or embarrassed of your clothes, house, car, etc. take one step back.
  • If one or both of your parents were “white collar” professionals: doctors, lawyers, etc. take one step forward.
  • If you were raised in an area where there was prostitution, drug activity, etc., take one step back.
  • If you ever tried to change your appearance, mannerisms, or behavior to avoid being judged or ridiculed, take one step back.
  • If you studied the culture of your ancestors in elementary school, take one step forward.
  • If you went to school speaking a language other than English, take one step back.
  • If there were more than 50 books in your house when you grew up, take one step forward.
  • If you ever had to skip a meal or were hungry because there was not enough money to buy food when you were growing up, take one step back.
  • If you were taken to art galleries or plays by your parents, take one step forward
  • ​If one of your parents was unemployed or laid off, not by choice, take one step back.
  • If you have health insurance take one step forward.
  • If you attended private school or summer camp, take one step forward.
  • If your family ever had to move because they could not afford the rent, take one step back.
  • If you were told that you were beautiful, smart and capable by your parents, take one step forward.
  • If you were ever discouraged from academics or jobs because of race, class, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, take one step back
  • ​If you were encouraged to attend college by your parents, take one step forward.
  • If you have a disability take one step backward.
  • If you were raised in a single parent household, take one step back.
  • If your family owned the house where you grew up, take one step forward.
  • If you saw members of your race, ethnic group, gender or sexual orientation portrayed on television in degrading roles, take one step back.
  • If you own a car take one step forward.
  • If you were ever offered a good job because of your association with a friend or family member, take one step forward.
  • If you were ever denied employment because of your race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, take one step back.
  • If you were paid less, treated less fairly because of race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, take one step back.
  • If you were ever accused of cheating or lying because of your race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation, take one step back.
  • If you ever inherited money or property, take one step forward.
  • If you had to rely primarily on public transportation, take one step back.
  • If you attended private school at any point in your life take one step forward.
  • If you were ever stopped or questioned by the police because of your race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, take one step back.
  • If you were ever afraid of violence because of your race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, take one step back.
  • If your parents own their own business take one step forward.
  • If you were generally able to avoid places that were dangerous, take one step forward.
  • If you were ever uncomfortable about a joke related to your race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation but felt unsafe to confront the situation, take one step back.
  • ​If you use a TDD Phone system take one step backward.
  • If you were ever the victim of violence related to your race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, take one step back.
  • Imagine you are in a relationship, if you can get married in the State of ___ take one step forward
  • If your parents did not grow up in the United States, take one step back.
  • If your parents attended college take one step forward.
  • If your parents told you that you could be anything you wanted to be, take one step forward.
  • If you are able to take a step forward or backward take two steps forward.

Quite a long list, to say the least….

Apparently some of my former colleague’s students vociferously and angrily objected to many of the items on this list (or one similar to it) because they felt these simply reflected wise or responsible life choices made by themselves or their parents and grandparents rather than some inherited “privilege” that is presumed to be unearned and unfair. Of course, those who believe in the veracity of this exercise would assert such an annoyed or disbelieving reaction is proof of an inborn sense of entitlement that is the result of privilege, so a discussion of the individual items on the list might be considered by some to be beside the point. However, there does seem to be cause for reasonable questions about the benefit of this exercise and the purpose of some of the items used. For example, a reliance on public transportation is perhaps more indicative of whether you live in a city rather than the sometimes dubious privilege of individual car ownership.

There are, of course, items on this list that perhaps reflect a tougher road ahead for some because they touch upon issues of discrimination or disability that obviously speak to challenges that no one wants to face, but the overall problem with the exercise might be that it focuses on “micro” rather than “macro” issues that affect success and failure—and some important problems are curiously omitted.

It is surprising that being a victim of sexual abuse or violence is not included—only the threat is mentioned in this list—but it could be the case that the authors wanted to avoid prompting any uncomfortable self-disclosures in a classroom setting. However, it is well known that victims of sexual assaults, which sometimes sadly begin in childhood, are at far greater risk of depression, low self-esteem, drug and alcohol abuse and suicidal ideation or attempts that add up to a far greater loss of “privilege” than whether your parents rented instead of owned your home as a child. Moreover, it is surprising that no direct mention is made of household income as a child. Although some items, such as summer camp attendance or household servants, might function as effective proxies for family wealth, there are still too many individual variables—maybe your summer camp was, for example, designated specifically for low-income children—to make a completely reliable connection.

What this type of list also fails to recognize is that privilege is often a more multifaceted conundrum. Sheer physical attractiveness or athletic skill opens a great many doors for a great many people—and to refuse to acknowledge this seems shortsighted. In addition, basic intelligence—or the lack thereof—is a significant precursor of both academic and career success. Moreover, the implication that a multi-lingual upbringing presents an all-but-certain life deficit also seems unsupportable when applied across a broad population. What about those who leverage their foreign language skills into well-paid positions in business?

However, one item does seem to me to be highly predictive of the type of privilege that many find both frustrating and disheartening: “If you were ever offered a good job because of your association with a friend or family member, take one step forward.”

Moving back to the college admission scandal now in the news, the mastermind of this scam did not have a billboard up on the highway offering to help bribe Ivy League team coaches or assist students with cheating on their SAT tests—wealthy parents learned about this “service” through word of mouth networks comprised of other wealthy friends and family. As with a great deal of what has passed for “privilege” since the dawn of civilization, most life advantage accrues through personal connections who provide inside information: the stock tip, the job opening that has not been advertised, the great deal on an expensive purchase, the zoning change that is suddenly going to increase the value of a piece of property. These conversations that are leveraged into more money, power, and influence are impossible to track—and unavailable to all but the most privileged few. As a result, the highest circles of power in most societies tend to be both self-perpetuating and supremely exclusionary. Prejudices and poverty obviously impact many lives, but our understanding of privilege tends to be both overly preoccupied with labeling and oblivious to the fact that some realities have more weight than others when it comes the exercise of privilege.

These privilege walks might be an interesting activity that provides fodder for the kinds of heartfelt and clueless conversations that fill many college classrooms today, but they also demonstrate a gigantic blind spot regarding our understanding of how power, privilege, and elites actually operate. Our preoccupation with labeling one person as privileged—and another as not—tends to reinforce simplistic explanations for individual success and failure that fail to account for the many complexities of life and grotesquely understate the enormous influence of family wealth in terms of providing access to information and opportunities that are not available to the average person.

We do still, thankfully, live in a nation that generally rewards hard work and personal initiative, although government enabled—or mandated—mediocrity is a real and growing problem. Moreover, we have to recognize that laws and regulations that are written to allow the elites to invisibly and effortlessly skim money from the economy ultimately turn the American Dream into a a cruel joke for those not born with a silver spoon in their mouths.

As long as government officials continue to trade campaign contributions for one-sided and destructive legislation that is designed to pit the poor against the slightly less poor, the lives of many Americans will continue to consist of catching the crumbs that drop from the tables of the rich and powerful. We don’t need a privilege walk; we need a People’s March against the fixers and insiders who devote their lucrative careers to robbing the many to enrich the few. That would be far more useful than expending our time and energy parsing degrees of victimhood or fighting with one another over matters that are ultimately of little or no importance to the futures of our children, families, communities, or country.

The Roots of American Despair

We have long assumed that America is the “Land of Opportunity” for all. Our national belief that everyone is free to succeed—or fail—based on their hard work and personal initiative is a key component of both our self-perceptions and our perceptions of those around us.

However, international rankings of social mobility show that many other nations now surpass the United States in terms of their citizens being able to rise above the socio-economic classes of their births. This increasingly obvious disconnect between our preferred myth and harsh reality is likely one of the root causes of the political and social discontent that has pervaded our nation for many years. Americans, who are generally very hardworking, are perfectly willing to sweat and sacrifice—if there is a payoff. If, however, we are simply treading water or, worse yet, falling deeper into debt and dysfunction each day, our frustrations are likely to boil over.

Although there are many reasons for our extraordinarily divided politics, perhaps we fail to properly acknowledge the role of stagnated social mobility in driving American anger regarding our lives and our leaders. Whether it is the case that our futures are more and more being circumscribed by government that is too activist—or are harmed by government that is not activist enough—is a topic for a very long discussion that will likely do little to sway opinions entrenched on either side of this issue.

It can plausibly be argued that a great many problems that impede social mobility—rampant drug use, single parenthood, poor work habits, lack of personal initiative, the relocation of manufacturing jobs overseas, escalating public and private debts, and a disregard for personal responsibility—have been encouraged by government programs and policies that sometimes seem designed to produce the most destructive possible consequences for individuals and society. However, others argue that it is precisely a lack of more expensive and expansive government programs that leaves so many Americans without the tools they need to improve their lives.

Although I agree that we do sometimes need targeted programs to alleviate local and national problems—I would, for example, love to see more attention paid to our crumbling infrastructure—I also fear the many well-intentioned elected officials, bureaucrats, and policy wonks who seem to excel at producing the least possible benefit at the highest possible price. Anyone who has, as I have, watched a half-century of progressive educational dogma produce generation after generation of students who know very little—but feel really, really good about their ignorance—has to seriously question why any rational person would ever listen to a politician or PhD who claims to be able to improve our lives. Self-esteem, as I have often pointed out, can easily cross the line into self-delusion—and sheer stupidity is one of the most powerful precursors to lifelong poverty.

Access to a quality K-12 education—and the lack thereof—is both one of the persistent challenges now suppressing social mobility and a possible solution to this problem. Effective public schools are probably our single most important mechanism for promoting social mobility. Their continued failures over the past fifty years or so are both very visible and very depressing. We hear the outcome of public schools that fail to educate when employers consistently complain of high school graduates who lack the basic skills necessary for work. We see the consequences of public schools that fail to educate in our packed “developmental” classes at colleges and universities—and the many students who slink off after flunking out their freshman years because they lack the basic skills necessary for academic success.

If you want to cripple the futures of your nation’s people, just be certain they can neither read well, write fluently, nor compute accurately when they finish public school. Next offer them a vast array of social programs that discourage independence and encourage irresponsibility. Be certain that you also promote a range of government policies that drive well-paying jobs out of your communities and country while saddling everyone with frighteningly unsustainable levels of debt that will further retard economic growth and opportunity for all. Repeat this process year after year—and generation after generation—and watch Americans become more angry and less hopeful until they finally turn to drugs and alcohol to numb their pain. Does any of this sound at all familiar?

I don’t worry about Russia; I worry about our own government. Our leaders are much more likely than Vladimir Putin to destroy America—because they want so badly to justify their existence by “helping” us. However, given that the national unemployment rate is currently trending down to levels not seen in half a century, perhaps those who have had their lives sidetracked by decades of government assistance, which has primarily served to assist them into lives of quiet despair, will now have opportunities available to rejoin the labor force, develop a sense of self-confidence heretofore cruelly stripped from them, and begin to reduce some portion of the income inequality that is a legacy of so many decades of government help gone awry.