A columnist must write concisely. Concision forced me to omit much from my previous column, in which I discussed the mechanics of white privilege. I got to tell readers privilege can be rolled along from one generation to another, as educational or financial capital, and that, historically, at times when much educational capital has been formed, blacks were excluded from the process. I documented my point with tales from my own white family.
But I didn’t get to talk about timing, and that’s an important part of the story.
There are ebbs and flows. In my own family, for instance, it was not a straight-upward trajectory from my immigrant grandparents to myself and beyond, to my grandkids. Sometimes we’ve gone up, and sometimes we’ve had to wait.
In the previous column, I mentioned my dad’s father. He did indeed, as I wrote, prosper in business and send his son to Harvard. But it was a near thing. True, my grandfather came to the country in the last century’s first decade, and by the end of the Roaring Twenties was a company president living in a mansion in Far Rockaway. He grew wealthy – at a moment when wealth was comparatively easy. Easy – and fragile. If you look at successive editions of the New York City directory for his street, you’ll see something remarkable at the moment the Great Depression hit. Not one family that had been there in 1928 was still in residence by 1933. The Depression cut through it like a scythe. My dad was a college junior when the market crashed. My grandfather’s company failed, and he was never wealthy again.
It was bad; my granddad could not afford to send my father to college for his senior year. But educational capital came through. My dad had already gotten far enough, maybe just far enough, so that scholarship and teaching money became available. So, even absent family financial support, my dad was able to stick around Harvard long enough to earn his undergraduate degree and a doctorate. He went on to some very lean years of college teaching, at times at multiple institutions.
And then the next wave began to swell. My father was brought out of academia to work in the Labor Department during World War II, and in the State Department after the war, aiding European economic recovery. And after that, the doors of academia reopened to him at a moment when academics were beginning to enjoy some real prosperity.
On my mom’s side, the story was similar. My grandmother left rural Prince Edward Island, apparently because her family’s general store collapsed and there was no work, and married an accountant who went to work for a bank. I did not mention last time the accountant had been a college man, so the commitment to education was already there. And, as I reported, their daughter, my mom, went on to acquire an elite education of her own.
But again, it was a near thing. It was a depression; my grandmother saved everything – for instance, a legendary drawerful of dimes; elderly relatives came to the house to die; hobos asked for and received handouts at the back door. My grandfather never got poor, but he never got rich.
And while my mother had the education, comfort usually eluded her until her 50s. After she married my stepdad, in 1954, times were tight for many years. He joined the faculty of the University of Michigan the year they were married, for the annual salary of $4,400. Even adjusting for inflation, that was a paltry sum. He spent many years having a wretched time managing money, often savaged by finance companies.
What saved him and my mom in the end was the prosperity that came to college campuses in the ’60s and ’70s, largely the result of federal spending. By the end of his life, he bragged frequently about how he could and did pay every bill the day it came in. He had caught the wave historian David Kennedy described to author Thomas Friedman: “It was the greatest moment of collective inebriation in American history – the country was giddy with pride and opportunity.” Friedman noted that the average income for the bottom 90 percent of households increased by 2.8 percent a year from 1948 to 1973.
So the American reality my family lived out was that money is transmutable into education, and education into money, and that in the normal course of events the locus of that privilege may move back and forth between the one and the other as the times require. Families with education could (and mine did) ride waves, like the Roaring Twenties or the “moment of collective inebriation” and then wait between them. That was one normal course of events in white families.
But moving back and forth is tougher for families that can’t obtain good educations. And up to my generation, the family history discussed last time suggests the best educations, the ones available where I and my forbears studied, were, practically speaking, reserved for people with European ancestors. Blacks were thus largely denied whatever advantages such educations might have afforded them in catching either of the big waves that had benefitted my own family.
Formal segregation of education started to die in 1954, of course, but we all know how slow the demise really was – and how incomplete it remains. And, in retrospect, true integration of the educational system was an urgent task for blacks in 1954, because there was a great tide of prosperity flowing then, into which education might help them dip – and a contrary ebb tide, a great redistribution upwards rather than downwards, coming in 1980.
The recent redistribution was carefully chronicled by economist Thomas Piketty in his epic 2014 work, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” who summed it up as an explosion of income inequality. During that explosion, Piketty noted, the upper decile of our society improved its share of all U.S. national income by 15 points. It was an ebb tide for most Americans, a high tide for a few.
Black income does grow; indeed it seems to be growing at a faster rate than white income. But the white head start remains. “Households headed by a black person earn on average little more than half of what the average white households earns,” the Pew Research Center reports. “And in terms of their median net worth, white households are about 13 times as wealthy as black households – a gap that has grown wider since the Great Recession.”
Leave it to Shakespeare to put it best: “There is a tide in the affairs of men, Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries.” White privilege is, in part, a heightened ability to survive and prosper among variable tides. Education is where that ability mostly starts. Black America has historically lacked, and still lacks equal access to it.
Jack L.B. Gohn is partner emeritus with Gohn Hankey & Berlage LLP. The views expressed here are solely his own. See a longer version, with links to his authorities, at www.thebigpictureandthecloseup.com.