David Brooks has caught no end of flak for what may be one of the most idiot paragraphs to ever appear in the New York Times*:
Recently I took a friend with only a high school degree to lunch. Insensitively, I led her into a gourmet sandwich shop. Suddenly I saw her face freeze up as she was confronted with sandwiches named “Padrino” and “Pomodoro” and ingredients like soppressata, capicollo and a striata baguette. I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican.
So mindnumbingly bad was this paragraph that it immediately spawned ridicule. This was one of my personal favs:
I get Brooks’ point, as I’m sure you do too, even if he made it as poorly as possible. There is a world for the cognoscenti, comprised of names and foods, the knowledge of what fork to use for what course at a dinner party, that the riff-raff know nothing about. While Brooks’ presents this trope as if he actually hobnobs with people who only have a high school diploma, and that they’re all poor, dumb schmucks, because how could any anyone without a graduate degree be anything else, it’s an article of faith that the downtrodden are, well, downtrodden.
But the rest of Brooks’ column needs to be vetted as well. It’s not all about lunch meats or taking your BFF to Taco Bell, where the uneducated feel at home.
Brooks presents the case that the upper 20% of American wealth is engaged in a conspiracy to keep the bottom 80% down. Ah, privilege, unearned and unwarranted, seized at the expense of the deserving groundlings. He pretends not to blame the parents of privilege from using their privileged position to pass their privilege to their children. After all, what kind of parent doesn’t devote themselves to their progeny? But it’s how this is accomplished that Brooks claims is the culprit.
It’s when we turn to the next task — excluding other people’s children from the same opportunities — that things become morally dicey. Richard Reeves of the Brookings Institution recently published a book called “Dream Hoarders” detailing some of the structural ways the well educated rig the system.
The most important is residential zoning restrictions. Well-educated people tend to live in places like Portland, New York and San Francisco that have housing and construction rules that keep the poor and less educated away from places with good schools and good job opportunities.
So nice homes in good neighborhoods should have projects between their manicured lawns? Why won’t some magical person build low-income housing on Sutton Place? Why should people, just because they’ve accumulated wealth, be able to enjoy the benefits of their wealth? This is where privilege kicks in again, as the wealthy don’t deserve their wealth, but were just lucky and privileged.
That may well be true, so some greater or lesser extent, that the wealthy are lucky. It may also be true that they worked harder than others. It is almost invariably true that they did both. But so what?
Reeves’s second structural barrier is the college admissions game. Educated parents live in neighborhoods with the best teachers, they top off their local public school budgets and they benefit from legacy admissions rules, from admissions criteria that reward kids who grow up with lots of enriching travel and from unpaid internships that lead to jobs.
It’s no wonder that 70 percent of the students in the nation’s 200 most competitive schools come from the top quarter of the income distribution. With their admissions criteria, America’s elite colleges sit atop gigantic mountains of privilege, and then with their scholarship policies they salve their consciences by offering teeny step ladders for everybody else.
It’s as if the invisible hand plopped good teachers in good neighborhoods just to screw with the poor people. Except it was no invisible hand. People who valued education chose to spend their money on education. They imparted to their offspring the value of education. Their kids went to school, behave well, learned, and succeeded. How horrifying! How unfair!
Brooks pulls the old correlation proves causation trick by his 70% stat. America’s elite colleges desperately seek the minority, the poor, the disadvantaged, because they, like Brooks, believe that unicorns can prance on rainbows and Utopia is just one need-based scholarship away. But they can’t find these kids. Did Harvard force students in a lousy inner city school to do lousy? Did Yale force parents to impart no love of education? Would these students be just like the wealthy if they lived in a one-bedroom with six kids on the Upper West side instead of Fort Washington?
But even worse than these mystical structural barriers are the social barriers that keep the poor in their place.
American upper-middle-class culture (where the opportunities are) is now laced with cultural signifiers that are completely illegible unless you happen to have grown up in this class. They play on the normal human fear of humiliation and exclusion. Their chief message is, “You are not welcome here.”
The American dream had once been work hard, study hard, make something of yourself so you could aspire to join the upper crust. Someone who wanted to climb the social ladder didn’t obsess about “humiliation and exclusion” blame the cruel world for not winning the lottery. You did something about it. There was no guarantee that everyone would accomplish their goal to achieve success, but whining about the unfairness of it all was surely not going to get you wherever you wanted to be.
By definition, everyone can’t be in the top 20%. Similarly, everyone can’t go to Harvard or Yale, although the ability to whine and claim intersectionality is likely to aid your application. And in America, people who possess wealth are allowed to spend their money on the things that matter to them: education, nice homes, their children. It’s not fair? They don’t deserve what they have any more than you do? Then do something useful to change it. Ridiculing obscure fancy lunch meat isn’t going to make anyone’s future brighter.
*This, of course, is an impossible metric, there being far too many choices to seriously proclaim a winner.