Sunday, November 02, 2008

An Analogy

I've been attending some anti-racism workshops, and thinking lots about privilege and racism. One of the analogies that seems really powerful to me, especially thinking about poverty, was an analogy about the game Monopoly (trademarked, I'm sure).

The idea is that you take a game of Monopoly and you set some people playing. In the first couple rounds, they buy up as many properties as they can. But hold on, what if you go five or ten rounds, and then you add in some folks. They may start with the same amount of starting money, but all the property is pretty much bought up, so they have nowhere safe to land. And there's no way in the game to really "catch up." They don't have property, so they don't have rents, they don't have power, and you they out a lot to the people who got there first.

That seems like a pretty good analogy for how the cycle of poverty works, especially when people ask why African American's aren't doing as well now, almost 150 years after the end of slavery.

Yeah, it's not perfect, but if you add in special rules for the latecomers, about how they could only buy a few specific properties, and how the rules can be changed to disadvantage them, then maybe it would get even closer?

I'm really tired of middle-class folks thinking that they're middle class because they merit whatever they have, because they "earned it."

I'm middle class. Heck, as a single person, I make more than the average US household.

But I didn't get here on my own in any way. My high school tracked people based on race and geography, and being white and living on the right side of the tracks, I was tracked into college prep classes. My parents helped me through college and grad school. As a white person, I was advantaged at every step in my education, from kindergarten to grad school. (I was less advantaged than white men, but still advantaged overall.) When I wanted a student loan, my background prepared me for filling out the forms, my whiteness helped ensure my qualifications. When I wanted to buy a house, my whiteness helped the deal along in all sorts of ways, I'm sure. A couple relatives who left me money helped me lots, too, and they'd been helped by their parents, who had money to help them get started or a business to give them a job. My education helped me join the Peace Corps, get a job, etc.

And yes, I worked hard at various points (less hard in high school than I should have, especially, though). But I could have worked just as hard with far less success if I'd been born to a poor family, as an ethnic minority, or in an area where there was war or devastating natural disasters or poverty or less educational access.

We who are lucky enough to have had some advantages need to get off our high horses and work on making disadvantage matter less, and making actual merit matter way more.

I so want to be proud of my country on Tuesday, and so fear that I won't be.


  1. You've given me a great idea for my Ethics class next semester -- We have at least a few games I can alter to make the affirmative action point... I'm going to have some students start playing with certain properties, others with more or less cash etc. Then I'm going to add in some additional players etc...

    It's an evening class, so we'll play for about 90 minutes, take a break and then I'll ask them to discuss how things could have been more or less fair...

  2. Hear, hear.

    I'm crossing my fingers for you folks - and, heck, the world - on Tuesday.

  3. Your closing sentiment echoes my own. I don't know that I want Tuesday to come, simply because then I'll know the answer.

  4. Anonymous2:23 PM

    Amen. Thank you for such a clear statement about advantages, it gives me something to say besides "You -- you -- you -- jerk!" when people begin pontificating about how all it takes is hard work and they are so tired of others riding their success. Every successful person stood on the shoulders of others.

  5. Anonymous2:51 PM

    I have to join the amen corner. Of course we worked (and continue to work) hard. But we also enjoyed (and continue to enjoy) greater opportunity to have that hard work seen, appreciated, and rewarded because of the extra resources we draw upon.

    Sadly, many of us prefer the fiction that we did it all on our own, make the great Calvinist equation of success with moral worth, and then elect politicians who flatter us with the insistence that we are uniquely deserving, even as they impoverish us and our children and grandchildren in their drive to reward their friends.

    Hopefully tomorrow will bring at least a movement back in the right direction....