Op-Ed: The truth about class

Tuesday, September 27, 2016 - 6:47pm

Bear with me for this metaphor.

 

Imagine you have two seeds. You plant one seed in a sunny patch of nutrient-rich soil and water it every day. You plant the other seed in a dark shed and neglect it for months. Not surprisingly, the first seed grows tall and healthy while the other does not.

 

Can you attribute the success of the first seed or the failure of the second to any inherent quality? Of course not; you provided the conditions, which produced the results.

 

Now imagine two children. One child grows up in a safe, affluent neighborhood and attends an excellent school, where they are encouraged to pursue their interests and given the resources necessary to do so. The other child grows up in a poverty-stricken neighborhood and attends a school with crumbling infrastructure, a poor student-to-teacher ratio and a shortage of even the most basic resources. The first child goes on to graduate from a renowned university and pursue a lucrative career that allows them to raise their children in an area similar to the one in which they grew up. The second child, on the other hand, does not graduate from high school and instead works a low-wage job and remains in their neighborhood, where they raise their children in precisely the same conditions.

 

Can we attribute the success of the first child or the perceived failure of the second to any inherent quality? Of course not; as with the seeds, we provided the conditions, which produced the results.

 

If the rationale of our metaphor holds, then why do we still operate under the assumption that one’s socioeconomic status is the product of one’s character? More specifically, why do we act as though poverty and wealth are deliberate choices, rather than phenomena created and perpetuated by a rigidly stratified class system?

 

For decades, we have blissfully and collectively operated under the assumption that America is a fruitful meritocracy where all dreams, no matter how ambitious, can be achieved with just the right amount of hard work and determination. This is the foundation on which our country was built, and its blind optimism resonates today with the same magnitude that it did more than 200 years ago. Our country’s elite are lauded for their competence while our poor are degraded for their deficiencies, all while those of us making the observations remain grossly unaware of how exactly our system works to maintain these inequalities.

 

Here is a bitter pill to swallow: America is an oligarchy in which a handful of (primarily wealthy and white) citizens inherit automatic and unlimited access to elite academic institutions, political influence and positions of power. Poor people and people of color are not left out because they do not have what it takes to thrive — they are left out because we never intended for them to thrive in the first place.

 

Now you may be asking yourself: “What about all of those inspiring stories I’ve heard in which someone who comes from next to nothing manages to succeed despite all odds?”

 

The answer lies within the question. These individuals are exceptions — not in the sense that they did not earn their success (if anything, they are especially deserving of it), but rather that their systemic disadvantage made the probability of their success far lesser than their more affluent counterparts.

 

Nevertheless, the myth of the American Dream demands a sacrifice, and these individuals are subsequently tokenized and heralded as examples of the culmination of hard work and “pulling oneself up by the bootstraps.” We parade them in front of their communities as if to say: “You could achieve the same results, you just didn’t work hard enough.”

 

So I’ll revisit the metaphor: If a seed grows in a dark room, is it viewed as a miracle or an expectation?

 

Think about it.

 

We are conditioned to believe that our every accomplishment is the product of our character alone rather than a combination of character and circumstance, of the resources we are given and the ways in which we utilize them. Not only does this mentality perpetuate the notion that the wealthy are inherently superior; it allows us to live comfortably in the presence of extreme poverty by blaming the poor for their own misfortunes.

 

If we can confront our perceptions of class head-on, work diligently to undo our inherited biases and unite to strengthen and elevate one another in a way that is productive and decent, then we can successfully develop solutions to the flaws in our system that threaten to divide us.

 

What are the consequences of allowing all of our seeds to grow in ideal conditions? Are we afraid some will crowd out others, that there is not enough sunlight and water to go around? Do we feel threatened by the prospect of equal opportunity? What will become of our garden?

 

I’ll tell you what will happen: It will grow bigger and more beautiful than ever before.

 

Lauren Schandevel is an LSA sophomore.