the semantics of freedom

The first book that I was able to find in my smaller-town library is Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis (2015), by Dr. Robert D. Putnam. I’m looking for the interviews / stories of black families to use as the basis of some of the narratives for the game.

(If you are such a person and you had or were a young child in the last 10 years, and you’d like to see your story as part of this narrative, I’d love to speak with you. To contact me, click here.)

Our Kids doesn’t focus directly on race. Dr. Putnam wants to talk about the current lack of opportunities for disadvantaged children in America, and how impossibly difficult it is in this cultural and economic climate to effect upward social mobility. I picked this book out because he does end up profiling some black families, as so many of them are living in poverty now.

I’m still wending my way through the first chapter, but I’ve found an interesting idea I wanted to share. Putnam quotes a 1950s historian, David Potter, who defined this idea of “equality” in America.

Equality in America, Potter wrote, had come to mean not equality of outcome, as in Europe, but “in a major sense, parity in competition.” That transatlantic contrast in outlook persists undiminished today. Compared to our European peers, Americans remain more skeptical about re-distributive policies and more emphatic about social mobility. (p. 33)

This isn’t really news, but sometimes it’s important to reiterate reality. Looked at this starkly, it means that America has “haves” and “have-nots” built into the fabric of its worldview. The simple fact of the matter is that we applaud someone who fits a societal definition of having worked hard to attain their riches and social status (even if that someone is long-dead and its the extended family now living off the riches). In our reality, there must always be people at the bottom fighting to get to the top.

As Putnam’s book points out, the people at the bottom are fighting, but there’s no route left to get out of the lower social classes anymore. The people at the bottom are fighting to hold on to what little they have. And because they aren’t moving up, people above them–who had opportunities in their youth that no longer exist today–assume they are lazy and would just rather stay poor.

It’s true that racism and classism aren’t the same thing. But the majority of  minorities are poor, so on top of being treated differently because of longstanding cultural bias against people with more pigment in their skin, they have to deal with this new mess, too.

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