Thursday, August 6, 2009

On Class Privilege

I recently experienced a month where my car was dead. I did not have the money to fix it. I bummed rides from friends and my wife or I rode my bike. During this time I was offered two cars for free by friends who had extras. Meanwhile, I noticed two guys at work who do not have cars. I began to wonder why nobody had offered them a car for free. As I formulated my thoughts I realized that my class awards me certain privileges that many people simply do not have. As much as some (rich) people like to argue that we all have the same chance to succeed in America, the truth is we do not. The two guys at work who need cars live in a poor part of town and work minimum wage jobs. The chances are high that they do not know anybody with extra cars.

I grew up in the middle class so I had middle class dreams and middle class resources. While I knew I could be successful in fields like education and ministry I never dreamt of attending a prestigious college, traveling the world, or being a CEO. I remember a parent of one of my friends making me take the PSAT as a sophomore. The PSAT was completely off my parents' radar. But for many in the middle to upper class teenagers must work hard at studying for tests like the SAT, ACT, and PSAT. I was blessed to have had people who encouraged me to work hard, parents who spent time with me, and a faith community to nurture me.

For most of the past 6 years I have been working among the upper class (though my pay check does not reflect my congregants). A year or two into my first job at a wealthy church I realized that people in the upper class do not take no for an answer. They work hard, they dream big, and they push and push until they achieve their goals. I had never experienced anything like that outside of athletics. I know a person who started a company in college and sold it for $250,000 before he graduated. I know another person who would start construction companies during the summers he was in college and would make $25k-$40k in 10 weeks. I know another guy who bought an enormous amount of AOL stock when it was 5 cents a share back in the day. I could go on and on. Being around these people made me dream bigger and work harder.

Compare that to the experience I have had multiple times working with children in the inner city slums. I remember asking some kids what they wanted to be when they grew up and they said jobs like "work at Sonic." I have met dozens of people in the projects who's parents also grew up in the same government housing cluster. Many times poverty and illiteracy is cyclical. Kids grow up without knowing that they can go to college, get good jobs, and have a stable family environment.

I wrestled a lot with my calling to work in the upper class for most of my 6 years of ministry. Recently I realized that I am called to expose students who have plenty of resources and support to injustice locally and globally. I want them to see that all individuals do not have the same resources and support even though we live in a free country. I want them to understand the psychological effects of growing up with a parent who repeatedly tells you that you are worthless and that you have no chance of success.

The students with whom I work will go on to be successful doctors, politicians, businesspeople, etc. My prayer is that they would remember the stories that they heard from recovering addicts at the Open Door Mission, the faces of the kids they played with at the Neighborhood House, and the scripture that we've studied regarding God's passion to see justice and righteousness lived out in a powerful way. My prayer is that they would prayerfully use their resources and their influence to help even the playing field and give neglected people a chance to succeed.

Side Note: Know that I am not claiming that people who make more money are happier than those who work minimum wage jobs. Statistics actually show that the more a person makes over $100k the unhappier they are. We are all broken. I am simply giving examples of inequality.


John said...

Nice entry Coby

mandi said...

yes. this is something i feel like i have to talk to people about a lot. that when your big dream is walking home from school safely, you don't have the mental space to think bigger.

i think this inability to see the injustices around us stems from the human approach of placing our own thoughts and motives on others. because i feel like 'x' then so does he. because i pulled myself up, then so should she. we all have the same opportunities...etc. i am realizing that it can be hard for people to step outside of themselves, their own brains, to notice the differences.

Culpster said...

First of all, don't hate on my book dude:) These things take time, and in my case, probably years.

While I was reading your blog, I was thinking about people that win contests like American Idol or something. As soon as they win they always make statements like, "Never give up dreaming. Anything is possible if you work hard and go after your dreams." What they never seem to get is that they just beat out thousands of people who had the same dream and worked just as hard. Did they all have the same opportunity to win? Yes? Did they all have the ability to win? No. Only one had the ability to win.

This also reminds me of my very unsuccessful attempts at basketball stardom, which you had the privilege of witnessing. Did I have the same access at playing basketball at high school as everyone else? Yes. There were open tryouts. Did I have the skill to get noticed by college scouts? No. So, while I did have every opportunity to be successful, I did not have the talent to take hold of the opportunity.

People see one person make it to the top, and assume that means everyone can make it to the top. It's just not true. Not everyone can win American Idol even though everyone can try out.
I think you have a cool ministry at this big money church.

Sorry I wrote a book of a comment:)

Coby said...

Culps...welcome back my friend. Your comment reminded me of something. You are correct in stating that we all do not have equal abilities. However, my experience at Rhodes taught me something. There are some kids that were horrible students and honestly were not bright. However, they all now have very lucrative careers. How did that happen? Well, their class gave them the privilege of having contacts in lucrative firms. All they have to do is not mess up big time and they will have a good paying job. On the other hand, if those same individuals were raised in the apartments across the street from PPBC but had the same work ethic, they would either be unemployed or working some fast food job. By the way, I could write a similar blog about race privilege or gender privilege.

Kathy said...

Coby, you said, "...all individuals do not have the same resources and support ..." You have just described the reality of poverty. Those of us with support groups have resources that don't relate to money that people in poverty don't have. Merely adding money to their status will not change their lives. We need to build up the support and resources.

Coby said...

Well put Kathy. Thanks for pointing out the insufficiencies of monetary gain. I once participated in a poverty simulation. My entire youth group and I were literally homeless for a weekend. All we had were the clothes on our back. The most generous people we met that weekend were homeless or poor. In that town they would work together to provide for one another. Sometimes poverty force us to learn the beauty of community and the freedom of sharing resources. Thanks for your thought :)

The Guy on the Couch said...

I was just looking over your posts, and this one regards something that I have thought about some, which is, "Why do I feel most generous toward people who least need my generosity?" I think the answer is that there is a natural tendency to be generous with those who have the ability to reciprocate, and to avoid those who might be most likely to presume upon our generosity. People offered you their car because they had no doubt they would get it back. Now, I don't know those carless guys you work with, so this is not at all a personal comment on them. In many cases, though, you take someone who doesn't have a car and loan them your car, and it will come back trashed, crashed, or not at all.
I think that class in many places is like a set of shelves, with almost no way to move from one shelf to the next. In the U.S., I think class is more like a thick fluid. It naturally tends to keep us in our place, but with enough competence or incompetence, it is possible for anyone to move slowly up or down through it.