Inequality, Exploitation, and Racism

Bloom Briefing 51: Reproducing Inequality; Toxic Cuomo; Racist NFL

The Bloom Briefing returns to its original format this week, with three mini segments.  In the first, I reflect on one of the best pieces of long form journalism I’ve read in quite some time: Caitlin Flannagan’s takedown of the world of competitive independent schools.  In the second, I discuss Andrew Cuomo’s impeachable behavior (with a link to another superb piece).  And in the third, I talk about the latest systemic racism from the NFL.


Perpetuation of Inequality

Caitlin Flannagan wrote a masterpiece for The Atlantic about the world of the nation’s most prestigious independent schools.  Any inside look at the world of the hoi polloi always contains a voyeuristic appeal, but the piece does so much more than provide an inside look at the super-wealthy.  It eviscerates the hypocrisy of the parents and administrators at these schools (teachers and students get slightly softer treatment) pretending to be concerned with social injustice while availing themselves of/operating institutions specifically designed to perpetuate inequality

The raison d’etre for independent schools is to get students into highly selective colleges.  And by highly selective college here, we’re not talking about the University of Wisconsin or CU-Boulder or your strong-regional-brand private (great higher education institutions all, which anyone should be more than happy for their children to attend); we’re talking about the Ivy League and its ilk, perhaps 20-30 higher education institutions in total.  The cost to buy access to this direct path to the top is typically around $50,000 per year (plus donations).

Let’s consider the chain of logic that leads someone to enroll their students in such an institution because it is perfectly sound.  Premise one: I’d like my children to have a better life than I have.  Premise two: the surest chance of getting a job that would achieve premise one is by going to one of the nation’s highest-ranked colleges.  Premise three: those colleges are hard to get into, but I can increase my child’s chances by enrolling them in primary and secondary schools designed to achieve this. 

I suppose if you wanted to quibble with any of those premises, you might quibble with the first.  How could a parent in the top 2% or .5% or .1% want their children to be even higher up the income distribution?  But if you think about the inverse premise—I would like to ensure that my children aren’t worse off than I am—then you can see how this could feel perfectly reasonable to a person of that level of affluence. 

After all, the story of income inequality is the story of divergence: the top 10% is doing better than the bottom 90%, the top 1% is doing better than the next 9%, and the top .1% is doing better than the next .9%.  All this means that if you’re affluent, there’s farther to fall.  (It also means that you can fall a lot farther without suffering any real impact, but that’s a story for another day.)

One phenomenon of independent schools that didn’t surface in the piece but that I think deserves a little extra attention is class segregation.  These schools all have scholarship programs for a select few low-(or middle-)income students who have their lives changed by this conferral of privilege.  No one would describe these schools as particularly racially diverse, but for all their lack of racial diversity, there will be some BIPOC students. 

What there won’t be, however, are future plumbers, future electricians, future retail clerks or grocery store workers or janitors or handymen or gardeners or fireman or hospitality workers or enlisted members of the armed services.  Now, if a parent said, “I don’t want my child to go to school with any Black kids,” you’d rightly think that parent to be horrifically racist.  Is a world where you substitute “future members of the working class” for “Black kids” really any better? 

I’m not trying to say independent schools shouldn’t exist.  It seems a fool’s errand to adopt such a position, when the result would surely be the formation of other pathways for the reproduction of privilege.  I’m mostly trying to get you to read this phenomenally written article.  But I might offer one final twist on how to think about this. 

Let’s say (before—and hopefully soon, after—the pandemic) you like to travel a lot.  Traveling’s fun.  You get to see the world in a different way.  You meet new people.  It broadens the mind.  It’s also terrible for the environment.  So you want to travel, and there are certain benefits, but you’re also concerned about your own personal impact on global warming.  Well, you’re in luck!  You can buy emissions offsets

If you really want to send your children to independent school, then figure out the cost to inequality of doing so, and donate an equivalent “inequality reproduction offset.”  Fund a program to provide extra after-school education in low-income areas near you.  Donate to organizations that provide college access.  Or make your enrollment and donations at the independent school contingent on their enrolling one student from the bottom 50% of the income distribution for every one in the top 10%. 

And read Flannagan’s piece.

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Andrew Cuomo

At New York Magazine, Rebecca Traister has written about the toxic culture created by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and enforced by his phalanx of enablers within state government.

In one sense, the story is about how a man whose national recognition grew in part out of his branding as the Democratic counterweight to Trump’s inept response to the pandemic was more Trump’s Democratic equivalent than his counterweight. 

But in another sense, it’s a much more familiar tale of bad behavior in the workplace.  Someone with power (in this case, someone with a lot of power) engages in manipulative, controlling, self-serving, and exploitative behavior (which, in this case, as in many, involves repeated sexual harassment of women).  Those around this person with power assist in its self-reinforcement and perpetuation.  The apologists explain why it’s best to “just go along with it” while the enforcers engage in the same abusive behavior themselves as a means of suppressing the will to resist it. 

If you have any privilege at all, “I’m worried speaking up about this will damage my chances of advancement” isn’t a compelling reason not to work against this kind of exploitation.  After all, it reveals a choice that prioritizes your own reward over justice and equity in the institution where you spend most of your waking life.

Traister’s piece is very good and worth the time to read in full.


NFL Keeps Being Racist

Over the last decade, the NFL has taken its fair share of justified PR hits for, you know, being a morally repugnant racist sexist exploitative swamp-pit of degeneracy.  It effectively blackballed Colin Kaepernick over his protests for racial justice.  It has specific franchises that are never-ending cesspools of toxicity (here’s looking at you, “Washington Football Team”).  And it tried to cover up the enduring medical effects of concussions on players long after their careers were over.

The concussion scandal eventually wound up with a roughly $750 million settlement between the league and the players that pays out damagers to former players suffering from these symptoms.  If you were thinking, “justice done,” well, not quite so fast.  It turns out that the system the NFL uses to determine payments to players is, in the words of former player Najeh Davenport, “literally the definition of systematic racism.”  He’s not wrong.

The issue in question is how qualification for a settlement payout is determined.  To make this determination, the NFL has decided to “race-norm” the process.  If you’re thinking, “I don’t know what that is, but it sounds bad,” uh, yeah.  Dave Zirin explains in The Nation:

Because Black people have a higher rate of dementia as seniors—just a part of the poorer health statistics that haunt the Black community as a result of institutionalized racism—the league’s testing starts with the assumption that Black athletes have a lower cognitive functioning baseline. This makes it more difficult to show the effects of post-concussive syndromes and qualify for the settlement.

In other words, the NFL has one scale for determining if white players qualify, and a separate scale for determining if Black players qualify.  And it’s much harder for Black players to show eligibility because the NFL assumes Black people have lower levels of cognition.  So yes, Najeh Davenport, this is “literally the definition of systematic racism.”

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Additional Reading

The saddest thing I’ve read in a while is this heartfelt personal story from Albert Samaha at Buzzfeed about how his mom has totally bought into various conspiracy theories associated with QAnon.  The piece is good because of how personal it is, but it’s valuable because of how it shows the fraying of a sense of shared community.

At New York Magazine, Eric Levitz interviewed David Shor, a sort of guru of Democratic politicking about Democrats’ prospects for 2022 and 2024.

For the New York Times, Ezra Klein interviewed Ashish Jha, the Dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, about how the next few months will play out with respect to vaccines and the pandemic.  Jha is optimistic, so if you’re looking for a pick-me-up, read or listen to their conversation.