You couldn’t pay me to live there today, but I understand Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter still goes on oral rampages about black kids not having opportunities to achieve the American Dream. He acknowledges that there have been some strides, including African American doctors, lawyers, mayors, governors, senators, and even a president, but Nutter believes that’s not enough. And he’s probably right. However, there are non African Americans who also lack upwardly mobile opportunities. Where Nutter has it wrong is that he’s limiting his scope to color — when the true problem is class.
My parents were immigrants from Latvia — a small Baltic country no one has ever heard of. It’s now becoming infamous for hackers and post-communist criminal syndicates. Neither Mom nor Dad had a dime in their pocket or spoke a lick of English when they arrived on Ellis Island as young children in the late 1940s. Fortunately, their parents had the wherewithal to fund sponsorships in the United States which allowed them to enter as refugees. That trip cost them everything they had left — everything that wasn’t stolen by Russian soldiers. Somehow, both sets of grandparents were able to forage a meager living in the greatest nation in the world. As I wonder if that would be possible in today’s economic environment, I feel for today’s refugees.
Dad was on track towards achieving the American dream. He went to Central High School in Philadelphia, which is still the only high school in the nation authorized to grant its graduates Bachelor of Arts college degrees instead of ordinary high school diplomas. He planned to attend college and study engineering. And then the worst thing in the world happened — his adoptive father died from leukemia when dad was just 16 years old. His mother barely spoke English and didn’t work. Dad had to drop out of Central and get a full-time job to support them while finishing his high school education at night. His American dream quickly became a nightmare. For the rest of his short life, he worked as a pattern maker (basically, a woodworker) who struggled to stay employed in a shriveling industry.
Mom was a homemaker, which is what Stay At Home Moms used to be called before they unionized. She held a clerical job at a Sears warehouse until I was born, and then decided she’d stay home and raise my brother and I. I can honestly attest that her contribution to my education was little more than preparing dinner. Mom never went back to work, citing severe depression well before it was vogue to admit you were depressed. Intestinal cancer chewed through her body in her early 50s. Although she survived cancer, in her mind, her ostomy made her return to the work world impossible.
My brother and I grew up on the mean streets of North Philadelphia, as the lone Caucasian family who witnessed the great white flight of the late 1970s. At the time, I didn’t understand why many of my African American classmates bullied me. Sure, I was small and smart, and the youngest child in my grade, but that wasn’t the reason. I wasn’t yet aware of the Civil Rights atrocities committed by other ex-European immigrants with whom I was mistakenly associated. What still doesn’t make sense is why I was mistreated by a large contingent of my Puerto Rican classmates. Looking back objectively, the African American kids weren’t all that bad. At least they had a conscience. Some of those Puerto Rican bastards were merciless. In college, it became apparent that the true monsters were my European ancestors. I concluded that everyone sucks. But that’s not what this is about.
What harms poor children the most is not the lack of Apple devices, Coach bags, BMW convertibles, or designer jeans. It’s not the missing high-end skin cremes, the mani-pedis, or professional hair cuts. It’s not even the missing suburban home with its white picket fence surrounding the sprawling lawn that has A-rated schools within walking distance. The true culprit is the lack of conversational aptitude. It’s the inability to fit in and converse with those who have the means to help you succeed. Back in the day, I was too poor to pay attention.
I remember interviewing with large companies like IBM, Staples, and Walmart during my last year of college. Since no 20 year-old student had really done anything worthwhile career-wise, manager trainee interviews were largely conversational. Raised by a family who wasn’t connected to American society, I failed miserably. I didn’t know what to say or where to begin. I couldn’t find any common ground. I discovered my poor ass couldn’t hold a conversation with any privileged American. After several failed entrepreneurial attempts, I begged for an entry-level job at an insurance company, convincing an empathetic hiring manager to give me a shot. I worked diligently and was rewarded with several promotions. Eventually, after a few years of working positions in which I was obviously overqualified, I got the job I interviewed for back when I was 20. In my management position, I listened very carefully and studied the art of business conversation. That in itself should be a college class.
In my upper-middle-class neighborhood, as in the business world, conversations among black, white, and yellow men are routinely liquor induced and circle around less than brilliant topics including college sports, financial conquests, and sexual trysts while traveling on someone else’s expense account. These are topics a non-financially gifted soul may not have the experience or ability to discuss. Women chat about their husbands, what sort of mistakes their child’s day care is making, the latest hair color, and neighborhood gossip. Although I could easily participate in either discussion, I usually find myself quickly bored and I’ll search for a quick escape. Most of the time, I’ll simply ghost out the door. During one of their chest-beating conversations, I realized these were the types of discussions in which a disadvantaged person could not effectively participate.
Not everyone with means is wise, as evidenced in my own neighborhood. What you need to do is become a bit wiser to play the game. The only solution to this problem is education. The problem again is the access to that all-important education — it’s still limited by the colorblind glass ceiling of money and power. A formal education will enhance your mind and elicit interesting questions, but my own Bachelor’s degree from Central High School and a second Bachelor’s from Temple University didn’t do squat for me. It simply was not enough. A more informal societal education can fill in the gaps. Activities including participating in volunteerism, charitable events, church functions, and every club you can join may help.
Mayor Nutter, I ask you to include us poor white boys from Philly in your next tirade. I too am just a squirrel trying to get a nut. I promise not to squander my chances by getting my skin inked up in obvious places, speaking in an inappropriate manner during business meetings, or wearing my britches so low that they display a large parcel of my underpants. Campaign to afford me the opportunities you wish to afford to your brethren. Then maybe, just maybe, I’ll set foot on Philadelphia soil once again.