On Superiority

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Dear Friends:  If a king were to offer me a tract of land as a home for my family and friends, I might take it. Though if I were required to grovel in thanks first, I might turn it down, since I carry a peculiar temperament common to Friends. In “A Key,” which William Penn wrote in 1692 to explain the ways of Friends, he said, “We honor all men in the Lord, but not in the spirit and fashion of the world which passes away. And though we do not pull off our hats or give flattering titles . . . we treat all men with seriousness and gentleness . . . and are ready to do [our superiors] any reasonable benefit or service in which we think real honor consists.”

If a multinational corporation were to offer me a magazine to publish, I might take it. My hard-won experience entitles me to great rewards and great responsibilities. And fortunately, curtseys are no longer in fashion. So I could offer a “reasonable benefit and service,” while keeping my honor intact. Like a vast new continent, a multinational corporation places limitless riches just within reach of the hard-working professional.

And when I’m at the airport, jogging on the movable sidewalk, I might be exerting great effort. The people who jog on the hard ground beside me might be exerting just as much effort. But I leave them behind. Frankly, I rarely notice them.

In 1950, the Swarthmore Lecture was given by Konrad Braun, who observed, “Most members of our Society are not exposed to acute misery in which one does not know, from day to day, from where the bare necessities of life are to come . . . This privileged position must not mislead us into assuming an easy victory of brotherly love over the powers of evil on earth. . . To innumerable human beings life means poverty and disease, exploitation and oppression . . . “

It is no mere coincidence that poverty and wealth co-exist. It is no mere coincidence that over the past 25 years, white families in the US have accumulated far more wealth (what they own minus what they owe) than families of other races. A longitudinal study published in February 2013, by Brandeis University’s Institute on Assets and Social Policy shows that the gap between the median wealth of white families and the median wealth of African-American families nearly tripled in the US over 25 years – from a $85,000 gap in 1984 to a $236,500 gap in 2009. By tracing the household economies of 1700 families over this 25-year period, the researchers concluded: the factors that best explain this growing wealth gap are public policies and institutional barriers “in workplaces, schools, and communities that reinforce deeply entrenched racial dynamics in how wealth is accumulated . . .” The significance of this wealth gap is far-reaching, as wealth “allows families to move forward by moving to better and safer neighborhoods, investing in businesses, saving for retirement, and supporting their children’s college aspirations. Having a financial cushion also provides a measure of security when a job loss or other crisis strikes.” (“The Roots of the Widening Racial Wealth Gap,” by Shapiro, Menshede, and Osoro, Brandeis University, 2013.)

In The Night is Dark and I am Far From Home, Jonathan Kozol’s classic examination of the strategies that US public schools use to train children of privilege to take their rightful places in the US economy, Kozol states, “Little by little, year by year, a wall of separation is constructed in the child’s mind . . .  One side does not live well because another side must live in pain and fear. It is a matter, rather, of two things that happen to occur at the same time: side by side.” (1975) As adults, our most comfortable stance towards justice is to “be for it.” As Friends, since “we treat all men with seriousness and gentleness,” we excuse ourselves from complicity in the “acute misery” that Braun examines.

Being accused of making racist assumptions is painful. Being accused of benefiting from unearned privilege is painful, too. But ignorance is no gift. Braun went further in 1950 to state, “Whoever wants to see the world moving towards [our] great ideals, must begin with himself. Justice and love, as a way of life, must be translated into the spirit of living persons, put into action in the trivial round, the common task, in family and society, business and factory, church and state, national and international bodies.” May we all find the grace to confront our own unexamined assumptions about race and privilege with seriousness and good humor. And may we find the Light we will need to guide us in making amends.

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