T for Tom

The Gap in Empathy, or Social Progress as Self-Evident

Posted in Prose by johnsontoms on November 4, 2016

There was a young man I spent some hours talking to the other night. About my age, white, longer hair than I (which means long hair), thin, frameless glass, and whether part of his Halloween costume or not, a pair of suspenders exposed over a white shirt. He could be and was mistaken for David Foster Wallace. But you know who David Foster Wallace is because he did something exceptional, at least once. I didn’t know this young man across from me at first, but I knew him later as we spoke. He exists in various forms throughout this country and throughout this world.

My introduction to this man came as he knew a childhood friend of my own. They were in a probationary summer school program, by which they attained full admission into the state’s flagship public university only after attending the summer session immediately following high school graduation. There are a few other programs that exist to admit students into the university, and this one is sandwiched in between the two most prominent – the state of Texas’s Top 10% Rule, and the Continued Admittance Program. The first, the top 10% rule, requires little introduction – if a student attends any public school in the state of Texas and graduates in their class’s top 10% population, that student receives automatic admission into any public university in the state; the purpose of this rule is to increase minority populations in the state’s largest educational institutions, and it has been proven a resounding, although incremental, success, one worthy of continued defense in our nation’s courts of public law. The second admission program I mentioned, the Continued Admittance Program, is available to those students who are just outside of their high school’s top 10% population and would have normally received admission the public university of their choosing, but were not selected due to a limited amount of space; these students can choose to enroll in any branch of the university of their choosing in a separate location (as in, the University of Texas at Dallas) and after a year of passing grades can automatically transfer to another public education institution within the same university’s system (as In, The University of Texas at Austin); this program achieves a secondary goal of allowing these students, who through subjective opinion prove their value as “stewards of education” by passing their classes and filling any available slots that become available through students transfers, dropouts, etc.

The program that admitted my friend and this young man is the little-known, thinly-sliced invention that fits somewhere in between, by someone’s imagination. It can only be imagination, as though the metrics I just laid out before were somehow still not quite fair enough. Even so, there’s a small number of high school graduates who are on the outside of their class’s top 10% population but are deemed worthy of not having to wait – and by enrolling immediately, have the opportunity to attend their public university of choice via this commitment. It’s a small number of students, and their impact on the racial and ethnic makeup of the university is marginal, though relevant.

This is important because I had to explain this to my wife the other night as this young man sat across from us. He took exception to this definition by writ of its simplicity:

“Hey, it’s not that simple,” he said. “I tried really hard in high school, and I got in the way I got in.”

There was never any implication that he didn’t work hard.

“That’s fine man, and you probably wen to a difficult high school,” I said.

“Lake Travis, and it was.”

Lake Travis High School is located a few miles west of Austin and is predominantly white, if not entirely. The district exists as a confluence of rich, elite whites leaving the suburban confines of inner Austin and it now forms one of the largest tax districts in the county.

And that’s the whole point. His high school was propped up by numerous and infinitely pass tax bonds to improve facilities, salaries, and educational tools by the white resident population for the white child population. It is a highly-sought after employment location by educators, and its education reflects this increased opportunity.

“Right, my man,” I said. “And that’s why the Top 10% rule exists. There are students throughout this state that haven’t gotten the education that you already received through your circumstance of birth, and they’re given the opportunity for that education at a higher level.”

This didn’t go over well, and the remaining hours were spent toggling over his personal merit versus those whose faced many more and drastically more harrowing difficulties – this young man across from me did not struggle through poverty, starvation, and lack of transportation to get through a sub-par education system, at any merit. So much so, that for this young man, not graduating was never a possibility, as it has been and remains for a large population of ethnic minorities throughout the state (and across the country).

But I’m not here to talk about his education, at least not directly. What worries me, and what I see more and more of each day, is that this young man did in fact go on to graduate from the state’s flagship university to become an alumnus of one of the most intellectually distinguished institutions in the nation, only to sit across from me now approaching the age of 30, unmarried, working in a low-salary if not hourly wage position with little to no hope for immediate future promotion. Like so many of the people I know and continue to meet today in the city of Austin, he is visiting his girlfriend who also lives in a home with three or more roommates, stuck in a low-rent situation without hope for better by writ of circumstances they cannot control. And yet he, like the many others like him, sat there to tell me things were acceptable and improving. That he, somehow, was not a member of this nation’s increasing population of people in poverty. And I don’t know how.

These are the definitions of poverty: inability to find living wages, unable to hope for promotion, unable to seek immediate desires of family because of economic placement. These people are no longer just ethnic minorities, but increasingly consume the majority of those young elite whites who enter a world filled with older elite whites who will not make room for the youth of this nation. How is it possible that these whites who grew up in a situation where family, income, are security are normal tell me now that nothing has grown worse?

It can only be that the prejudices they were given, likely from their parents and their education, are telling them now that no matter the circumstances, their life will be okay simply because they are not black.

Looking around the party I was surrounded by 50-plus whites exactly like this man. I don’t need to speak to them individually to know that they have all come here because they have met in their jobs and in their social circles as a reflection of their status. But they remain impossibly white. Among the many other people I know like them, and like myself, are some in much worse positions: living hundreds of miles away from any family, unable to locate individual living situations and taking on roommates without furniture, without transportation or personally owned vehicles, in low-wage jobs and piles of debt, or in other words, living in poverty. Not abstract poverty, but actual, defined, real poverty. And repeatedly they say “it’s not that bad,” and go about their lives waiting for the change to come. This mindset is only possible through a framework of opinion that establishes that at one point poverty was never their possibility and therefore remains impossible for their life. Denying their circumstances in finances, health, and family, this conclusion can only be reached at the assumption of race. These conditions are taught to whites as a condition of race. Whether this young man realized it or not, he was taught as a child in Lake Travis that he will never be poor. And if the conditions for poverty exist only for minorities, then perception tells white populations that they will never possess these conditions themselves. They are not poor because they will never be poor. And that was granted to them by their race.

The logical question or conclusion to be drawn is that the status quo of race economics has never been challenged. A simple string argument delineates that a mere 1-percent or fewer of the population have the accumulated wealth to live with the singular possibility that poverty will never be their reality. For the status quo to continue unabated or challenged in any way means, therefore must mean, that a majority of the remaining plurality also believe that poverty will never be their reality, in spite of real and conflicting data. Otherwise, the system would have been changed, a revolution would have come about. It is only by the joined belief of the majority that change does not become real.

Often I have said before that these things must be fought. A simple example of this effort reaches back to the Occupy Wall Street movement, but simply mathematics tells me that a few thousand people marching around the country do not a majority make. In fact those brave few were mocked almost universally for their efforts. And if they failed to achieve real political change, they did achieve personal growth through a recognition that certain influences on our life are not within our control on a daily basis. A vast system of eternal influences exist to limit our ability for social movement, and the majority through ablution allow it to continue. The white majority of this country has never empathized about what the ethnic minorities of this nation face every day, and by subconscious inversion project on their populations the perception that existences do not meet in any way. That poverty for black and Latino populations is a poverty not achieved by white members of society.

This empathy gap denies the invention of progress. It denies minority populations the ability to find affordable housing in neighborhoods with a better education. It denies minority populations the ability to locate living wages, and precipitates that their children also will live in these conditions. Without the empathy to see what has been done to them, the real act of deducing that their struggles are circumstantial to their birth and not an effect of their own action, we cannot also see that our own circumstances might truly be the same. Because it is impossible to live in a world where things as they were remain in power.

The mere reality of time as dimension denies the possibility of static existence. Things must get either better or worse because of the contrary fact that they cannot remain the same. You will die. Death is certain. And if the value of death is worse than the value of life, any condition that pushes a person more rapidly toward death is a bad condition. That these conditions once actualized increase the possibility for other more numerous conditions implies that things are never the same, are never equal, are never static. Progress then, a merit of improved quality and improved quality of life, is the only assumptive method by which things do not get worse. And without progress because of the existing prejudices we possess, we are doomed only to perish, quickly, violently, at war with ourselves and nature.

The solution is simple. Realize that our conditions are poor, undesirable, and actively damaging. Realize that these conditions exist tenfold and hundredfold in the lives of those not lucky enough to have been born white in a Western nation state. And work to erase any continued possibility for the status quo.

Things are bad and getting worse. All you have to do is look around you and realize that it is happening to you also, and act accordingly. Your conditions will improve only when conditions improve for everyone.