The Corner

The Intra-Millionaire Inequality Problem

I am a longtime fan of Wired, probably my favorite magazine after our own blue-bordered oasis of civilization here and The New Criterion. That being said, its recent “Race, Gender, and Equality in the Digital Age” section is—curmudgeon mode engaged!—a work of almost pristine asininity.

Lucky thing that guest editor Serena Williams already has a day job.

Wired’s approach is an excellent illustration of the problematic fact that our thought-leading elites are fixated on elite institutions to the point of social blindness. The struggling non-white-male people we meet in the report are: a Morgan Stanley veteran who moved on to Kleiner Perkins, a Bowdoin graduate recently named to a teaching post at Yale, a Boston College graduate and former professional athlete now working as an NFL coach, another professional athlete, a Lehman Bros. veteran and Stanford Graduate School of Business graduate who complains that Silicon Valley isn’t a better place to be a black executive than it was five years ago, a hip-hop artist who is the son of a Chicago school-board member, an engineer whose CV includes stints at Genentech and Merck, and a transgender model in New York whose feelings were hurt when a date broke things off after learning that he wasn’t actually a woman.

If you were making a list of people who are going to do okay in life, you’d probably start with the nice folks at Morgan Stanley and Merck and Stanford’s graduate schools.

Women constitute a large majority of college students and college graduates; they are heavily overrepresented in some occupations and underrepresented in others. (Just like men.) African-Americans and Hispanics, on the other hand, have generally worse life outcomes than whites: lower incomes, wealth, and educational attainment, more poverty, more criminality, etc. Arguendo, let’s imagine, as Wired does, that we can lump them all into a catch-all category of disadvantaged people on the wrong side of an inequality divide. Even if that were the case (and it sure as Hell isn’t) the institutions that are failing disadvantaged Americans aren’t the board of directors of Twitter and the Silicon Valley VC and Angel Roundtable. It’s the Chicago public school system.

Our elite institutions generally do a pretty good job when it comes to rooting out talent and developing it. Wall Street and Silicon Valley firms are highly meritocratic in no small part because they are in industries that are intensely competitive. One might argue that the purest meritocracy of any profession is that found in professional sports—where competition is just plain competition—and, as it turns out, nobody needs to tell the NBA that there are a lot of highly talented non-white kids in poor neighborhoods in whom they might be interested. Kids in those neighborhoods, in turn, seem to be quite aware that professional athlete and hip-hop artist are good careers, at least for a fortunate few. Heat-and-frost insulator with a base wage of $56.48/hour? Less of a presence on the cultural radar.

We have pretty good sorting mechanisms, such as standardized tests, that help elite educational institutions scoop up talent from poor urban neighborhoods and rural areas. If you’re a talented young black woman in North Philadelphia who aces the SAT, you are going to be on the radar of a great many college recruiters. One of the reasons for the underrepresentation of African Americans at places such as my alma mater, the University of Texas, is that while Texas has a disproportionately small number of black high-school graduates who meet the standards for automatic admission to state universities, the black graduates who do meet the standards for automatic admission to UT have better, more prestigious options.

I bring up the University of Texas because over the past few decades we’ve had a federal-court battles over racial preferences in the UT law school (Hopwood) and undergraduate admissions (Fisher), which are important questions as a matter of principle but completely meaningless when it come to broader questions related to the social status and economic opportunities of African Americans and Hispanics. The person who is a credible candidate for UT Law—the person whose worst-case outcome is enrolling in a slightly less prestigious law school such as UCLA or Vanderbilt—isn’t, in fact, the sort of person that policymakers and social entrepreneurs probably need to spend too much time worrying about. UCLA law grads generally do just fine in life. There are places in the world where women are marginalized and oppressed and subject to all sorts of privation; Morgan Stanley isn’t one of them.

Helping gifted and talented people make the most of their gifts and talents is something that American institutions are really quite good at. Our high-flier fly high. 

It’s everybody else we let down.

The high-school dropout rate is much higher for black men than for white men and the gap is growing. In progressive-dominated New York City, the great majority—63 percent—of black and Hispanic men fail to complete high school in four years. Louisiana does a much better job in that the majority of white, black, and Hispanic men graduate high school, but black men lag their white counterparts by 16 points. In progressive-dominated cities such as Houston, Washington, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, and Miami, the gap is 21 points or more.

Merck doesn’t hire a lot of high-school dropouts from Houston, regardless of their race or sex.

Our policymaking class and the class of people who lead the discussion in the media are made up mainly of gifted and talented people. Unsurprisingly, a bunch of people who achieved success in life after going to a good college look at the situation of less successful people and ask themselves: “How can we get more of these folks into a good college like the one I went to?” Or, “How can I help more people with a professional background more or less exactly like mine thrive as I have?” As though there were no other way to advance in life, and as though that were appropriate to every person regardless of their interests, talents, or goals. But there aren’t a lot of poor people in Pittsburgh asking themselves: “How do female investment professionals on Wall Street manage to make it as investment professionals in Silicon Valley?”

The actual facts of American inequality make progressives a little queasy, because they involve the failure of progressive institutions, most notably the monopoly government schools. Silicon Valley is highly competitive, the Chicago public school system is not. The Wired spread has a lovely photo of the rapper Common posing with his mother, who serves on the Chicago Board of Education. She seems like a very good mother and a very smart woman—one who was smart enough not to send her own son to the Chicago public schools. (Common is an alumnus of a private Christian institution, the now-defunct Luther High School.) She tells Wired that her desire was to see students in her poor city school given the same opportunities that other students were given; in reality, the teachers’ unions and school administrators are the main barrier to giving poor students the opportunities that Common enjoyed at his private school. The reality is that conservatives like Rick Perry want to give poor students those opportunities; professional educators like Common’s mother work to stop them.

That’s the strange thing about the inequality crusade: It’s an issue dear to progressives but one that points to—though the truth rarely is spoken—a deeply conservative social critique. The American underclass hasn’t been failed by Harvard or Google or Kleiner Perkins, or any other institution that is as remote as the stars. Rather, we see failed monopoly schools, and the rather less tractable problem of failed families (or families that simply never formed) and failed communities.

But, by all means, let’s hear a bit more about how tough black Silicon Valley executives have it. However that gets sorted out, the dropout rate for young black men in New York City is still going to be 63 percent. It isn’t the gifted and talented who need our help–the most powerful institutions in our society see to their interests. The ordinary, the undistinguished, the average, the median performer whose prospects in life are in fact limited by their being born into a resource-poor or socially isolated community or family? They probably could use some help, not that anybody gives a damn. 

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