Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Smacks of privilege . . . white privilege

This morning I read an article in The New York Times titled "American Dream is Elusive for New Generation." This four page article charts the "struggles" (notice I put this word in quotation marks) of Scott Nicholson, a young 24-year old white college graduate of Colgate (small liberal arts school), who is living with his parents in a suburb outside of Boston while he looks for the right job. He has been disheartened with his job prospects during these recession years and feels that he worked hard in college, got good grades, went to a good school, and deserves a good job, one that will inspire him to work (in the article, Scott admits that he turned down a $40,000/year job with an insurance company because he saw it as "dead-end work" and that "he would hold out for a corporate position that would draw on his college training and put him, as he sees it, on the bottom rungs of a career ladder" [note: Scott majored in Poli Sci and minored in History].

Meanwhile, his grandfather and father, lamenting the lack of job opportunities available for Scott, believe that the key to Scott's success is to follow the trajectory of their respective careers: to call on the favor of friends as a way to get their foot in the door. Scott's grandfather, who fought in WWII and does not have a college degree, landed a position as a stock broker because a friend from the army had a father who owned a brokerage firm and thus offered the grandfather an entry level job as a stock broker, which he parlayed into a lucrative career. Scott's father, graduating from Babson college (a business school), also obtained his entry level position when a friend opened a factory and hired him into a mangerial position, and from this early start he is currently the general manager of a manufacturing company. Connections are how both men got ahead--and is how they hope Scott will also find career success:

“Scott has got to find somebody who knows someone,” the grandfather said, “someone who can get him to the head of the line.” [emphasis mine]

If you are reading this, you may feel a twinge of disgust for Scott, as well as his family members, and in particular his grandfather--certainly the comments on The New York Times site following this article all registered contempt for Scott turning down a $40K job and at the attitude of entitlement he and his family espouses.

What I was really struck by was the quote by the grandfather--that the solution to Scott's "dilemma" is not for him to take the $40K job or for him to take ANY job that will provide him with a salary and enable him to stop living off of his parents, but that the answer is to get a job not on his merit but because of who he knows--and that because of these connections, he will leapfrog over everyone else to get to the "head of the line."

And OF COURSE the Nicholson's feel this way...because of their class entitlement but also because of their racial entitlement (and there's probably a fair amount of gender entitlement in there as well--which the comments post-article allude to). Is it really fair for Scott Nicholson to land a job that is more than an entry level position just because of who he knows? Or because of who his father or grandfather knows? To rely on others rather than his own talents and skills? And if he is, indeed, a hard working person, then why is he content to live off of his parents rather than getting a job at Starbucks or any retail position to cover some of his expenses -- he could still search for a corporate job while holding down a retail job--it would require more energy expended on his part, but MANY MANY people do just this every day.

All I could think of when I read this article were the unseen people who were overlooked because Scott's grandfather and father had connections--because their friends hired them, and that this is supposedly the bedrock of the American Dream.

And if this is the case--if we are only supposed to get ahead and achieve the American Dream not based on our own merits but on who we know, then is it any wonder that we NEED programs like affirmative action or pipeline programs that can get students into college and into graduate programs. Because the history and legacy of institutional discrimination, of racism, of bigotry and prejudice, is not going to be wiped out overnight. The people overlooked from jobs were often people who were not "friends" with those who owned brokerage firms and factories. The brown skinned people. The working class people. Women. People with accents. People with last names that are hard to pronounce.

It seems to me that what is happening to Scott Nicholson is happening because we passed legislation that attempted to make civil rights a reality for all people (although we still need to work on this area in terms of protecting queer Americans). Scott is supposed to be playing on a level playing field, which means that he can't just rely on the fact that he is a white male college educated young man who desires a job that makes more than $40K and that isn't what he believes is "dead-end work" (the condescension of that phrase is enough to make me want to smack him). What Scott is facing is a reality that THIS is what it's like to be trying to make it ON YOUR OWN and imagine how much harder it is for folks who have college loans (Scott's parents and grandparents paid for the college tuition at Colgate, a private university with a pretty big price tag for tuition) or whose parents are working class and can't afford to have them move back home and sit around the house not working or who have to wonder when they come to an interview and are not given a job, whether it's because of the color of their skin or their gender or sexual identity--their perceived "difference" from the mainstream culture of corporate America (which, lets face it, is dominated by white, middle-class/upper-middle class men).

The American Dream may elude Scott Nicholson, but how many people got sucker punched and overlooked throughout the past few centuries? How many people of color really had access to the American Dream?


macon d said...

Thank you for this great response to a relatively clueless article about some very clueless, yet ironically arrogant, Americans. Their world of privilege really is a bubble of insulation; it sort of infantalizes them. (Me too, I'm sure, since I'm also a straight white American male.)

macon d said...

PS -- the white whining in that article reminds me of this.

Sad thing is, when privileged people do occasionally realize how good they've got it, all they usually do in response is try to remember to "count [their] blessings."

Arun said...

I’m glad you posted about this. I simply couldn’t get myself to read past the first page this morning. What a phenomenal sense of entitlement!

david said...

I think that this article is all about entitlement for young people today(and this is across the board for all races). There's an idea out there that you have to make a big splash in the career world.

Instead of taking the 40 k job, like how it should be with people starting out in the work force, he wants a high end job. I have a newsflash for this person; people just starting out do not normally get high end jobs.

So to have that idea of landing a big job off the bat, without any effort or time put in, does smack of entitlement and privilege.

Jennifer said...

Thanks everyone for leaving a comment. I'd like to think that Scott Nicholson is capable of redemption (he's only 24) and perhaps this is going to be a good wake-up call for him. Or perhaps he will be the poster boy for white male privilege (sigh). I guess we'll never really know.

Unknown said...

I have a question about privilege in general. Are connections you might make or get at an institution of higher-ed (e.g., Ivy school, University of Southern California, etc.) also a sign of privilege, though not necessarily white privilege as in the case of this article? I just wanted to hear your thoughts...

Jennifer said...


You raise an interesting point about connections and privilege. My short answer is yes--I think that connections that you make through college, particularly if the college you attend is very prestigious or the students very wealthy, are forms of privilege. Basically, if you are making connections through family or friends that lead you to greater power, I'd say that is a form of privilege. It's all rather relative in some respects. I mean, you can have family and friend connections that may only enable you to get a job at Applebys. Is that still privilege? It probably is for the person who would jump at the chance to work there but not so much for the person who wants a white collar job.

Anyway, thanks for commenting (and sorry it took me so long to respond--low energy levels due to chemo (sigh)).

inspired life said...

I'm just browsing through your blog... love the insight. Agree with the comments about entitlement and privilege but have to add that it all sounds like whining to me. Sure white people in america benefit from this sort of relationship play... but this type of thing happens all over the world. White people rely on their Chinese connections to get into great schools and companies in hong Kong, shanghai, and Singapore as well... though I guess it isn't as relevant since this post is about Americans. You must play the game in order to beat it. Join more business frats, make more connections, make yourself known, and then give back to the community you came from or share the opportunities with other diverse groups. I don't think relying on connections or being privileged is a problem. I think being entitled and inconsiderate of how less fortunate people might feel about his story/words are the big problems here... but lack of sensitivity and consideration, and entitlement is a problem for a lot of kids these days... not just white people. Thanks.