Every year I teach (or co-teach) Literature of Social Responsibility, a course that strives to combine the methodical and concrete critique of a sociologist with the storytelling sensibility of a literature professor.
I, of course, am the latter. But stories draw their power from being ground in the realities of life – and one key piece of that reality is contributed by legendary sociologist William Julius Wilson, who first made waves in the 1960s by arguing that economic class was even more important than race in limiting the possibilities of one’s life, an interesting claim for an African-American scholar in a time when parts of the country were still fighting formal segregation.
His exploration of all the ways we remain separated have included the books The Declining Significance of Race, The Truly Disadvantaged, and When Work Disappears; he warns against the pervasive impact of “social isolation,” all the ways the poor, lacking a sense of economic possibilities, can become cut off from the broader network of the mainstream, reinforcing their poverty. The sense of possibility so many of us take for granted, reinforced by the surroundings of the mainstream, cease to exist when there is no perceived opportunity to provide hard evidence. The so-called culture of poverty often follows from poverty itself.
Wilson, of course, is not alone in this view – and one mainstream source Wilson himself has praised is the HBO series The Wire, set in inner city Baltimore. In Literature of Social Responsibility, we study the fourth season of The Wire – focused largely on efforts to save middle school children from a life on the streets, out of the belief that high school is often too late.
So why am I spending my precious sabbatical reminiscing about, of all things, teaching class?
It turns out that even as I have more time to read, what my eyes come across are more reminders of the issues Wilson and The Wire raise. Just this week, a pair of stories got my attention – one addressed the psychological impact of inequality on all of us, another what happens when someone is given an opportunity.
In the New York Times, there was the piece “How Inequality Hollows Out the Soul,” by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. Co-founders of the Equality Trust, the writers also authored the book, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger. The essay is an intriguing synthesis of various studies that suggest correlation between the degree of inequality and psychological disorders. Careful to acknowledge exceptions to the overall theme, the piece nevertheless points to some reasons why the inequality gap is increasing – and why we should reverse the trend.
“One of the important effects of wider income differences between rich and poor is to intensify the issues of dominance and subordination, and feelings of superiority and inferiority. Two sociologists at the University of Toronto, Robert Andersen and Josh Curtis, found that although there is always some connection between people’s income and the social class to which they feel they belong, the match between the two is closer in societies with bigger income differences between rich and poor.”
Such inequality can promote energy-draining depression and anxiety in the subordinate, and feelings of narcissism and self-aggrandizement in others. Wilkinson and Pickett describe the work of psychologist Paul Piff, who “has shown that higher status is indeed associated with more unethical and narcissistic behavior. Mr. Piff found that drivers of more expensive cars were less likely to give way to pedestrians or to other cars. Higher status people were also more likely to help themselves to candies that they had been told were intended for children. He found that they also had a greater sense of entitlement and were less generous.”
That lack of generosity shows in our politics these days, what with threats to not only unemployment and food stamps, but even national volunteer programs that promote a less narcissistic and selfish view of the world – and, in the process, give individuals a chance to disprove that supposed inferiority.
Which brings us to the second article that struck me – a Boston Globe article about Irlando Goncalves, a Cape Verdean immigant kid growing up in a tough Boston area neighborhood. Writer Akilah Johnson’s description of Irlando’s situation reminds me of Wilson and The Wire: “He and his family lived on Hendry Street in Dorchester’s Bowdoin-Geneva neighborhood, a place thick with the pitfalls and snares of urban environs. He was skipping class, clowning around, mouthing off, and getting suspended, barely squeaking through middle school, which educators say is one of the last places to catch students before they fall too far behind or drop out.”
Now 18, Goncalves, whose behavior was so bad that his mother once shipped him back to Cape Verde, is an honors student who has gained early admission to Union College, his first choice.
What happened? Opportunity.
The Teen Center at St. Peter Church in Dorchester gave Goncalves a summer job as a counselor in training; the director made sure he was around good mentors, some of whom were college students. His work at the agency “changed my whole perspective.. . The money felt good. I felt independent, and in a way it made me think: ‘If I keep up the good things, more good things will come.’ ”
That simple belief – one I take for granted in my own middle-class existence – is not so easily maintained for the socially isolated – for those who don’t only have no full-time jobs, or health insurance, or even enough food to eat … or the companionship of those who do.
Sure, juxtaposing these articles invoke complexities that can’t be fully explored in this blog entry. But one way to acknowledge complexity is to resist simplistic notions of false superiority and give people the chance to prove themselves. After all, Wilkinson and Pickett seem to suggest, if we help others save themselves, we may be saving our own souls in the bargain.