Book reviews: Race, class, economics and destiny

Posted by admin | Posted in Politics | Posted on 31-07-2010-05-2008

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It’s taken me a while to catch up, but there have been two excellent books looking at race, class, economic status and destiny in the past six months. The first reviewed here is less formal, an excellent memoir/study in personal stories, and the second is more academic in nature, an updated tenth anniversary edition of a book that looks at wealth transmission across generations in disadvantaged communities. Both are excellent, thought-provoking resources for discussion and further inquiry.

The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates
By Wes Moore
Hardcover, 256 pages, .00
Spiegel & Grau
April 2010

Money quote:

This is the story of two boys living in Baltimore with similar histories and an identical name: Wes Moore. One of us is free and has experienced things that he never even knew to dream about as a kid. The other will spend every day until his death behind bars for an armed robbery that left a police officer and father of five dead. The chilling truth is that his story could have been mine. The tragedy is that my story could have been his. Our stories are obviously specific to our two lives, but I hope they will illuminate the crucial inflection points in every life, the sudden moments of decision where our paths diverge and our fates are sealed. It’s unsettling to know how little separates each of us from another life altogether.

Author: First-time author, former Army combat veteran, youth advocate, former special assistant to Secretary of State Condeloeezza Rice as a White House Fellow, speaker at the 2008 Democratic National Convention, investment professional.

Basic premise: Two African American men. Same name. Born around the same time, living in the same city, of roughly the same class. Ultimately, radically different lives. One imprisoned for life, the other a respected professional. Moore explores his life story and that of his doppelganger, hoping to tease out the reasons why some succeed and some fail in very similar circumstances.

Readability/quality: Smooth reading, nice “plot” development if one can say that about non-fiction (you can, regarding memoirs, in my view). Good character description and thoughtful consideration of difficult topics–nature versus nurture writ large in all its complexity.

Who should read it: Fans of memoirs and sociological explorations for laypeople, as well as anyone interested in race and class issues, urban settings, influence of family and peers on personal outcomes.

Bonus quote:

… when I finish my story, the question that comes up the most is the one that initiated this quest: “What made the difference?”

And the truth is that I don’t know. The answer is elusive. People are so wildly different, and it’s hard to know when genetics or environment or just bad luck is decisive. As I’ve puzzled over the issue, I’ve become convinced that there are some clear and powerful measures that can be taken during this crucial time in a young person’s life. Some of the ones that helped me come to mind, from finding strong mentors to being entrusted with responsibilities that forced me to get serious about my behavior. There is no one thing that leads people to move in one direction or another. I think the best we can do is give our young people a chance to make the best decisions possible by providing them with the information and the tools and the support they need.

Moore took a subject that could easily veer off into self-indulgence–his personal history and that of someone similar–and made it larger than himself. Weaving his own story and the other Wes Moore’s together, he is able to draw attention to the places of similarities (missing fathers, early rebellions, overworked mothers) and places of difference (strong and involved grandparents, private school). But the parallels and divergences become about so much more than just these two men; the author’s luck in finding mentors, and in finding his own responsibility and strength in military experience outline the importance of structure, peers and adults who are committed to guiding the next generation. Both stories are, in every sense of the phrase, very American stories, with tragedy, challenge and success in our system often pegged to very small steps and missteps along the way.

***

Being Black, Living in the Red: Race, Wealth, and Social Policy in America
By Dalton Conley
University of California Press: Berkeley, CA
Softcover updated reprint, 217 pages, .95
Tenth anniversary edition

Money quote:

In 1865, at the time of the Emancipation Proclamation, African Americans owned 0.5 percent of the total worth of the United States. This statistic is not surprising; most black Americans had been slaves up to that point. However, by 1990, a full 135 years after the abolition of slavery, black Americans owned a meager 1 percent of total wealth. In other words, almost no progress has been made in terms of property ownership. African Americans may have won “title” to their own bodies and to their labor, but they have gained ownership over little else.

Author: Dean of Social Sciences at New York University, Conley has spent his career focusing on class and intergenerational economic patterns. Other books include Honky, a memoir of growing up white in a predominantly minority neighborhood in the 1970s; The Starting Gate: Birth Weight and Life Chances; and The Pecking Order: A Bold New Look at How Family and Society Determine Who We Become.

Basic premise: We’re asking the wrong question when we’re limiting inquiries about economic disparities and race to income and earnings only. What matters, says Conley, at least as much as salary is the ability to amass assets across generations. And there is ample evidence that historical and current policies in America penalize minorities in this area in subtle, yet devastating ways. This edition is updated from 10 years ago when it first was released, with a new introduction that looks at what has changed (or, more sadly and accurately, what has not) since initial publication.

Readability/quality: Free of jargon yet grounded in research. Charts and graphs with strong clarifying summaries make this a relatively easy read.

Who should read it: Anyone interested in delving into the policy behind race, class, economics, education and intergenerational inheritance issues.

Bonus quote:

Herein lie the two motivating questions of this study. First, why does this wealth gap exist and persist over and above income differences? Second, does this wealth gap explain racial differences in areas such as education, work, earnings, welfare, and family structure? In short, this book examines where race per se really matters in the post-civil rights era and where race simply acts as a stand-in for that dirty word of American society: class. The answers to these questions have important implications for the debate over affirmative action and for social policy in general.

Accumulating wealth and transmitting it across generations seems like a no-brainer for explaining many disparities in our society, yet most research that looks at why minorities continue to end up at the bottom of the social and economic ladder seem to focus on education, occupation and income in the contemporary generation. Conley makes a very strong case that the roots of many of socio-economic problems experienced by the African American community are based in wealth transmission problems. He also teases out where class and race diverge, and where they overlap as lower-income Americans of every stripe try to catch hold of the American Dream, which for those at the bottom seems to recede more and more each year. Highly recommended as a book to keep on the shelf as permanent reference and ammo against those who would argue that there is something in transmitted black culture–not economics–that creates hurdles for moving into the middle class.


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