Summer in the ‘hood

So, last summer, I lived in the ghetto, and I wrote this about the experience:

I’ve been waffling back and forth for the last couple of weeks about whether or not the term “ghetto” is appropriate. The moniker is certainly racialized and loaded enough that I use it cautiously. That said, to call my neighborhood anything else would probably be disingenuous and would, in a sense, demean the hardships that its inhabitants face every day. Our neighborhood has shitty streets, drug dealers, a recent wave of muggings, and boarded up shops. And, it’s almost entirely black.

Being quite possibly the only white person on my block gives me lots of opportunities to experience race. As a sociology major, I think about race all the time, but letting race filter meaningfully into interactions is not something I actively try to do. In fact, I try not to notice that I look completely different from everyone around me in the subway station or the grocery store. I tell myself over and over it doesn’t matter. For whatever reason, it does.

In high school, I convinced myself – based on the approximately zero interactions I had with people of other races – that race was just a proxy for social class. All of the problems of blacks and Hispanics, I figured, must be no different from those of poor whites. I figured that actual discrimination was gone, but that its legacy meant that minorities were poorer. My view didn’t let white people of the hook, but it certainly simplified things, and I think this is the view that Obama—whether for political expediency or out of genuine belief—wants us to take. Sure, there are still problems running along the color line, but for the most part, our country is ‘post-racial’ and simply needs to deal with its past legacy of discrimination.

Walking through our neighborhood, however, would likely give a different viewpoint. A quick stroll down Bedford Avenue plays out like a theater of enacted stereotypes. The twin specters of drugs and welfare that define public perception of ‘the ghetto’ are visible everywhere. Every store sells beer – and takes food stamps. Walk around past ten and you’ll see every manner of stoned, tripping, or drunk person imaginable. People sit on stoops, and stores sell fried chicken. There seem to be plenty of unemployed people. Someone even stole my detergent from the Laundromat with me two feet away. Like I said, it’s a ghetto.

Thanks to three years of sociology, though, I could quickly offer an explanation for everything. Unemployment? Well, let me tell you about de-industrialization and globalization. Dirty streets? Who would take pride in a neighborhood they were forced into through red-lining, block-busting, and other forms of covert segregation. Unwed mothers? Everyone knows that happens because young women need ways to validate their adulthood in the absence of job prospects or a functioning education system. Welfare queens? You know that only pays $324 a month, right? No one is choosing that sort of existence.

For me, it has all been a little self-congratulatory. I’d tell people I lived in Bedford Stuyvesant, fish for the standard “Oh, isn’t that a bad neighborhood?” response, and then calmly chastise them for thinking an area is unsafe just because it’s largely black. I prided myself on ‘proving’ everyone wrong by not rushing home at night. I catalogued in my mind every example of someone in our area being nice to me, thus showing that ‘they,’ the residents at large, generalized into a single, black group, were also nice.

I’m gradually realizing, though, that even my ‘enlightened’ sociologists’ perspective is off the mark. Stereotyping is wrong in both directions because it demeans the individual. I’m reminded of an anecdote – I may be mis-adapting it – in which a good hearted liberal asked a black person if they preferred to be called “black” or “African American.” The response was “I prefer to be called a person.” While I may perceive everything that happens in our neighborhood as the result of structure, I think few of my neighbors would view themselves purely as victims, and to suggest they are is to disempower them even futher.

I could stop there, but I feel like musing a little longer, even if it means I come to no firm denouement. A few weekends ago our neighborhood held a “block party” for Madison Street, where we live. Jordan and I decided that the loud rap, barbeques, and bouncy tents weren’t for us, so we stayed inside until about 10 p.m. Then, we went for a walk, which closed with the two of us sitting on our stoop outside for a few minutes. Shortly thereafter, our neighbor Rick, a Jamaican migrant, came over and offered us food. We weren’t interested initially, but he was persistent. Suddenly, we were meeting all of the neighbors and having beers shoved into our hands. People were so friendly and seemed to be enjoying each others’ company so much that I couldn’t help but wonder why it is that my neighborhood at home would never, ever do something like this.

More interesting, though, was the response we got when we told people that we were subletting from Becca and Andy – that is, the previous white couple on the block (I suppose I just referred to Jordan and myself as a “couple”). No one knew who they were. Becca and Andy had lived here for years and never come out, never introduced themselves. Our block recently did a beautification campaign and won a big award. Becca and Andy’s place is pretty much the only one on our street whose front yard still has no flowers.

All of this has taken me down a notch in terms of my own sense of enlightenment. It has also clued me in to one of the biggest perils of sociology. Even if we can find statistical trends and empirical realities that allow us to ‘accurately’ describe a community of people, people may very well still resist that labeling. People are, in the end, individual people and to try to explain a single person-in all his or her complexity-with a single variable like race is bound to fail.

Climbing the Meritocracy

There’s something ironic about receiving Walter Kirn’s new book, Lost in the Meritocracy, as a graduation present. Obviously the well-wisher who bought it for me figured I would be interested in reading what people are saying about Princeton, but it certainly doesn’t make graduating seem like much of a cause for celebration. The book—written by a disgruntled (though, extremely successful) Princeton graduate—makes the case that any Ivy League “education” is anything but. Just as the Class of ’09 devoured The Rule of Four before arriving on campus, to learn how to get into Princeton’s Steam Tunnels and gain admission to one of its eating clubs, many of us are now reading Kirn’s book to figure out if the diplomas we just received are, in fact, worthless.

Lost in the Meritocracy is easy to dismiss. As the Daily Princetonian points out, Kirn’s experiences at Princeton are a tad bit unconventional. (They include, among other things, doing coke with Truman Capote, torching his roommates’ furniture, and an Honor Code violation). Despite being an outsider to much of Princeton myself, I found little in the book that actually resonated with me.

The one part of the book that really caught me was a line on the back cover: “In America, percentile is destiny.” Percentile has more-or-less been my obsession at least since I started thinking about college. High school saw me graduating at the top of a class of nineteen. Percentile: 95th. Getting into Princeton probably put me in the top 1%, at least as far as SATs and GPAs are concerned. Princeton, of course, is not the summit of the percentile mountain; instead, freshman year is more like a momentary plateau before the ascent becomes steeper. It’s not enough to just go to Princeton; you need to be in the top quintile, get honors, or otherwise distinguish yourself.

It occurred to me how truly hopeless the percentile climb is this year when I was applying for fellowships. When I interviewed for the Rhodes, I was blown away by how frankly unsuccessful the former scholars on the committee were. Sure, they weren’t living off of food stamps, but it was a bit surprising to see how many Rhodes Scholars there were working as assistant professors at state colleges or doing tax law. A few weeks later, when I actually won the Sachs, I was admonished that it wasn’t enough to be a Sachs Scholar—I had to be one of the “good” ones. (Apparently, as I was told, some of the previous winners have been “disappointments.”)

I suppose it all comes down to numbers. There are thirty-two Rhodes Scholars a year, which means that there are over a thousand living Rhodes alums. Kirn claims that winning a Rhodes is “reaching the top of the pyramid” in society, and yet, it’s implausible that each of those thousand scholars went on to great things. The sheer size of the top few percentiles feels overwhelming. It hits me every time I go to the library, and stare at the thousands of books that have been written on every single topic imaginable.

I guess what I’m getting at is that I’ve realized that originality and distinction cannot be achieved by relentlessly climbing the percentile ladder. No matter what awards I won at Princeton or work to get at Oxford, there will always be someone else at every level of the hierarchy. When I won the Pyne, a good friend warned me against the feeling that “this is my pinnacle” and that I will never achieve at that level again. Personally, though, I’m content for that to be true, and to go into the future having conceded that, at least in the percentile game, I’m not going to reach the top.