Watching Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House during class yesterday, I found Blandings’s inconveniences and dissatisfactions full of deeply unappreciative and bourgeois undertones. What spoke to me specifically was the casual mention of government bonds as a method of buying their dream house and how the accumulation of wealth is heavily informed by race. The following statistics come from this article.
I was interested in thinking about the differences in the lives of the Blandings as compared to that of their housekeeper, Gussie. I looked long and hard in the search for average earnings of a New York City maid in 1948 without much luck. But what I did find was that the wealth gap between blacks and whites only grows with age. The wealth gap between people of different races is 1:3 in favor of whites during their thirties. It grows to 1:11 by age 70. Liquid retirement assets, home ownership, and inherited wealth all heavily favor white Americans. African Americans also have much more student loan debt as a result of lower available wealth, making it harder for young adults to establish their own independent households.
In the end, I didn’t get the answer to my original question, but it led me to a much more tangible understanding of structural inequality. I feel like I’m now able to see the forces acting more directly on the lives of black Americans in the present day. It has also really allowed me to think critically about my own privilege and advantages in life that have come to me through no work on my part. Instead of thinking of Gussie, I’m thinking of her grandchild who could be attending the same school as I am. I imagine this person’s family history contributing to a lower amount of wealth as compared to my family’s comfortable government jobs and networking circles. I think about the connections to potential employers that I have and they may not. I think about the fact that I have no student loans while they might be on work study with loans piling up. I am statistically more likely to own a home, pay off my debts faster, and accumulate a larger retirement fund than this person.
I don’t have a perfect solution to this problem, but I feel far luckier (and somewhat guiltier) than I ever have before. So I want to open this uncomfortable feeling up to the class. How do you interact with and recognize the privileges you have? How do you diminish them or otherwise address facets of society that you dislike but benefit from at the same time? What responsibilities do we have to the people who are negatively impacted by our privilege?