Trinity College
December 10, 2015
© Julienne Schaer

Every poor black kid gets the same speech about college around the age of eight, ten at the latest. It goes something like this: “If you’re gonna go to college you gotta get scholarships ‘cuz I/we can’t help you.” That speech. I got the speech thousands of times. It was simply understood that since keeping the lights on was a challenge month to month, coming out of pocket tens of thousands of dollars for tuition was but a fantasy. The reality is, only 0.3% of students in America actually receive a full ride to college. That simply meant that I couldn’t be a good student. I had to be an absolutely amazing student, president of a bunch of clubs I wasn’t interested in and involved in whatever else that would convince a university and others to see funding 100% of my college expenses as a great idea: no pressure.

In 2010, the unemployment rate for young college grads was 10.4%. The underemployment rate for that demographic was 19.8%. On the other hand, for those who only graduated from high school, the numbers are 32.7% and 55.9% respectively. When it comes to earnings, there’s an annual gap of almost $30,000 between high school and college grads. What all this means is that when my folks told me at eight years old I was on my own paying for college, they really meant my very life and survival rested on my ability to convince wealthy people to pay for my education- wholly. That’s way beyond personal responsibility. Personal responsibility would simply be telling a child they need to do their best in school. What I grew up with was sheer terror.

It is the same terror I feel every time I’m stopped by the police; either driving or walking down my own street (it has happened more times than my hands can count). There’s terror in knowing that one false step, as a black man, could be the end of me professionally or even physically. One word that a cop disapproves of could earn me an arrest record, which is enough to doom my life prospects as a black man. Without knowing extensive data on the criminal justice system, I’m aware that I’m a target and things other people do all day long, I’d better not even think about. It’s a mandate for perfection. All that goes far beyond personal responsibility- that’s taking responsibility for the attitudes of an entire society.

This is precisely why many of us struggle to understand the world we encounter once we leave our neighborhood. It is a world where George W. Bush can be arrested a couple of times (and possibly once more for cocaine possession) and become president. It is a world in which cops can break into the home of an elderly, ex-Marine and kill him after clearly uttering a racial slur at him, with no consequences. It is a world in which the CEO of J.P Morgan Chase, after losing $2 billion in one quarter alone can simply say, “This should never have happened. I can’t justify it. Unfortunately these mistakes were self inflicted,” and still be awarded $23 million by his bosses. Huh? Personally, I’d feel much better about a dope boy watching the investment fund- they get roughed up if the count is off by $2.

It’s hard to understand this world. You lose $2 billion in just a few months, admit you can’t justify it and still get paid? Even worse, not only has Chase been given at least $390 billion in emergency Fed loans, they’re still a federally-insured depository institution. So basically, if they lose $6 trillion tomorrow, people like us will still pick up the tab. They’ll never be “personally responsible” for any amount of incompetence, criminality or negligence. In my world, I had to be among the 0.3% who earn a full ride to college. I had to ensure I never broke the smallest civil code lest I be arrested (and frankly I know some who broke no civil code and were still arrested). I had to be perfect, just to obtain average. Not President of the United States, just average. As someone who comes from that world, I just don’t understand the lack of personal responsibility.

5 comments

Rashad

“All that goes far beyond personal responsibility- that’s taking responsibility for the attitudes of an entire society.” I love this comment about how personal responsibility for some really means being responsible for yourself…and responsible for making sure everyone else feels adequately pandered to, considered, and free from threat. You make some good points about the prevailing idea that individuals who have very little resources and far fewer “opportunities” are expected to pull themselves up by non-existent bootstraps and be personally responsible for any success/failure. I guess we’re penning a new adage for modern times: “To whom little is given, much is required.” Great work, Mr. Hopewell.

Jennifer Morgan

I echo Rashad’s comments.

I never got the speech, but it was understood (words not necessary). Fortunately, the only thing being black and poor ever earned me was part of that .3%.

Even with a college education (undergrad and grad), a career, religious roots, and having never broken a civil code (worth noting, LOL) I am still required to maintain a personal responsibility that others are not (both on the job and in general life).

I am reminded of this every time I recall one of my run-ins with law enforcement. He (the cop) called a kid a few explicits at a school event, I (along with “others”) privately expressed my disdain while passing, he choked me out, twisted my fingers, and nearly humiliated me in front of my students and family, I was banned from the facility and advised to get legal representation, he was permitted to carry on, I was left protecting my job, he was considered doing his. I was advised to let it go, he probably never had to take hold.

Some say he was dealing with the little man complex, others tell me I should cut my locks.

But what noone said was that he should be forced to take personal responsibility but I never had the option.

    D'Juan Hopewell

    i Hate that you have had those experiences. I do admire your courage in still seeking to contribute to the next generation, despite your own hardships.

Anonymous

So did you achieve that level of perfection? Who paid for your tuition?

    D'Juan Hopewell

    Thanks so much for taking the time to read, “anonymous.” To answer your question, yes and no. I’m far from perfect. However, I did manage to never get arrested despite my frequent run-ins with law enforcement. As it pertains to my undergraduate education, I managed to get in-state tuition fully covered. However, since I was an out of state student, I had more work to do. I pieced together several scholarships from the university, the local alumni association etc. to get the out of state tuition paid for. However, given the large gap between the two, there was still a need in order to cover living expenses. Long story short, I had to borrow a little (relative to the overall cost of attendance for an out of state student). My masters program was 100% loans. My ph.d program was paid for (I did one year then quit). So I did ok in undergrad, down hill from there. I have around 130k or so over my head in loans…

Leave a reply

subscribe now and never miss an update