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.