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Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Watts-rich: The real meaning of income inequality in America

"You ball, right?" Donald, a new student, asked me as I was getting ready to walk away from his seat.

"I do ok," I responded, knowing what was coming. This wasn't the first time I'd had this conversation.

"How much you make?" Donald pressed.

I pivoted slowly back to face him and gave him a tired but friendly smile, "It's not polite to ask a man his salary," I told him.

"I don't mean disrespect," he assured me, "I just wanna know." The kid has big, friendly eyes that are made more engaging by his deep caramel color and wide grin.

I sighed and fell back to his desk. I told him my salary.

His eyes grew bigger. "Seriously? What's that..." He began to break it down by days, weeks, and months. When he'd arrived at a figure, he shook his head, "Naw, man. That can't be right." He showed me what he'd figured I earned per month.

I nodded, "That's right."

"You rich!" He smiled widely while shaking his head. My monthly salary made me competitive with the richest people he knew, including those who made their money illegally.

I started to shake my head, too. I wanted to tell him that I'm not rich, that I'm middle class, but it seemed inappropriate. Middle class is rich in Watts and it would be a lie to tell him otherwise.

Instead, I said: "For Watts, I am. Look, Donald, I seem rich to you because I do earn more money than most everybody you've ever met."

He nodded.

I wanted to continue, but I was stuck. I thought about telling him that it was all because of my college degree, or that it was the product of hard work, or even that, while I'm Watts-rich, I'm America-middle and for a Caucasian male with an advanced degree and thirteen years in a profession that I'm near the bottom of the financial heap.

But you don't tell a man who's intimidated by the hill in front of him that it's merely a foothill to the mountain behind.

Instead, I went for the PSA: "Education is the key, Donald. You remember what I told you about the difference between a drop-out and a college grad over a lifetime, right? One million dollars in earnings. That's why you're here with us. That's why you want to be doing well. I'm only ballin' because I did what you're trying to do now."

He laughed a rueful laugh. "You came up easy, dint'u?"

I smiled. "I made my own troubles, Donald, but you're right -- compared to here, I came up easy."

"So why you come down here?" He gestured with his chin to the whole neighborhood that pushed up against the ten-foot tall fence that surrounded the school.

"So I'd be somewhere where people thought I was ballin',"

He laughed. "Seriously, why you here?" The question had subtext and we both knew it. His experience had shown him that teachers in Watts fell into a very few categories and he needed help with my taxonomy.

"We've already established that I'm not returning to help kids like me. I'm also not here because it was the only place that would have me and I'm not here to build my resume," I watched him as he "x"'d out the possibilities as I rattled them off, "So I must be here because this is where I want to be."

"Why?"

"Because here I get to work with kids who kept looking for shortcuts in school. Y'all are the ones that I wished I could have gotten to when you were in my classes -- here I finally get to work with you and tell you that there are no shortcuts."

He looked down at his desk and shook his head. He mumbled something that I didn't hear.

"What?"

He looked up at me. He wasn't smiling. "The NBA"

This one had an answer I knew. "Hey, man, do you know how many players there are in the NBA? About 300. That's 300 out of 360 million Americans and 300 out of 6.3 billion people worldwide. Even if you are a phenom, you gotta have a back-up plan. You could be the best in LA and still not make it in the NBA. You gotta have something else to fall back on. That's why school is important."

I felt like a good teacher for a moment -- don't tell him he won't make it, but make sure he thinks about what else he could do if it doesn't happen.

He smiled, but it wasn't because he had learned something, it was because he already knew it. He rolled up his pant leg and gestured to the long red scar that ran vertically down his knee. "I don't have NBA dreams no more. That shit's over."

And that's why he was with us. My school is for kids who've fallen behind, screwed up, got sent up, got knocked up, or simply had their dreams destroyed like Donald. We are one of only a very few paths for young people who are trying to pick themselves off the floor and Donald had been knocked flat. He looked at the work laid out on his desk and the lesson displayed on his monitor, sighed, and rolled his pants leg back down.

"Now I gotta do this." And it was obvious that he didn't want to. And it was obvious that he thought it was too much. And it was obvious that he wasn't sold on the return on his investment. In a neighborhood without money, time is currency and finishing high-school was going to take his entire roll.

"You'll do it, Donald. You're too smart not to."

As I walked away, I thought back to a conversation I'd had a while back with a man who earns nearly 10-fold my salary. He insisted that he was middle class. I insisted that he was rich, but he demurred, "Rich people earn at least a million a year. I'm not there yet."

And that's how bad income inequality has gotten in our country.

Those on the bottom cannot even see beyond the middle of the ladder and those on the middle rungs are spread so far apart that we mistake the highest point we can see for the top -- even though we know that far beyond them lies the rarified regions of those that are so wealthy that we can no longer simply call them rich. The historic definitions of rich are now so outmoded that those who meet them feel middle-class by comparison.

And those at the top of the ladder? They can't even see us. There are clouds between us and them.

And Donald and all of those like him in whom the foundation of the ladder is secured? I wonder what will happen when they realize how high the ladder they're holding goes and how few of them will ever get to climb it.

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