Both conservatives and liberals are correct. Higher income correlates strongly with more education, with more work, and with a variety of positive, self-developed attributes. But more earnings also correlate with being white, being male, and being straight.
Yet both sides are also wrong. Good life habits often go along with a positive and financially solid upbringing, which is hardly distributed equally among demographic groups. Being black, Hispanic, female, or gay, though, is by no means a solid barrier to success.
So how do we sort this out? Where do we go from here?
First, all groups are not identical culturally, psychologically, or in their views of life, as much as we would like that to be the case. Equality of opportunity will never guarantee equality of results, even in our great-grandchildrens’ time. What sense does it make that the set of people who grow up female, with different hormones and body structures from others, would without any discrimination have identical statistical distributions of the complex factors influencing career success? Why should people from all cultures, some made up of those consistently prizing education and cooperation and some not, have the same rates of success, however you define it? Failure to achieve equal outcomes does not make us, our culture, or, least of all, our discrimination-banning legal system racist, sexist, homophobic, or anything else.
Second, we are all Americans. Within that, we have many appearances, values, preferred lifestyles, ancestral ethnicities, and outlooks in general. We differ not only in our abilities, but in our inclinations. A high school friend, in the early 1970s, ran a 60-second 440-yard dash - in a gym class, without any preparation. The teacher, who was also the school’s track coach, said to him afterwards, “Do you know what you just did?,” and told him his time. The coach implored him to join the track team, where almost immediately he could be one of the school’s top sprinters. My friend did not. Track success meant little or nothing to him. What we do, and do not do, is up to us, regardless of what is possible. Our national identity, though, means more and more as other countries compete better and better with ours.
Third, if we do not unite, we will be divided and conquered. Not by any great outside force, but by the realities we face. The jobs crisis is permanent, and not only for blacks, women, or non-college-graduates. Problems such as shockingly low employment (not unemployment), high crime rates, high incidences of illegal drug use and alcoholism, and very large amounts of TV watching, symptoms of an often justified attitude that people have little chance to support themselves, have moved far outside the inner cities and are still spreading.
Fourth, we need to find our success from the abilities we have and can gain. I excel at manipulating abstract ideas, so have done well as a computer programmer, project manager, professor, and author. Yet, despite interest in making things with my hands, I would be a below average carpenter. The same goes for advantages we have over others. Some 1970s baseball fans thought it was unfair that Joe Morgan, a second baseman headed for the Hall of Fame, could crouch his 5’6” frame when batting to shrink his strike zone and get lots of walks, but they did not consider how many people of that height did not play in the major leagues, let alone get enshrined in Cooperstown. If you look around your life at the people you have known, you will see plenty of other examples – both ways.
Fifth, we need to focus on reality. What “should” be true in life is frequently not the case. That is often painful to realize, but when we do that we will be healthier in the long run. It would be great if everyone who wanted to work could find a job, and those not successful could blame only personal shortcomings, as was essentially true 60 or 100 years ago. It would be wonderful if everyone totally lost the possibly genetic Homo sapiens tendency to be initially wary of those different from themselves. It would be nice if women working, or men for that matter, did not face “glass ceilings” where their career limits arrived before their personal ones. Religious tolerance from everyone would be a grand idea. It would be super for all of us to be judged only on our merits. These, though, are not how the world is put together, and may never be.
We are all different. We have one thing in common, though – we are Americans. If we put our efforts into dealing with the jobs situation as it is, together, we will justify our shared belief that the United States is the best country in the world. If we stay divided, we will be conquered by it.