“Superlativity” Politics

I’ve been having a few conversations lately about the nature of respectability. In the context of our current times, it’s about the belief that people’s behavior determines their entire outcome in the context of a police interaction, a job, or other situations. This belief sits in contrast with the notion of prejudice, where people are literally pre-judged before their behavior can be taken into account.

In particular, there is a belief by some that most of the police incidents being highlighted by the Black Lives Matter movement are the result of the behavior of the citizens. Sandra Bland and Eric Garner shouldn’t have mouthed off. Mike Brown was a criminal. Trayvon Martin was on his way to being a criminal. With respect to black folks in particular, his belief is espoused by two camps: conservatives (mostly but not all white) who don’t actually have personal relationships with black people, and successful black people who in many cases may have themselves come from an adverse upbringing.

The first camp could be written off as a lack of empathy, but that’s not completely fair. I think for a white conservative person of moderate or higher means who has only their experience to measure by, it’s quite a leap to imagine a world where the police are a threat to you if you’ve done nothing wrong. In a world where everyone around you is at least steadily working, and progressing through the ranks in accordance with their effort, it’s hard to see how Ben Carson can become a successful neurosurgeon with an upbringing like he had, but another black guy who actually works at it can’t get a steady job. The second camp is harder to argue with, because it’s their experience that’s on the table. They know what it’s like to live in poverty, or to go to inferior schools, or to experience discrimination. And they made it. So why can’t someone else?

This is what I call the “superlativity problem”, where we base the judgment of the bar for success on what the superlative people in the group have done. We look at Ben Carson, or Barack Obama, or our black friend who went to a good school or got a good job, and go, “he did it, why can’t these other people get themselves together?” The answer to that is complex. There is a conversation to be had about black agency and the repeal of hopelessness. It would also be great if more people could find in themselves whatever fire, whatever perseverance these icons had that led to their successes. However, I’m more interested in determining how a person of average ability can achieve an average result.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, in his seminal essay, “A Muscular Empathy”, says,

“If you really want to understand slaves, slave masters, poor black kids, poor white kids, rich people of colors, whoever, it is essential that you first come to grips with the disturbing facts of your own mediocrity. The first rule is this–You are not extraordinary.”

He goes on to say that the interesting question isn’t whether you would do better than a person in a bad situation, but rather taking some time to understand why you might not. Our dirty secret is that we each think we are extraordinary, and in some way, we are. Fearfully and wonderfully made, each of us. But are we extraordinary in all situations?

If you grew up in a war zone, would you still have pursued the love of math that made you an accountant? Would your business acumen be as sharp if you didn’t overhear your parents talking to their business associates that came to the house for dinner, or if Mom and Dad didn’t talk shop at the table? If your school had poor resources, would you have even learned enough to get into that college that shaped you into who you are today?

Chris Rock calls out the other side of this in his joke from his comedy special Kill The Messenger. He points out that in his wealthy neighborhood, there are four black people: Rock himself, Mary J. Blige, Jay-Z, and Eddie Murphy, each of whom are at the very top of their field. His white neighbor, however, is a dentist. Not a famous dentist to the stars, not a specialist in rare mouth diseases. A dentist.

Put these together, and what do we learn? First, our circumstance has more to do with who we are than we wish to admit. Some will make it, no matter what. These people become CEOs, Presidents, visionaries that choose the most difficult jobs and paths. Most of us, though, have not pushed to our limits, but have instead ridden the wave as high as it carried us, doing our part to stay atop it, but not much more. Second, riding the wave produces unequal outcomes depending on where in the water you are. If you’re in a poor neighborhood where hopelessness is high, schools are failing, and parents are absent because they’re working multiple jobs to keep their household afloat, a lot of the things that someone in a well-off neighborhood with good schools, role models aplenty, and two available parents take for granted are just not available to you. So your choice is to swim against a hard and dangerous current to find a better wave, or ride the one you’re on, like most people in all situations do.

We should absolutely encourage our children to push to their limits, to find their true potential, and take agency for their lives. However, we should not accept a world where anything short of world-class performance means complete failure, either.

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