Friday, May 11, 2012

The right families

I look behind my ears for the green
Even my sweat smells clean
Glare off the white hurts my eyes
Gotta get out of bed get a hammer and a nail
Learn how to use my hands, not just my head
I think myself into jail
Now I know a refuge never grows
From a chin in a hand in a thoughtful pose
Gotta tend the earth if you want a rose.
— Indigo Girls, Hammer and a Nail, Nomads Indians Saints (2000)

I grew up in the deep South. I have spent most of my adult life in exile as a stranger in the strange land called Academia. Though the deep South and Academia generally distrust each other, the two places do have some things in common. Chief among those shared traits is the belief that coming from the "right family" counts for something. After six years of publishing MoneyLaw, I'll readily concede that most of my readers will never understand the South and really don't want to understand it. That's a lost cause. But I do suspect that many readers of this blog know a "right family" when they see one. "Proffspring." Children of professors or politicians — hellfire, children of a professor and a politician — collecting another generation of Ivy or near-Ivy degrees. By and large, this is the bourgeois background that dominates acadème. They don't call it the ivory tower for nothing.

Charles Murray

For weeks I've been looking for an excuse to post a link to the PBS quiz, White, educated, and wealthy? Congratulations, you live in a bubble. The quiz is quite illuminating. It illustrates the basic premise of Charles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010: The United States, especially but not just its majority white population, is pulling apart like cells undergoing meiosis. The wealthier and (yes) whiter you are, the less likely you are to encounter anyone who deviates from your background. MoneyLaw veteran Jeff Harrison calls it class bias. Really, there's a simpler term for it. Business as usual in academia.

I scored 32 out of 100 points on that PBS quiz. Humble was I ere I saw Harvard: any points I scored were traceable to my upbringing in a comfortable but decidedly modest, working-class immigrant family. That score, PBS told me, is typical of a first-generation professional from a fair to middlin' working-class background. I strongly suspect that most scores in American legal academia would be much, much more sequestered.

I had occasion this week to speak to the hiring partner of a large law firm in a medium-sized American city (not Louisville). He reported an observation that bears repeating. This partner and his counterparts around the country have compared notes on all of the top-ten-percent students and law review editors their firms have hired. The factor that most accurately predicts success? Whether at least one parent worked with her or his hands. Seriously, get out of bed and grab a hammer and a nail.

Come to think of it, as the child of parents whose first jobs in this country were busing tables at Atlanta's old Stouffer Hotel and packing doughnuts at the Krispy Kreme on Ponce de Leon Avenue, I can definitely lay claim to a distinction that has dogged me my whole life, first as a child in and of the deep South, and later as a vagabond in Academia. I really do come from one of the "right families." Indeed, the very best.

Happy Mother's Day, Mom. And thanks, Dad, for marrying her.


Blogger Jeffrey Harrison said...

48 for me. So almost made it to a slightly thicker bubble.

5/12/2012 8:14 AM  
Anonymous Sandi Zellmer said...

67! That comes from growing up on a farm and having what might be called lowbrow t.v. preferences. Yeah, we're the odd ducks in the academic world. And damn proud of it.

5/12/2012 10:24 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

42. Wow. And I loved the tribute to your parents.

5/17/2012 12:54 AM  

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