The False Meritocracy

By Amar Patel

My parents emigrated from India to the United States in the late 1960s, and I grew up on a street with only white neighbors. I remember avoiding certain blocks because kids would throw rocks at me as I rode by. I would take a trip to the convenience store and turn around because other roughnecks would be outside. I was routinely taunted in the playground and assaulted a few times. I can still remember my sorrow and seething hatred for my persecutors. While I had the good fortune of having a supportive, close-knit, multi-generational family, my parents didn’t know about my plight; I felt too ashamed to share my experiences. The feeling of being an outsider and not belonging did not sit well with me. The principle of solidarity that I now cherish as a member of the American Solidarity Party was as foreign to me as my parents were to the soil they had moved to.

Years later, as an adult, I learned that my father had faced similar racism from his college classmates during graduate school shortly after arriving in the United States. I asked him how he overcame it. His answer was that he knew he had to work harder than everyone else to show that he belonged. This was the one value that my parents instilled in me more than any other: no one can take your work ethic away from you. So, years later, having worked hard, gone to college, gotten a good job, married a supportive wife, and had two healthy children, I had a strong sense that I had earned my place in the world. It was only when my children were older that I had to reassess my world view. One of my teenage son’s teammates bullied him about being a terrorist as their school bus drove by a mosque (we are Roman Catholic). When he told us about this, a latent, decades-old rage emerged and I wanted justice for my child’s abuse. Thankfully, the coach and the bully’s mother intervened and settled the issue, but my heart ached for my son.

In today’s public discourse, we often hear the terms “institutional racism” and “white privilege.” While I am sure society has improved overall in the course of debating these concepts, I know that the arguments over them can fall on deaf ears. My contribution may also suffer the same fate, but as an alternative take on racial harmony, I hope it may spark a new conversation and add to our nation’s ongoing healing.

As I reflected on the George Floyd situation, the subsequent nationwide violence, and the social-media reaction to all of it, my thoughts went back to my father’s journey. How did he overcome racism and othering? Was it really just hard work? What I realized was that he had something that black children often don’t get: an intact family. For many African-American children, there is no father at home (rather than in jail on some petty charge). My grandfather sacrificed all that he had saved and all that he would earn so my father could follow his dream and start a new life. In addition, for twenty years, my parents had the love and support of a safe community—a community that not only believed they could succeed but also rallied together to make sure that they would. They came from small, secluded farming villages in India, and they took the hopes and dreams of extended families and supportive neighbors with them.

This year, I went through a seminar on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). In summary, trauma and abuse when inflicted on a child can have long-term physiological and psychological effects similar to what is seen among soldiers who have been in war. Children raised in high-conflict situations can literally exhibit the signs of PTSD. But there’s a difference: a soldier’s tour of duty will end, while a poor child has no obvious means of escape from the squalor and stress of her daily life. Black children disproportionately grow up in a “fight or flight” environment. Too often they have poorly funded schools, inferior health care, inadequate diets, and dangerous living conditions. On top of these—and perhaps worst of all—they have the outrageous expectation placed upon them that they should catch up on their own to people who started miles ahead in the race.

For the very, very few readers who started with nothing, survived years of trauma and abuse, achieved an education or started a business, and are now thriving adults, I say, “God bless you; well done.” This article addresses the millions who casually lambaste the looters, pointing out the fault in their plan of action, and asking, “How does looting bring George Floyd justice?” It doesn’t, but I can tell you I would have at least verbally assaulted the young man who bullied my son over the singular instance of racism he faced. I can’t begin to comprehend how years of anger and resentment may have affected the psyche of the recent looters and vandals. This does not exonerate them from culpability, but lack of sympathy for their raw emotion implies a corresponding lack of consideration of their daily plight, which is a plight I am fortunate to have avoided.

While I faced racism and hatred as a child, I had loving parents and an extended family living with me. I had good schools with great teachers who never expected anything but the best from me. I had amazing friends whose parents treated me like a son despite my different ethnicity. In college, I found great support in a faith community that modeled respect for all members, regardless of background. The education my parents paid for opened the door to a great job where others had prepared a work environment that has allowed me to thrive and achieve more than I could have done on my own.

“In God We Trust” has been the motto of this country only since 1956. What if our motto was, “There, but for the grace of God, go I”? I am forty-six years old—the same age as George Floyd. What if George had been born into my life and I into his? Individualism feeds a false sense of meritocracy, but no one can make it on her own; everyone needs support from others. We can’t answer questions about how much support is right, when it should end, who should pay for it, and so forth until we accept that we are not isolated atoms moving solely of our own accord. We can’t heal as a society until we are truly thankful for our circumstances and reciprocally generous with our surpluses.

The only time I ever got pulled over for speeding was by one of my former neighbors who had grown up to become a police officer. He recognized me when reading my name off of my driver’s license. We laughed and shared stories about our families and our lives since high school. I don’t expect to have such a pleasant encounter the next time I get pulled over, but I can’t fathom the crushing weight of fear a young black man must feel the first time—or every time—he is pulled over. How can our experiences be so different in the same country? This is the kind of question I have come to ask through my time in the American Solidarity Party. If we are not all in this together, then we will perpetually remain apart.

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