It was one of those mornings where everything was going wrong, an accumulation of mundane misfires incrementally eroding my frame of mind, colluding to push me into a counterproductive frenzy. It was stupid shit, really, but in context, how much of everyday life isn't?
Finally out of the house I was halfway into my daily commute when familiar red and blue lights flashed from nowhere, blazing furiously and demanding immediate compliance. “Just when you thought it couldn't get any worse” is cliché for a reason.
I carefully pulled over. Sitting rigid, I placed my hands on the 22 year old steering wheel in front of me so they'd be in full view of my apprehender. My relationship with the police is an uneasy one, having once had a damaging domestic situation blithely brushed aside, ostensibly because it was just two “boys” in a “little” lovers’ spat. Law enforcement's failure to moderate that uneven struggle – one that was slowly destroying my life – coupled with some rough treatment by one officer in particular forever colored my understanding of To Protect and Serve. I waited, tensed.
“Do you know why I pulled you over?”
“Yes Sir, my plates are expired.”
“They've been expired for…”
“A LONG time – I know.”
He asked where I was headed (work) and then where I worked (I told him the name of the office complex.) He looked at the suit jacket neatly folded over the passenger seat, then back at me, pink tie carefully knotted under the crisp collar of the second dress shirt I’d had on that morning, the first irretrievably ruined when I splashed coffee on it in my haste to get out the door. He subtly raised an eyebrow in what I imagine was a reflexive response to the incongruity of the picture before him, a well-dressed guy heading to work at a corporate center, yet driving a dented old beater with a registration significantly out of date. I felt judged, recoiling inside because I already knew the next question.
“Why haven’t you…”
Overwhelmed by the morning, by his menacing posture and critical, disapproving glare, by the anticipation – by all of it really – I cut him short, more than a little wild and with an uncharacteristic shrieking that belied my otherwise unassuming demeanor: “Because it won’t. pass. inspection! And I work a temp job, and I have a mortgage, and I’m alone …. I was out of work for a year … I just … I’m fucking barely getting by and I just can’t afford this right now … and I know you didn't ask for my life story, but this damned car is the least of my problems, and …”
I have no idea how long I went on or what else I said, the rapid-onset emotional implosion completely shutting down most of my rational mind. The officer cum impromptu therapist looked mildly surprised at my outburst, but also resigned, like this wasn't the first time someone had cracked under his control.
When he returned to my car, citation in hand, he informed me that my plates were so expired that the number had been reissued in a surprisingly efficient move by the otherwise plodding Division of Motor Vehicles. As such, my tags were considered “fictitious,” having been rightfully transferred from my aging Ford to a more upright citizen’s Honda. He went on, the words “mandatory court appearance” adding to an already mounting mania. I broke when I heard $500, an uncontrollable staccato cacophony erupting “… Great …. This is just fucking great …. I can miss a day of work and pay … and go to court and really not be able to afford …. I can’t even ….. I know it’s not you, but …… I’m so sorry……. I can’t believe this…..but….”
He interrupted, exhausted by my litany of I’s. Our time was up, his obligatory “try to have a good day” an infuriating koan dutifully delivered as he retreated to the quiet calm of his cruiser. I made my way to the parking lot of work and – already late – attempted to pull myself together.
I focused on paperwork the second I hit the desk, pushing an oppressive personal reality out of my mind until I got home later that night. More settled, with consolation drink in hand, it took but fifteen minutes of reflection to realize this was not the end of the world. I didn't know what I’d do about the car, my temp job slated to end December 31, but I felt confident I’d pull through this snafu somehow.
Relieved, the absurdity of it all hit me. The heat of shame rose feverishly from my neck and flashed fast across my face. I wasn't humiliated by my meltdown, or the fact that I must have looked like one of those “crazy” people you see on the internet, unwittingly captured on dash cam as they unraveled in a moment of unshielded human frailty, the video subsequently posted to YouTube for our collective schadenfreude. Nor did I begrudge myself a few moments to marinate in self-pity because I’m going through some crap right now.
No, I was ashamed that all it took was a mere splinter of powerlessness to break me when so many others face so much more, and that they – unlike I – don’t have the reassurance of knowing they’ll be okay.
For a few moments while that cop aggressively lectured me like some over-caffeinated Cold War-Era Civics instructor, I felt helpless against a massive system, the full weight of all 14,693 words that comprise Title 21; Chapter 21 – Vehicle Registration Code bearing down on me. For a few moments I was reminded of what it was like to be too poor to not violate the law, the luxury of being able to comply with an imposing bureaucracy of costly everyday regulations out of grasp, facing the prospect of more fines I couldn't pay for a failure fundamentally beyond my own control. For a few moments I was once again a scared 20 year old, caught taking a shit behind an abandoned Jamesway by a rented night guard because I had no bathroom, being chased out of the parking lot in my fading $500 Plymouth that doubled as sleeping quarters because I had no other home. And in the split second when the panicked desperation that defined my past faded and I realized I was no longer that person – that I’d somehow survive – I was overwhelmed by my privilege and chastened by how much I take it for granted.
More than anything, I was humbled by the many advantages that have allowed me to move beyond much harder times, while that fleeting sense of hopelessness I’d experienced earlier remains an inescapable albatross around the neck of so many others – an omnipresent reality I no longer face and in many ways have forgotten, owing largely to the fact that I’m a white, able-bodied, relatively healthy cisgender male, one considered conventionally attractive by western specifications and “smart” according to the standardized aptitude and intelligence tests that determine whether our society views you as such – one who was born in the late 20th century in the United States, and furthermore in the Mid-Atlantic near a major metro area where employment prospects are decent and relatively steady, raised in a mostly stable home located in suburbia headed by two lower-middle income parents invested in the welfare of their children, modeling productive behaviors for us and having the means and desire to ensure we received a decent education.
In the Privilege Olympics, I’m a solid bronze, runner-up only to the straight and aristocracy-born versions of myself. The reality is, while I’m struggling, I’m a struggling success. By income, I am richer than 94% of the world's inhabitants and a good deal of Americans too. I certainly don’t feel that way, but it’s a statistical reality, one that is mostly a result of chance rather than anything I've done. Moderate success for me is an unearned birthright, a dynastic hand-me-down that has set me up for a lifetime of comfortable accomplishments only an egomaniac could claim his own. In many way I am on top of the world, but in our broken system, that means someone else is on the bottom.
No, I wasn't ashamed of falling apart in front of the law that day, and I’m not ashamed of my privilege per se; it is, after all, outside of my control. I’m ashamed of how frequently I unintentionally minimize it, of what it takes to remind me of its true impact, and of participating in a society that prizes it so deeply.
I write this neither as a self-righteous congratulatory note on a recent reawakening, nor for catharsis. It’s certainly not borne of any self-satisfaction, because I feel none; it’s actually embarrassing that I – who, despite what I've shared, is at least intellectually conscious of his privilege, who didn't always have the level of it I hold today, who writes about it fairly frequently, and who has no problem telling others about theirs – can still sometimes fail to recognize the very tangible extent of its everyday benefits. I write this because privilege of any kind can too easily be obscured by the insular grind of our daily routine, the Greek chorus of life’s little actualities drowning out the bigger picture. I write this because those that have composed the Great American Narrative count on us forgetting whatever inborn advantage we do have, the efficacy of their story predicated upon negating its very existence. I write this because we’re at a crossroads in America where bringing privilege to light – and perhaps even adding to the list of inherent immunities accepted as such – is desperately needed. I write this because, there, but for the grace of privilege and fortune, go you and I.
Income inequality is now essentially at its worst since record keeping began. Disproportionate impact is also tenaciously persistent, most recently evidenced by the near doubling of the wealth gap between white and black Americans during the Great Recession. We cannot underestimate the yet to be bridged racial divide and must continually seek out ways to restore our failed commitment to equality. And yet we must also recognize that historical inconsistencies have partially normalized, with “racial disparities in the poverty rates [having] narrowed substantially since the 1970’s.” That trend might sound promising were it primarily driven by non-white Americans rising in the ranks, but that’s not the case: the reality is middle class erosion has acted as a de facto racial equalizer, income class beginning to eclipse other factors as the single biggest predictor of poverty. In other words, more than ever, being poor begets being poor, middle class existence now a privilege unto itself. All but the very richest among us are suffering, some more than others, sadly, but all of us falling together just the same.
The Great American Storybook would tell us otherwise of course. In the bootstraps-to-boom narrative in which anyone can get ahead with just a little pluck, you are the sole hero of your own life. Never mind that we already work harder than any other industrialized nation, or that we’re more productive than ever, we’re still urged to push ourselves more violently to achieve the proverbial dangling carrot of success, even as it seems increasingly beyond our grasp. Perhaps that’s why we’re so disillusioned – a sentiment both disturbing and threatening to those who profit most by enforcing business as usual. Understandably fearful of jaded proletariat restlessness, expect a full counteroffensive from a media subsidized by those whose interests lie in maintaining the status quo.
Expect to hear token success stories of the American Dream, those miracles of achievement intended to keep us a nation of aspirant millionaires, dutifully attending the church of self-determination where the most transgressive blasphemy is to admit that without the holy trinity of privilege, money, and connections, the blessings of the American Prosperity Gospel™ are ever more elusive.
Expect to hear every iteration of an insidious success doctrine that lacks all nuance – one that neglects every category of advantage by assuming a level playing field in a game that, rationally, most of us realize is intrinsically rigged. Expect to hear how the rich “deserve” to keep all they've “earned,” the vast machinery of corporate welfare, effective tax rates, lobbyists and loopholes hidden behind a velvet curtain, the convoluted mechanics of a monstrous system disingenuously characterized as too complex for hoi polloi to comprehend.
Expect to hear victim blaming, the inability of a depressingly large number of individuals and entire groups who "fail" to achieve dismissively attributed to some pernicious moral flaw rather than a damning indictment of a system whose very architecture virtually guarantees insolvency for millions.
Expect to hear divisive language that pits black against white, “illegal” against citizen, woman against man, class against class and generation against generation, a calculated diversionary tactic designed solely to divide and conquer.
Expect to hear all the same excuses, rationalizations, accusations, and platitudes that have kept us placated since the days when we had a real labor movement in this country. Expect that our leaders will continue to speak the language of haves and have nots, rather than aspiring to real change, viz. a society in which a perpetual underclass and devolving conditions of the middle are not the acceptable byproducts of success for a hallowed few.
Expect for them to expect us to feel powerless, then ask yourself if all together we really are.