Lies My Teacher Told Me – Inequality and Immigration

My girlfriend, a history major from Northwestern, turned me on to Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Loewen. I’m three sections into it and the material covered so far has been a critical portrayal of American discovery (it was long “discovered” prior to Columbus, if not admittingly by the Indians, then by Greenland or Iceland), slavery (let’s not forget that our hero Jefferson had over 100 slaves), and now immigration.

While all matters are important, considering my closeness to matters of immigration this one struck a chord. It discusses how once slavery came to an end immigrants became the new not-free-but-still-cheap labor to keep the fire’s burning. When more than 70% of the white population was native stock, less than 10% of the urban working class was. Yet what we usually hear are the immigrant stories of success such as Carnegie and Pulitzer. I’m ok with inspiration but let’s not forget it’s 95% perspiration. One needs time, resources, and support to enact their inspiration. Yet in the 1900’s fewer than 3% of executives started as poor immigrants. The rest were upper-middle to upper class family histories.

And equality? In the US the richest fifth earn 11x as much as the poorest fifth, compared to Britain (7:1) or Japan (4:1). And entrepreneurship? Only one in thirteen Americans is self-employed compared to one in eight in Western Europe.

I’m sensitive to this because I have business friends that think that “99% of [their] success is from [their] effort”. Yes, that is an actual quote from an actual person…who happens to be a staunch Republican. Yeah, they also happen to be white, male, healthy, and from upper 10% of wage-earners families — but that doesn’t make you successful on it’s own right. I mean, they did have to make the decision to wake up every morning. That’s perspiration!

My story is that my dad came to the US from Hungary in the late 1950’s as a political refugee. My mom came to the US on a working visa in the early 1970’s with nothing but a suitcase, a inflation-adjusted $100 bill, and a job prospect. They’ve done very well for themselves, becoming one of the “elite” upper 10% wage-earning families and it took a lot of risks. But let’s face it folks — a lot of it was either dumb luck and our environmental factors. I’m sure my success has been assisted greatly by the fact that despite my Hispanic background I look Irish, am male, and am relatively intelligent. Also, I can dance a mean salsa.


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