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Who succeeds and fails in life is often determined by crucial moments when growing up

Posted by John T. Reed on

I finished Thomas Sowell’s book Discrimination and Disparities. His basic point is that the notion that all differences between black and white in incarceration rates, incomes, net worths, education are caused by white racism against blacks is bull.
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One of his main pieces of evidence is all the differences between just blacks in those categories; and between just whites. Those disparities obviously are NOT caused by racism.
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One variable that does correlate with disparate results is the number of parents in the home raising children. It ranges from 0 to 1 to 2. Blacks have a higher rate of 0 and 1 parent households with children aged 0 to 18. And 0 and 1-person households have higher incarceration rates and lower income and net worth and education in both black and white households.
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A haunting part of the book is Sowell’s theory that success in most endeavors if not all requires around five of what he calls prerequisites: things like a habit of showing up for work on time, speaking English well, and so on.
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He depicts these as “for the want of a nail” things that sound mundane and automatic, but the absence of which can send a young black or white person spiraling off into low education/income/net worth and/or prison instead of college and suburban affluence and maybe extraordinary achievement like Dr. Ben Carson, a renowned brain surgeon whose single mom was an illiterate maid.
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I wondered if my own life had a moment that could have sent me off into that poor quality of life had it been slightly different.
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I don’t think so. I was a top student from K through 12. Maybe THE top student in my school once or twice; near the top in the other two schools. My dad never said boo about college. He did not go, but some of his high school teachers urged him to do so. He utterly rejected the idea.
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My mom was adamant that my brothers and I go to college. She had not but like Carson’s mother, she could see how much better it was. Her constant phrase was work with your mind, not your back.
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The danger point came when it became clear that my mom was going to have to be the breadwinner because my dad was a permanent alcoholic. We were in a small rural farm town then. First my mom got a secretarial job 16 miles away in a small city. But she felt she had to get back to the South Jersey where she grew up and had a family and friends support network. She was probably right about that.
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She got a better job there, but she had to live with her mom in her mom’s one-bedroom apartment. No room for me and my two brothers and certainly not my dad whose drunken rants were about 98% cursing his mother-in-law.
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It took months for my mom to find a place for us to live—a two-bedroom apartment above a beauty parlor on an old Main Street (White Horse Pike) in Oaklyn, NJ. But during those months, my brothers and I were in a rental house in DE with an unemployed drunk. One night, he was drunk and drove me out of the house. I spent part of the night sitting on a step on the back of the high school and the rest sitting on a bench outside at the railroad station. No sleep. And my face got all dirty somehow.
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When my dad woke up sober, he could not find me and called the cops. I had become labeled by the authorities as a “runaway.”
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Child-protection officials called me out of class at high school. They told me my mother did not love me—as evidenced by her leaving me and my younger brothers with the drunk—and that they were probably going to have to put me and my brothers into a foster home. I was a quiet, shy kid, but I reared up and told those two guys they were out of their minds, that maybe they ought to talk to her before they say such idiotic things.
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Had they put me into a bad foster home, that could have knocked me off the West Point, Army officer, Harvard MBA, author track I ended up on. In the event, my mom talked them out of the foster home thing.
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But although I do not like the union public school teachers of today, I must say that I very much doubt that the non-union public school teachers and Catholic School nuns would have allowed me off the college track. I expect even today’s union teachers would have tried to keep a kid like me on the college track. A kid who should go to college but who was not a top student might be allowed to fall off it at the margin, but I doubt it would have happened to me even if I had gone into a foster home. And I could also have gotten a great foster home and done even better.
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I almost flunked out of West Point for not getting enough sleep. But I realized that I had to prioritize sleep over homework that could not be done if I got enough sleep. It worked. Not doing all the assigned homework put me on the deans list freshman year. I suspect many of my West Point classmates had the same problem and failed to analyze it correctly and left. I am pissed that West Point lied to us about how much homework we needed to do and pissed that they knew exactly what was happening to me and others and let us flounder and die if we did not figure it out.
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The Army officers who outranked me tried to destroy my life by stigmatizing me. I was not sure I could survive that, but I WAS sure that I would rather sell apples on the street than kow tow to them. In the event, they were idiots with a laughable notion of how much the rest of the world cared about Army efficiency reports. Essentially zero in the event.
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By the time I got to HBS, the rest of my path was probably set. But as Sowell muses, the path of a young person to a successful life is fragile. As I put it in my Succeeding book, young people are like the definition of chaos theory:
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the branch of mathematics that deals with complex systems whose behavior is highly sensitive to slight changes in [initial] conditions, so that small alterations can give rise to strikingly great consequences.
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For the want of the habit of arriving on time, a job can be lost; for the want of a job,...
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Sowell’s point is that it is stuff like I talked about above, not racial discrimination, that causes most disparities in black-white life performance—lack of fathers in the home—not skin color. My mom was a single parent in every real sense, even though my father was technically in the house except for my senior year in high school. Indeed because he was drunk, his being there made our situation worse than just a single mom.
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I was saved by a good mom. She was no star, just a solid citizen who got the job done and who set the correct example.
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And we kids were not leaves blowing in the wind. From about age ten, I could see what was going on and had a roughly correct idea of what I wanted to do and how to go about it. As an Army officer and coach, I occasionally had a kid who prefaced his remarks when he got in trouble with, “I come from a broken home...”
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I cut him off in mid sentence. “Me, too. That’s no excuse for you doing [whatever it was]. Grow up. We’re not interested in playing violins for your sad story. Many, if not most, adults have childhoods like that. Get our TS card punched and get on with your life. If you keep using that excuse, you’re gonna end up a bum.” Did that work? Yes. With some, but not all. Not my problem. I had an obligation to try to help them, not to climb down into a bottomless pit of need for those who would not listen.
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Do you have a kid or know one? Keep them on the right track in their crucial early years.

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