Real American Privilege

I was born privileged.  That privilege has nothing to do with race or gender.  My privilege was to be born surrounded by intact families.  My parents, both sets of grandparents, and all four sets of great-grandparents kept their families intact.  That’s seven couples who raised their children to adulthood and stayed together until one of them died.  They weren’t all great marriages, but to their great credit and my great fortune, they all stuck it out.

What’s more, though my childhood coincided with the divorce boom of the 1960s and 70s, I knew only a handful of kids with divorced parents.  I knew another handful with parents who died young.  I knew a sizable number whose grandparents had been exterminated, and whose parents suffered in the concentration camps.  When I visited their homes, however, what I saw were intact families. 

Those families came together to form a modern, upwardly mobile, suburban, religiously observant community.  It was not an idyllic community.  We had our share of internal politics, infighting, cheating, and resentments.  We experienced crime, and a few (thankfully relatively minor) anti-Semitic attacks.  As the first post-Holocaust generation of American Jews, we suffered from communal PTSD.  We were immensely patriotic and grateful to America, but less than entirely convinced that “it can’t happen here.”

Worse, plenty of members of our community were far from impressive.  Many were ignorant, judgmental, petty, mean, uncouth, ostentatious, egotistical, and unethical.  Though I didn’t know it, we had our share of child abuse and domestic violence.  As a teen, I knew kids who smoked, dropped out, did drugs, became arsonists, and committed suicide. 

I was less than enamored with our community.  The costs of belonging -- layering communal judgmentalism on top of religious rules -- were high.  If they didn’t produce fine, ethical, informed, compassionate people, could membership be worth the cost?

The question plagued me for decades.  Then I found the answer.  Intact families and stable communities alter the odds.  Yes, we experienced every ill that befell every other community in America -- but we did so in smaller numbers.  The dropouts, runaways, addicts, and criminals were genuine exceptions; elsewhere, they were becoming the norm. 

In Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance told the story of a radically different community.  Extended families stayed close while nuclear families evaporated.  Substance abuse and infidelity were rampant.  Faith was personal; religious institutions were kept at arms-length and saved for life-cycle events.  A lack of long-term planning stripped all value from thrift, saving, commitment, education, and the work ethic.

Vance described a community that sets long odds against the success of its children.  I’m describing a community that bends the odds sharply in their favor.  It’s absurd and offensive to suggest that he and I were born with a shared privilege because racists have assigned Scots-Irish and Ashkenazic Jews to the same racial category. 

A childhood spent in a close-knit, family-oriented, religious community is an unrivaled gift.  It’s a gift that almost none of America’s kids are given.  Founding, or even finding, such a community cuts against much of contemporary culture.  America is unraveling because we’ve placed so many hurdles between its children and the family and community structures most likely to produce successful adults.

American culture needs a twelve-step program.  Our society has become unmanageable.  It’s time for a searching and fearless moral inventory of what we have become.  We need more than just a greater power -- we need faith-driven and tradition-driven institutions -- to help us organize our communities.  Above all, we must recognize that though traditional family structures aren’t always available, they’re always optimal.  Even decidedly nontraditional families can tilt the odds in their kids’ favor if they embed themselves in a stable community.

The purpose of observing privilege cannot be to complain, to castigate those born with it, or to eliminate it.  The purpose must be to learn how some parents earn the right to bequeath privilege to their children so that others can follow their lead.

My parents handed me an intact family and a stable community.  Today’s parents seeking privilege must be prepared to do the same.  To the extent that the government has any role to play, it must be to make their task easier rather than harder.

Bruce Abramson, Ph.D. J.D., is a senior fellow and director at ACEK Fund and the author of American Restoration: Winning America's Second Civil War.

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