The System is Fair: Follow-up on Robinson’s Talk

“I think the system is fair.”

A man who went through most of his childhood homeless, someone who had one sibling in jail and another in a grave, someone who faced seemingly endless hardship and endured seemingly endless pain, uttered those words. The entire campus sat back for a moment, confused. How could someone who had faced so much say that the system in which he endured it was fair?

To make it worse, Kevin Robinson had been brought on campus to speak about The Other Wes Moore, the summer community read, a book which every student had (supposedly) read. That book tells the story of two boys, both from the same neighborhood, both with the same name, who took vastly different tracks. One is now in jail, one is now incredibly successful. On its surface, that seems the essence of unfairness. Two people who were once essentially indistinguishable went down different tracks; what can we attribute that to, if not the unfairness of the system we live in? How could Kevin Robinson possibly defend that assertion?

Kevin Robinson addresses our community. (D. Tantillo ‘17)

Kevin Robinson addresses our community. (D. Tantillo ‘17)

Kevin Robinson went through many ordeals before mounting the podium before the crowd that day. His mentally ill brother burned his house down when Kevin was young, leaving his large family homeless and dependent on welfare. It’s hard to imagine a more difficult position to lift oneself from in our society. However, the fact that he did is all that we need to defend his assertion; in fact, it was his work ethic and moral fibre that propelled him to success despite his earlier difficulties. Because he was able to do this, because his personality mattered more than his original place on the ladder, he exemplifies how fair the system is.

Kevin Robinson worked hard for everything he has gained. In his lecture to the entire school and during the reception at the Maqubela’s afterwards, he said that he credited how far he had come to his experience as a Christian, to a large degree. When he was younger, his uncle chose him rather than his brother to take to church on Sundays; because of this, he found religion, but he also found something perhaps even more important: Christian morality. While definitely not the only valid moral system, it has among its tenets hard work: idle hands do the Devil’s work. Because of this and the motivation it provided him with to work hard, he was able to go far, to reach heights that few people would ever have expected from him. In doing so, he demonstrated a fundamental quality of American society: equality of opportunity. Despite original hardships, he ascended to great success. The system is fair; anybody can go anywhere, if they’re willing to put in the hard work to get there.

Of course, the other assertion, favored by many of those who prefer to believe that people like Kevin could not have gotten anywhere without the help of those with more fortunate origins, is that he has only achieved what he has because of how he assimilated into mainstream society, forgot his roots, cut his hair, and left behind his beginnings. However, this ignores everything he told us about his own experience, about his religion helping him, as well as having two necessary, but unsavory corollaries. First, in order for assimilation to be the sole source of his success, one has to ignore the hard work he did and declare that there was nothing else he could have done to better his position in life–that is, deny that America has social mobility of any kind. Second, one must assert that his success was only due to the support of those in better positions, lending credence to the long-discredited concept of the white man’s burden. Neither of these are conclusions that square with reality, especially given the other story available to us: that of the Wes Moores.

The fundamental difference between the Wes Moores was their work ethic and moral fibre. The Wes who wrote the book was sent to military school, and got a rigid, unyielding work ethic pounded into him there; meanwhile, the Wes who is currently in jail had the opportunity to turn his back on his former ways and use his G.E.D. to seek job opportunities other than drug dealing, but abandoned that road to go back to drug dealing. His morals and ethics failed him, and rather than using the opportunities the system provided him with to ascend the ladder of social mobility, he returned to a life of crime, providing people with the means to destroy their own lives for obscene profit.

The system is fair. It is fair because those who work hard go far, because those in disadvantaged situations have the opportunity to go as far as anyone else. Social mobility remains intact in today’s America, and those who work hard to do so can and will go far. Though Kevin Robinson’s statement seems to be absurd on its face, a closer analysis of it as it applies to his life and the Wes Moores’ reveals how insightful his simple assertion truly is.

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