Visualize a small pile of sand. A pile of sand is distinguishable from several grains of sand. Remove one grain at a time. At what point does the pile of sand become a few grains of sand? As you remove each grain, the pile remains a pile. Until it isn’t.
Or the other way: start with one individual grain of sand. Add another grain of sand. And another. Keep adding one grain of sand at a time. At some point the individual grains have become a pile. When? Which grain made the difference? Which one grain changed the collection of individual grains to what must be classified as a pile?
That employees of color are under-represented in Silicon Valley is simple arithmetic. The percentage of black and brown faces in Silicon Valley firms is smaller than the percentage of people of color in the population. What explains the lack of diversity?
The percentage of engineering graduates who are under-represented minorities is smaller than the percentage of their majority counterparts. Computer firms have fewer under-represented applicants from whom to choose. So, another step back is required. What about applicants to engineering programs? Again, fewer students of color. What about high school students taking BC calculus, AP physics and other courses that prepare them for the rigors of engineering coursework in college? As before, the number of under-represented minorities is “under-represented.” Another step back to elementary school where opportunities for under-represented students lag behind those for majority kids. Then consider prenatal care, which is worse for minority embryos.
Having traced the path of under-represented employees backward from Silicon Valley jobs to engineering graduates to high school to elementary school to in utero, let me now change direction and trace own my success forward: I have paid tuition for my four children through 54 years of education, from pre-K through boarding school through undergraduate college through medical school. They were graduated with a modest amount of debt. I own my home and will be able to retire in a few years, living comfortably on passive income from savings. I have been frugal and sensible. I should give myself credit for a job well done because I accomplished all this on my own with no help from anyone.
Or did I?
It certainly seems like I worked hard and am deserving of my success. There were certainly occasions when I ate a PBJ when I would have preferred sushi. Let’s follow the money: My grandfather emigrated to this country from Romania to escape economic and religious persecution. He made a precarious living as a mid-level thug (not a typo; he was a bootlegger during prohibition) and was murdered in 1929. His bullet riddled body was discarded in a New Jersey swamp. The criminals were never found or prosecuted. So, no help there. The only “generational wealth” inherited from David Altshuler (1890?-1929) was the name and a predilection for the Karate Monkey Joke.
David Altshuler’s son, my father, was five years old when his dad was killed. His widowed mother had no education, no job, no skills, no income, no hope of obtaining any of the above. She could not afford to feed her child, so she took my father to an orphanage. At the last minute, she could not bring herself to sign the forms granting custody to the state. She brought him home. How mother and child survived during the depression, I cannot begin to imagine. My understanding is that they lived with two other families in a three-room fifth floor walk-up apartment in Philadelphia, bathroom down the hall.
My dad told stories of being bullied unmercifully through his school years—being small, smart, Jewish, and refusing to back down were not a recipe for popularity, safety, or success. After high school, my dad decided to peel some potatoes in the 103-degree Texas summer of 1944. Apparently, 14 hours a day of spuds lost its allure and besides the second World War ended before he could go to Europe and be blown to bits in the ball turret of a B-17. So he went to college and law school working full time at the post office to support himself and his mom. His tuition was paid by the G.I. Bill., subsidized by the US government. My dad was graduated at the young age of 29 and starting the law practice where he worked for the next 58 years. He married my mom and I arrived on the scene subsequently.
Fast forward through my four years at a nationally ranked high school and undergraduate education paid for by my parents. In 1981, I bought my first home, an 1100-square foot, two-bedroom, one-bath unexceptional structure for $82,000. Here’s where the money for the $23,000 down payment came from:
- $11,000: gift from parents
- $3,000: loan from parents
- $9,000 saving
Because the equity in the home I now own—fair market value significantly more than $82,000—derives directly from these numbers, a close examination is warranted:
$11,000 gift from parents. As a teacher earning $9850/year in 1978, I could not have saved this amount. Without the largesse of my folks, I could not have bought a home at 22.
$3000 loan. In addition to my modest teaching salary, I intermittently sold hot dogs in the Orange Bowl, worked in a bookstore, and tutored neighborhood kids in math. Note that I was able to find these jobs because I did not have to care for younger siblings, was in perfect health, and owned an old but reliable car. Note also that these jobs were all “connected.” I got hired, in part, because I was acquainted with the people who did the hiring.
$9000 savings. Some of which was from gifts, gifts from other families of means to whom my educated and successful parents had introduced me.
When my educational consulting practice had an off year, I could depend on my folks for a no interest loan. When I had a question about tuition at the private school my children attended, I could reach out to the director of financial aid. She had been my student and was willing to take my calls. Most importantly, my home appreciated over time because it was located in a stable, middle class neighborhood. I was not subject to red lining; I was not scammed by rapacious criminals posing as realtors; I was not evicted for missing a payment. (For a scathing indictment of the other side of this arrangement, read Ta-Nehisis Coates’s classic article: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/ )
It is tough to ascribe my success or the success of my children to any one incident or event. Our privilege enveloped us. Yes, we worked hard, made some good decisions, avoided sloth and substance abuse. We studied more, partied less. But we certainly were given every conceivable opportunity to do so. At some indistinguishable point, our individual grains of sand became a pile. It is similarly difficult to explain the lack of diversity in Silicon Valley firms by pointing to any individual event. The disadvantages disassemble into a few scattered grains.
I am supposed to be a parenting expert; I make no claim to insight into sociology, politics, or history. I don’t know if Balzac was correct when he said, “behind every great fortune, a great crime.” I will suggest that the playing field is far from level. Institutions of higher learning are businesses first, eleemosynary establishments second. Angel Perez, the director of admissions at Trinity College in Connecticut reminds us: as businesses, colleges are well aware of who is paying tuition.
Loving parents should help their children remain cognizant of their advantages. “Much is expected of you” is an appropriate message. So is, “With privilege comes responsibility.” High expectations matched by unequivocal and unconditional positive regard is the way to bring up healthy kids who achieve great things while remaining appreciative of who helped them along the way. Whereas to claim all the credit for yourself or your children is to insult everyone who came before you and on whose foundation your family stands. To make such a suggestion would be constructing a foundation built only on sand.