Movin On Up: Thoughts on Class Transition

I’m a first generation lawyer. I’m a second generation college graduate on one side of my family, and the first lawyer on both sides. I say this because, by and large, the legal profession is still an elitist profession. Your earning power and therefore worth (to some people) is based on your pedigree. Were you on law review? Did you do a judicial clerkship? How highly ranked is your law school? You practically need a class just to figure out how to get into law school. After all, the law is an old profession which means it was founded by wealthy, land owning white men. I, a black woman with dark skin and natural hair, do not at all fit the traditional mold of what an attorney is.

This isn’t me, but it’s how I feel on the inside.

Becoming a lawyer involves a background check before law school and after graduating to take the bar, astronomical tuition, an ethics exam, an expensive bar prep course, and 2-4 day bar exam. Then you finally get to be a lawyer. Being an attorney is expensive, though. You have to get continuing education credits (sure there are free ones, but it will take you the whole year to get your credits because they’re usually only 1 or 2 hours and you need somewhere between 10 and 20). Then there are the annual state licensing fees. Then there are the bar association dues, which don’t buy you anything but networking with other lawyers except every bar association event has a damn cover charge. Let’s not forget the wardrobe, because you can’t look like a lawyer in a $40 suit from Ross.

My husband, a third generation college graduate and computer engineer, is slightly more advanced in his family legacy but similarly situated in his career. Silicon Valley is new but it came with all the old problems. Fortunately, money does solve some problems. We just disembarked from our home buying journey and it was been interesting to say the least. We could have bought a home that was $25-50k less and 15-20 minutes closer to both our jobs. But it came at the expense of living in a food desert that houses the worst school district in the area. The practical choice was clear but I still felt conflicted about making it.

I say all that to make it clear that while we are doing well, and are set to possibly end up a little better off than our parents, we are not wealthy. I don’t feel so secure in my position that I can afford to try and be the good influence of the neighborhood. I’m not ready to save the hood by living in it. The risk of buying a home that depreciates in value, of my child going to a school where they can’t be challenged because 70% of the students are not performing at grade level, of not being able to put my kids in dance or sports because the closest teams are an hour away–I can’t take that chance.

Theoretically I would love to give back–to do more community service, mentor with the Boys and Girls Club, all that good stuff. But I just don’t feel like I have enough time. Since I work in legal aid (which is half social work, half lawyering) I feel like I do community service 40 hours a week. While it’s more fulfilling than private practice, it’s much more emotionally draining because most of my clients’ problems can’t be solved by legal intervention. My brother is a bit, shall we say, militant in his political views. I”m a comprimers because I’m just honest about the fact that I like the creature comforts of capitalism. I’m not ready to burn it all down and live in a hut just to prove a point. Where is the balance between working for the cause and enjoying your life? I can’t afford to quit my job and be an activist full time. When I’m not at work I want to recharge and enjoy my husband, my friends, and some good books

What is the answer? I have no idea. All I can do is try to navigate the double consciousness of being a self-aware Black person in the [orange-haired President] era with a modicum of grace.

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Dollars and Sense

It pains me that raising the minimum wage is even a debate. In a capitalist society, you’d think that more money for everyone to spread around would be a good thing, but apparently not. Seems that a lot of folks are surprised, appalled, and even downright pissed that fast food workers dare ask for $15/hr. When it comes to money, it seems a lot of people can’t (or won’t) apply logic and just do the math. I swear Americans despise poor people because we’re all convinced that one day we’re gonna make it to the 1% even though statistics say that’s nearly impossible. I mean it’s the 1%, not the 99%, for crying out loud! I’ve seen a lot of chatter surrounding this thanks to the “Fight for $15” strikes that happened this week. I’ve got more to say than will fit in a tweet or a Facebook status, so I decided to dust off my blog and cut through the BS.

First, the entire point of creating a minimum wage was so that every person who made the effort to work full time would be able to feed themselves and their families. The analogy used by the Supreme Court in addressing that this law was constitutional was that if wages fall below a certain point, you are basically doing  slave labor.  Post- industrialization, women’s lib, and desegregation, the types of jobs that are relegated to minimum wage have changed. Factory assembly line jobs are  almost defunct. What hasn’t changed is that minimum wage jobs are typically thought to be disposable. The fact is, somebody has to take out the trash. Somebody has to flip the burgers we eat two and three times a week. Somebody has to fold the cheap clothes we buy from Target and Old Navy. Somebody has to be the mall security guard. Somebody has to drive the metro bus. For whatever reason, it’s easy to ignore the issue because fast food workers are apparently not worthy of a living wage.

There’s a lot of talk about how raising the minimum wage will destroy ambition. That has not and will never be true. Minimum wage is still minimum, and $30,000/yr is just  barely comfortable for a new college graduate. It certainly isn’t enough to support the kind of lifestyle that most people would be content with living forever. And I’d bet money that raising the minimum wage would get more people into the workforce and off welfare. Why? Because in some states, you can actually live just as (un)comfortably on food stamps and Section 8 housing as you can working a full time minimum wage job- and you’ll have a lot more free time to boot. If you already grew up in the projects, why work harder to stay in the same place? Hell, there are professional women quitting their jobs to be homemakers because their $50,000 salary won’t cover the daycare they need to be able to work, much less the additional food, clothing and shelter costs children entail.

“But fast food isn’t meant to be a career”, you say.” Well, teenagers can’t work full time because they have school. Most retirees don’t want to work, and age discrimination screens out most of the rest of them. To reiterate, as long as we demand cheap consumer goods we need low wage workers to provide them. Some of those workers will inevitably be adults with families. Well, as discussed above, there’s a demand and a need for minimum wage jobs. No economy can support a 100% white collar workforce. At that point, the cost of living would skyrocket because we’d be importing groceries and paying jacked up rates to keep the lights on. Even if everyone could afford to attend college, not everyone would want to- and that’s perfectly fine. Doesn’t mean they don’t have a right to live. But even if college was compulsory, we’d just end up with a whole bunch of degreed burger flippers.

What’s sad is that is seems like people need someone to feel superior to. Sure, maybe you make only marginally more than the Wendy’s manager- at least you have a degree, so you can call yourself elite. In reality we need a raise in wages, minimum or not, across the board. Subsidies and tax breaks for corporations have kept the prices of consumer goods low, but wages have remained stagnant. Even wages for professional jobs have not kept up with inflation because corporate profit margins are bigger than ever before. Nobody wants to advocate for bettering the lot of the poor because we all believe that someday we’ll be millionaires. Truth is, if you don’t own real estate, stocks, bonds, and a trust fund, it’s just a matter of how many missed paychecks it will take for you to end up on welfare.

The lesson of the day? Stay woke. Capitalism will chew you up and spit you out.

 

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