Friday, September 28, 2012

Nadia Colburn's Voice

Dear Mitt,

Your comments revealed something that I hadn't quite realized before. Writing off those who are less privileged than oneself must be rooted in fear. You laugh and you joke and you have your private dinners with your millionaire friends. You think that those who don't have the millions like you do must be losers who don’t “take responsibility.” But you've forgotten, apparently--or maybe you never knew--that there are plenty of people out here who work hard, who dream hard, who have enormous talents, who have great dignity and pride--who still don't earn millions, who still don't even earn enough to pay income tax. And that must mean that you are lucky. And depending on luck--even if it is just luck from birth--can be a scary thing.

I want to tell you about my grandfather. He, like you, earned a lot of money. He went to the best restaurants and lived in a big apartment on Park Avenue. He, like you, thought that he had made it all himself. But he hadn't. His parents were poor immigrants from Russia. They owned a general store in Astoria, Queens and worked very hard. My grandfather, wanted to be a doctor. But when he applied to medical school in the early 1920s he did not get in because of the quota against Jews. My grandfather ended up getting into medical school only because he went to the Dean and persuaded him to let in one more Jew, despite the quota.

My grandfather took initiative, but he was also lucky. What about the Jew who might have come to the dean the next day?

Later, my grandfather changed his name, because he did not want his name to interfere with his medical practice. He went on to be a head surgeon at a number of the best hospitals in New York City. He always accepted poor patients on a sliding scale and was generally a very humane and generous man. But he also came to think that the vast wealth that he accumulated was his, by his own right, that no one else had anything to do with it.

That is where I think he made a mistake. If my grandfather had been black instead of Jewish, for example, he would not have been let into medical school. Or if he had happened to visit a different dean, one who wouldn’t break the quota.

I think that my grandfather needed to cut off the part of him, the young man who was discriminated against, who had parents who’d needed to leave their home country because of pogroms in which they had seen family members killed. Pain was in his blood. And maybe it was too painful to admit that even when people do everything right, things do not always work out. And so he came to believe that those who hadn’t made it were lazy or hadn’t tried hard enough.

Mitt, I know you can’t imagine discrimination that is not against yourself, I know you imagine that you’d have a “better shot” if you were Latino, but you are wrong. You think you inherited nothing, but you inherited your own sense of entitlement, the many doors that opened for you as a result of the color of your skin, your gender, your parents’ position in the world, not to mention the roads you drove on that your government paid for, the schools that educated those who worked for you, the system that kept you in the position that you were born into.

I don’t know what you are scared of, but I think you are scared. I think if you were able to come out of your web of denial and fancy dinner parties with millionaires, you’d see that there are plenty of people around you—no doubt right there among the waitstaff who were attending to the dinner as you talked—who have a lot more courage and have put in a lot more hard work than you know anything about.

Like my grandfather, I am lucky. I’m lucky to live in a time and place when there aren’t pogroms aimed against me. And partly because of my grandfather, my parents were of a certain class, I was able to attend elite schools, and I was able to pursue my own interests in my own way.  I know that I was born into that privilege. 

But even with that privilege there were several years when I didn’t pay income tax: all of my years as a graduate student, and even a few years after I finished my program, when my husband was a public school teacher and we had young kids and a mortgage. I’m lucky to live in a world where some people, at least, have some choices, a society in which there are at least some concessions made, some safety net for people who are not earning millions.  That safety net is important, and should be expanded.

You say some people think they are “entitled” to things like healthcare, food and housing. Well, those things are all in the UN’s declaration of human rights. You have certain privileges—having millions is a privilege. But having choices, opportunities, healthcare, and basic necessities are human rights. You seem not to know this; that is one of the many reasons you won’t get my vote, even though I do pay income tax now.

Nadia Colburn

Bio: Nadia Colburn is a writer and teacher living in Cambridge, MA.