The race is not always to the swift

Last year I read an article about a Harvard Law student who asserted in an email that while she really, really, really, really hates concluding that blacks are innately stupider than white people (no, seriously! She hates it!) the evidence is overwhelming that this is true (it isn’t). She also made a passing remark that just as she “knew” that some people were innately dumb and environment had nothing to do with it, she “knew” her future children would grow up to be successful geniuses even if they were kidnapped and raised in the backwoods of Nigeria.
Loathsome though her racism is, it’s her latter statement that I’m interested in today: The assumption that she is innately superior, an inborn superiority that will be handed down to her offspring in their genes, so they will inevitably triumph over any obstacles life throws at them.
This goes back to the argument I had on line a while ago about luck, in which an acquaintance insisted that there’s no such thing: Our lives our the result of our own decisions, period.
As this article points out, it’s not that simple. Things you have no control over, such as the accident of your birth, play a large role: Do you have parents who can help you with college? Do you live in a home where learning’s important? Or where you get any mental stimulation at all? (Bob Somersby discusses the impact of such things here, and in many other posts).
The standard refutation——it’s implicit in that “I’m not the 99 percent photo” at Persephone——is “Well I/someone made it, therefore anyone could do it if they were as smart/hardworking/innately gifted as me.” Sorry, but no. Individual efforts counts for a lot, but circumstances matter too.
Case in point: One of Antony Robbins’ self-help books recounts the story of a Jew who escaped the camps in WW II: He wound up near a truckload of corpses, threw himself on the pile, got dumped in a mass grave and dug his way out. My conclusion would be that the man showed courage, intelligence and also luck. Robbins’ conclusion is that he took charge of his life at a time when the other Jews were standing around feeling helpless, wringing their hands and wondering why God had deserted them——i.e., if they’d only applied Robbins’ principles the way the escapee did, they’d all have been free too (Robbins immediately states that of course that’s not what he means, but I can’t see any other way to interpret it). Armed guards and barbed wire can’t stop you if you take charge of your life!
I’m not discounting the contribution of hard work, or talent, or all the other things that shape our world. Heck, sometimes just sticking to your guns, continuing to write, or go to cattle-call auditions or sending out resumes can make the difference between success and failure … but sometimes not. Insisting luck, birth circumstances and other things you have no control play no a role (feel free to include whatever role you believe God, gods or supernatural forces play in all this——I believe that’s part of it, though I’m not sure how), and that inequality of outcome is 100 percent the result of inequality of ability (or grit or courage) is absurd. Even if someone believes they’ve done it all on their own, they may be taking their advantages for granted, or not noticing the role of chance (if I drive recklessly and don’t even notice a near-collision, I may have no idea how lucky I am to be alive).
Maybe that’s a piece in the story on luck I talked about in my previous post. And even if it’s not, I still think it’s true.

1 Comment

Filed under Personal, Politics, Writing

One response to “The race is not always to the swift

  1. Pingback: Nor battle to the strong « Fraser Sherman's Blog

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