Yesterday someone posted this video, or a version of it, on Facebook. They found it to be touching and insightful and revealing. I found it to be dishonest and misleading. The concept here is that someone has invited a bunch of college-age people to run a race. The winner will get $100. But before the race starts, the coach/organizer gives some people in the crowd an advantage based on their background.
“Take two steps forward if both of your parents are still married,” he says. He continues, “Take two steps forward if you grew up with a father figure in the home.” And as most of the group steps forward, the camera lingers on some of the people who haven’t moved, several of whom are black. The coach continues:
Take two steps forward if you had access to a private education. Take two steps forward if you had access to a free tutor growing up. Take two steps forward if you’ve never had to worry about your cell phone being shut off. Take two steps forward if you’ve never had to help mom or dad with the bills. Take two steps forward if it wasn’t because of your athletic ability you don’t have to pay for college. Take two steps forward if you never wondered where your next meal was going to come from.
At this point, the coach asks the people in the front to turn around. Again, the camera goes back to the starting line where several black people haven’t moved. And then comes the kicker: “Every statement I’ve made had nothing to do with anything any of you have done. Has nothing to do with decisions you’ve made,” he says.
He then makes the racial metaphor explicit, “We don’t want to recognize that we’ve been given a head start but the reality is we have…The reality is, if this was a fair race and everybody was back on that line, I guarantee some of these black dudes would smoke all of you. And it’s only because you have this big of a head start that you’re possibly going to win this race called life.”
“Nothing you’ve done has put you in the lead your in right now,” the coach says. The young people finally run the race. We don’t really see who wins because that wasn’t the point. The clip ends with everyone holding hands, apparently praying together. The voice of the coach says, “If you didn’t learn anything from this activity, you’re a fool.”
There are several versions of this video on YouTube, all posted within the last week. I’m not sure any of these are original because the quality of all of them is somewhat poor as if they are copies. So I don’t really know for certain how old this clip is. Maybe it came out this week or maybe it’s 10 years old. It really doesn’t matter.
Most of the responses on YouTube and Facebook are about how insightful this is. The general idea is that this reveals how racial disparities in society are the result of people starting out with unearned advantages. But is that what this clip is actually showing? The commentary is explicitly racial but the questions are all about having a two-parent family and a steady income to pay the bills and put food on the table.
The coach is correct that the young people themselves aren’t directly responsible for any of these advantages. What he doesn’t say is that all of these advantages nevertheless come from someone’s individual choices. Whose fault is it that some people don’t have married parents or a father figure in the home? That’s the father’s fault or maybe it’s the mother’s fault or maybe both of them are at fault. You know who is not at fault? The fathers and mothers of the other kids on the field, the ones whose parents got married and stayed married.
As for private education, tutors, cell phones, tuition and the next meal, all of those advantages are far more likely in a two-parent home. And here I’m not claiming marriage itself is some kind of magic, but having a home with two parents means more money and more time for kids. As we’ve already said, neither subset of young people on the field are directly responsible for those advantages, but their parents are directly responsible.
You know what else helps with those financial issues? Parents who finished high school and went to college. Again, that’s not up to the people running this race, but it is (or was) up to their parents. Did they drop out and get a dead end job? Did they go to night school and get a GED or a college degree? It makes a big difference when it comes to the advantages their kids will have later in life.
As an example, I started life in a family with married parents, one of whom worked making $50 a week. We lived in a small rental apartment. My mother remembers us eating a lot of hot dogs as the total she could spend on groceries each week was $10. A few years later my parents divorced. My life was not off to a promising start. I was going to be one of those people stuck on the starting line in the big race.
But my mother went to college and got a degree. She got a job working for the federal government and began working her way up. She met someone there and got remarried when I was six years old. Eventually, she made it to the very top of the organization she worked for, making a good income. She stayed married and my step-father also made a decent income. Together they bought a house in the suburbs and raised six kids in a blended family. I never had to take out loans to go to a state college. I never worried about my next meal or had to help with the bills.
None of those advantages were the result of choices I made. I was a child for most of it. But all of those advantages were the result of choices my parents, especially my mother, made. Yes, I was given advantages but only because she earned them. And as an adult, I can now see that was not always an easy road for her. I’m sure going to school with two small kids was hard. I’m sure getting divorced and remarried was hard. I’m sure staying married for the next 35 years was hard (my step-father passed away).
When I see this video I essentially see someone glossing over all those hard choices and difficult experiences that made it possible for many of those kids to have advantages in life. And yes, it also glosses over the poor choices of the some of the parents who didn’t stick around for their kids. One commenter on YouTube suggested you could do this same stunt with just black participants. Or you could do this with just white participants. Either way, you’d have some people with advantages and some people without them but it would be clear those were the result of individual choices made by their parents, not pre-determined by race.
That’s my take but as they say, your mileage may vary: