Born unequal

The first capital of the United States, Philadelphia lends itself to new ventures.

It’s an apt place to launch this blog.

Its history is bound up with humanism and democracy. Flagship social contracts of the modern era, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States were signed here.

But Philadelphia also presents features that make a human view of the world — an encompassing and representative one — challenging.

Like many other cities, it’s home to diverse cultural communities — a microcosm of the world. And it’s deeply divided by class and race. [1]

The City of Brotherly Love

Visiting Philadelphia has been a stimulus to thinking about the values the US represents, and the values I acquired growing up here and in the UK.

This week I walked past the place where Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence — including the famous words,

We hold these truths to be self-evident,

    • that all men are created equal
    • that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights
    • that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.[2]

What Jefferson was really arguing for in the Declaration was the equality of American colonists with the British who had ruled over them.

As the historian Andrew Cayton comments:

The Jeffersonians claimed to be a band of brothers or friends. … They were creating a democracy of civilized white males. Other peoples (Indians, for example) might join this fraternity but only if they became like Jefferson and his friends. Blacks, however, were not invited…. Nor were women…. [3]

The history of Western politics since the 18th century has been in part a struggle to extend membership in the club more widely; admitting even those who wouldn’t “become like Jefferson and his friends.”

Part of this project has been gaining a greater comfort with cultural difference. But it goes beyond cosmopolitanism.

In others’ shoes

One of the highlights of my time in Philly was having dinner with a friend who’s just finished medical school and who’s doing a residency in Obstetrics and Gynecology here.

Working at a clinic that serves a marginalized community in the city, she delivers many babies who, like their mothers, are dependent on methadone.

Thankfully there are ways to wean these babies off of drugs.

But, having had a stressful time in gestation, they’re often born early or small for gestational age.

Their parents are often without health insurance.

They’re clearly at a disadvantage from the get-go.

All are not born equal!

Of course these children are born equal in the sense that they’re just as human as other children.

But not in the sense that there’s a level playing field for them to compete with others for advancement, or even for survival.

Whose fault is this?

One school of thought holds that it’s the parents’ fault — if they’d just gone straight, then the child wouldn’t have had the set-back to get over.  (“The sins of the mother will be visited upon the daughter.”)

But what if the mom too grew up with the odds stacked against her?

In that case wouldn’t the prevailing ideology of “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps” lead to punishment of victims, generation after generation?

Through others’ eyes

This blog is intended to address human issues with what Richard Shweder calls “views from manywheres.” [4]

I can’t speak with equal authority from all perspectives. (No-one can.)

But like all of us I can try to see through others’ eyes.

And I can draw on the work of people who have often spent years trying.

Sometimes the effort pays off by providing another dimension to an issue, a new insight into a problem.

In Philly it’s been rediscovering the truth of Thomas Weisner’s proposition that the place you’re born has a greater influence over your life chances than anything else. [5]

I’d go so far as to say that acknowledging this may be a prerequisite for social and political progress in the US and the world.

Phil-adelphia — brotherly love — was all very well for the 18th century.

This century we need to establish Philo-xenias — communities that embrace difference.





[3] Cayton, A.R.L. (2001). Overview: The revolutionary era and the early republic. In M. K. Cayton & P.W. Williams, eds. Encyclopedia of American cultural and intellectual history, Vol. 1 (p. 164). New York: Scribner.

[4] Shweder, R. A. (2003). Why Do Men Barbecue? Recipes for Cultural Psychology. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

[5] Weisner, T. S. (1996). Why ethnography should be the most important method in the study of human development. In Jessor, R., Colby, A., Shweder, R. A., (Eds.) Ethnography and Human Development: Context and Meaning in Social Inquiry (pp. 305–324). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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6 Responses to Born unequal

  1. Yemi says:

    thank you,Jed. I loved reading this and it challenged me to think more and
    learn more about the very topics you discussed.I look forward to future posts!

  2. rochdi68 says:

    Nice piece Jed. However, i wouldn’t say as Weisner said “the place you’re born has a greater influence over your life chances than anything else,” but the social and economic station where you are born has a tremendous influence on where you are going to end up (unless by place he means social and economic rather than physical/geographical place).

    • jedstevenson says:

      Thanks, Rochdi. My take is that the “place you’re born” includes social and economic position — I think of it as like a birth lottery (an idea that I’ve heard attributed to John Rawls) — that you could have been born to any mother, in any community.

  3. Michelle says:

    Insightful first posting, Jed! I will look forward to following the blog, and your endeavors. Give my best to Selam and Asa when you get back home.

  4. rochdi68 says:

    Just one more point, in the last 10 years or so, America has had its worse GINI index (the worst gini index of all advanced industrialized economies) and its worse intergenerational earning elasticity (meaning, what one generation’s income determines the next one’s) numbers. All of these indicate that the “pulling-by-your-boot-strap” demagoguery is only that–i.e., pure demagoguery–and is even more one than it used to be.

  5. Yihenew says:

    Jed you raised a very interesting point. When I was reading “The place you’re born has a greater influence over your life chances than anything else”; I was visualizing two babies at the same time; babies who were born dependent on methadone and babies who were born from the very destitute single mothers in streets of Jimma. All are born in the worst condition; even though there is a chance that these babies could grow and become productive citizens, despite the challenges, the practical situations that they are facing is not the same playground like others.

    I look forward to following this blog Jed, please keeps it up.

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