In David Brooks' column "How We Are Ruining America" in Tuesday's New York Times, he argues that the upper middle class has become inaccessible to people from other backgrounds. Unfortunately, he uses a central example many readers find bewildering and even insulting.
Members of the top 20 percent are "devastatingly good at making sure the children of other classes have limited chances to join their ranks," writes Brooks. But structural forces aren't solely to blame. Even if you ignore the fact that good schools and good jobs often cluster in communities where only the wealthy can afford to live, and legacy admissions help rich kids grab spots at the most selective colleges, you still have the "informal social barriers that segregate the lower 80 percent."
Like, for example, the social barrier of lunch. Yuppies order food from menus that less well-educated people could find intimidating, he says. In a passage that has been circulated widely on Twitter, Brooks writes:
Recently I took a friend with only a high school degree to lunch. Insensitively, I led her into a gourmet sandwich shop. Suddenly I saw her face freeze up as she was confronted with sandwiches named "Padrino" and "Pomodoro" and ingredients like soppressata, capicollo and a striata baguette. I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican.
The logic here struck many as odd, given that these words are Italian, not Latin, and some of them are more common than he lets on: Fast-food chain Jimmy John's, for example, serves sandwiches made with capicola. Moreover, many Mexican restaurants' menus use Spanish.
Brooks also cites other ways that yuppies speak their own language, which excludes anyone who doesn't know what they're talking about. He claims: "To feel at home in opportunity-rich areas, you've got to understand the right barre techniques, sport the right baby carrier, have the right podcast, food truck, tea, wine and Pilates tastes, not to mention possess the right attitudes about David Foster Wallace, child-rearing, gender norms and intersectionality."
If you can't follow along, you won't feel welcome, says the columnist. But while he has a point when he concludes, "We in the educated class have created barriers to mobility that are more devastating for being invisible," he also loses many readers with his anecdote about the sandwich shop.
Twitter users fired back, including New York Magazine's Max Read, humor writer Jason O. Gilbert and NPR host Sam Sanders:
Brooks' argument, it seems, is that a college-educated person would feel comfortable ordering fancy Italian subs but someone without a Bachelor's would hardly know how to handle herself. That is indeed a symptom of a larger problem — but not the one Brooks has in mind.
In this column, Brooks embodies the issue he believes he's diagnosing. Brooks is educated. Brooks is wealthy. Brooks requested a set of $250 "gold luster" serving bowls and $62 Eucalyptus napkin rings on his most recent wedding registry. (No one bought them for him.)
To some degree, he acknowledges his complicity: It's why his column about the top 20 percent is titled "We are ruining America." But Brooks misunderstands one of the most enraging things upper middle class people can do. While hoarding opportunity for themselves and perpetuating structural inequalities, they can also come off as smug, condescending and paternalistic.
Brooks assumes that his less-well-educated friend has an issue with a menu that has hard words on it, and that her discomfort stems from the fact that she never went to college. He makes an executive decision to save her by whisking her off to a Mexican restaurant, where she'll presumably feel more at home.
Brooks' friend doesn't get a quote in this story. In her mute confusion and silent gratitude, she serves as an example of someone who benefits from the benevolence of an almighty college grad. The anecdote doesn't make Brooks look good, and it doesn't make the point he intends it to make, either.
Maybe wealthier people don't need to make decisions they think are in the best interest of other people. Maybe they just need to remove some of the barriers that keep middle- and working-class people out of safer neighborhoods, better-paying workplaces and well-funded schools so that everyone has a real chance to learn about fancy Italian sandwiches for themselves.
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