The Gift of Social Capital

Last night was “back to school night” in our neighborhood, that fun time where they cram all the parents into the classroom built for third graders to meet the teacher so she can explain exactly what goes on there every day. It’s year-round summer here in Southern California. So, we’ve got year-round school in my town. The party starts in July.

The classroom itself wasn’t remarkable. The teacher seemed fine. The technology was the modern-day version of what I experienced as a kid. The little plastic chair I was crammed into hadn’t been innovated on in at least 40 years. All of it was exactly what you would expect it to be.


Instinctively, sitting in that grade school environment, my attention wandered from the explainer in the front of the room. Some habits never die I guess. I scanned the room for a few minutes and it occurred to me that there was a powerful gift there. It’s not obvious. But it’s there. In spades.

Next to me, crammed into tiny seats of their own, were my friend and his wife. He owns a shipping company. Another friend of ours was a few tiny seats over. Her husband played some pro basketball. Now he coaches in my son’s little league. Someone, a soccer coach I think, whose son is also in the class stands up to talk about a soccer camp he puts on for the kids. Another class mother, who also teaches at the school, sits a few seats away. On our way into the class we saw another friend who shares some office space with us in our non-profit. She’s the head of the Parent-Teacher Group.

I could go on, but you get the point. We live in a nice place. It’s not Bel Air. But it’s nice. And we know people. Which means I’ve already given my children one of the most powerful gifts I could ever give them.

Social Capital. Loads of it.

My son, for the first 18 years of his life at least, will be surrounded by people with resources and societal roles that can change the reality of the world for his benefit. And the fact that they’re familiar with me, makes them more likely to do that.

Formally, social capital is “the networks of relationships among people who live and work in a particular society, enabling that society to function effectively.” Informally, it’s what makes the world go around. When I zero out the social capital in the narrative that is my life, a common trick for memoirs and campaign adds, it sounds something like this.

Raised by a single mother in a working-class neighborhood in New Jersey, I paid for my Catholic high school education by working summer jobs. I excelled in school and was accepted into the United States Naval Academy. I served three tours during the War on Terrorism, was awarded the Bronze Star, put myself through business school between deployments and got a job in leadership in a Silicon Valley tech firm. I also founded some businesses of my own. Now I live in a gaited community in Southern California. A real live “two-percenter.”

A self-made man. The American dream.

That was a delicious paragraph for me to write. And it’s all technically true. It’s incomplete though. Because I left out one thing; the mountain of social capital that funded it.

This is what it sounds like when I put it back in.

When I was in first grade, my mother, a college educated school teacher, having reviewed my straight “A” report card, called a meeting with the teacher. She spoke teacher to teacher with her and demanded that I be put in accelerated classes. I was. For the next eight years I spent every day with a small group of kids in those same classes. They are all doctors, lawyers, business owners or other flavors of wild successes now. And just about every one of them will pick up the phone if I call.

When I was in high school, struggling to adjust to the larger “urban” environment of my new school, I failed four classes the first grading period of my freshman year. My mother called in a favor with a friend of my father and I was transferred into the local private high school. I was able to pay for it with the money I made working as an ocean rescue lifeguard in the summer, a job that paid $60 a day to a 15-year old in 1992.  It was also what my father had done for twenty-five years by the time he signed me up to “take the test” when it was my turn.

When I was 13, my dad got a job as a rowing coach at the Naval Academy. Four years later, that’s where I went to college. Somewhere between getting accepted and leaving for school, I split a beer with a friend watching Monday Night Football and drove home. I was pulled over for rolling a stop sign. I wasn’t over the legal limit for alcohol. I was a 200 pound 17-year-old and it was half a Coors light two hours earlier. But I was underage. The cops smelled it, put me in the back of their car and told me I could go to jail.

Then they put me back in my car and followed me home.

An arrest would have wiped out my acceptance to Annapolis. But I didn’t get arrested. I got let go because they knew my parents. Not my rich and powerful parents. Just my decent, well respected members of a community with just enough social capital to matter parents.

Twenty years later, when I left the military, the father of my roommate at the Naval Academy got me an interview at the Silicon Valley tech firm where he worked. The better half of a decade later, that’s where I work today.

That’s me, spending a mountain of social capital to get where I am. A mountain I didn’t make myself. One that was handed to me as a white kid born in the 70’s to middle class, college educated parents.

So what do I do with the the discrepancy in those two stories?

Do I ignore the second one and focus on the first because of how fantastic it makes me sound? Or do I wallow in the guilt over my “white privilege?”

Do I feel better if it’s just middle-class privilege? Leave off the white? Does that take a little edge off the affront to my identity based politics?

Here’s a fun extreme analog data point to chew on. In his book Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are, data scientist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz took to task the anecdotal idea that the NBA was a league full of inner city African American kids whose drive to get out of poverty lead them to greatness. The data actually shows that, even for pro sports, where raw athletic talent trumps all, African American NBA players are twice as likely to come from married middle class or above parents than any other background. And the top players and all-stars are 30% less likely to have been born to teenage, unmarried mothers than even the other average players. Because even basketball takes social capital.

I’d be careful not to zero out the whole race issue as a contributor for social capital though. Because Stephens-Davidowitz used the same data sources to show just how much more racist we still are than perhaps we thought we were. And how racism isn’t north and south anymore; it’s east and west. And that the counties in which Donald Trump faired best in the 2016 election also have the highest concentration of racist Google searches. Like it or not, racism is still there eroding the social capital of people who deserve better.

So, what do we do with it? What do we do with the space between the narratives we tell ourselves about our lives and the reality of the social capital we spend to have them?

We acknowledge it. We acknowledge how much of the history of our people lives in the space between the reality of our narratives and the “self-made” fairy tales we tell ourselves. We remember those times that, without the good will of others, our outcomes would have been changed for the worse. And we acknowledge, with unwavering honesty, how rarely we earned that good will. And then we acknowledge, just how much less that happens to those below us on the socioeconomic ladder of life.

And maybe, if we do it enough, the divide between us shrinks just a little.







6 thoughts on “The Gift of Social Capital

  1. Thank you for another great column. I can rely on you for bringing nuance and thoughtfulness.

    BTW I caught one typo, the first I have ever seen in your work – add instead of ad. Only pointing it out cause you put such care in your writing – not to be a pedantic corrector.


  2. Excellent way to make your point. Thanks…really enjoy reading and thinking about your blog


  3. Mere acknowledgment will do very little to bridge the gaps you describe, if anything at all. Anti-racism legislation is more effective, i.e. the sort of thing we saw in the late 1960’s– fair housing, busing children of other races and socioeconomic groups into schools similar to the one you describe sitting in, in this essay. Massive strides against that began in the 1980’s, and continue– the home town you describe now offers “school choice” for public school students, which means kids from the Downbeach increasingly get the opportunity to go to Mainland and Ocean City. The same opportunity is, not surprisingly, unavailable to students from Atlantic City, who are largely Black or the children of immigrants, if not immigrants themselves. This perpetuates the same systems, social, economic, and otherwise, that have existed for centuries.


  4. So true! We like to think that just hard work will lead to success, but those social connections are essential. I hope this makes people think about the roots of their good fortune.


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