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Reich writes: "I asked him if he thought America would ever achieve true equality of opportunity. 'Not without a fight,' he said. 'Those who have wealth and power and privilege don't want equal opportunity. It's too threatening to them ... '"

Portrait, Robert Reich, 08/16/09. (photo: Perian Flaherty)
Portrait, Robert Reich, 08/16/09. (photo: Perian Flaherty)

Breakfast With My Mentor

By Robert Reich, Robert Reich's Blog

29 August 13


few days ago I had breakfast with a man who had been one of my mentors in college, who participated in the struggle for civil rights in the 1960s and has devoted much of the rest of his life in pursuit of equal opportunity for minorities, the poor, women, gays, immigrants — and also for average hard-working people who have been beaten down by the economy. Now in his mid-80s, he's still active.

I asked him if he thought America would ever achieve true equality of opportunity.

"Not without a fight," he said. "Those who have wealth and power and privilege don't want equal opportunity. It's too threatening to them.They'll pretend equal opportunity already exists, and that anyone who doesn't make it in America must be lazy or stupid or otherwise undeserving."

"You've been fighting for social justice for over half a century. Are you discouraged?"

"Not at all!" he said. "Don't confuse the difficulty of attaining a goal with the urgency of fighting for it."

"But have we really made progress? Inequality is widening. The middle class and the poor are in many ways worse off than they were decades ago."

"Yes, and they're starting to understand that," he said. "And beginning to see that the distinction between the middle class and poor is disappearing. Many who were in the middle have fallen into poverty; many more will do so."

"And, so?"

He smiled. "For decades, those at the top have tried to convince the middle class that their economic enemies are minorities and the poor. But that old divide-and-conquer strategy is starting to fail. And as it fails, it will be possible to create a political coalition of the poor and the middle class. It will be a powerful coalition! Remember, demographics are shifting. Soon America will be a majority of minorities. And women are gaining more and more economic power."

"But the 400 richest Americans are now wealthier than the bottom 150 million Americans put together — and have more political influence than ever."

"Just you wait," he laughed. "I wish I had another fifty years in me."

Robert B. Reich, Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley, was Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration. Time Magazine named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the last century. He has written thirteen books, including the best sellers "Aftershock" and "The Work of Nations." His latest is an e-book, "Beyond Outrage." He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine and chairman of Common Cause. your social media marketing partner


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+12 # Kasandra 2013-08-29 11:03
In reality, equal opportunity begins with the people who shape the economy and social structure. Then leaders mirror what the grassroots creates.
+17 # PhilO 2013-08-29 12:18
The replies of RR's mentor are perfect distillations of the problems and issues we face!
+4 # Kathymoi 2013-08-29 15:24
I would love to know how he believes things will get better for the lower class--the one that isn't the rich class.
I just see it getting worse. What strategies does he believe will work? How will it happen?
+3 # Eldon J. Bloedorn 2013-08-29 18:02
"They only write. But they do not do." Anon.
0 # Eldon J. Bloedorn 2013-08-30 20:34
They keep writing which causes a paper shortage. More people at work making more paper. A little satire. These people who write do inform, but they are not great leaders who move people to get things done.
+12 # Kathymoi 2013-08-29 15:22
In large part, consumers are responsible for the huge market share that walmart and mcdonalds have. If consumers didn't shop at walmart or mcdonald's, they wouldn't be able to dominate the retail and fast food markets, respectively. But, it isn't only the consumers. It's also that there are no limits on the growth of these corporations. They can use their corporate wealth unfairly to move into every neighborhood, to underprice local stores and put them out of business. Then they can have a monopoly (pretty much) in that neighborhood, and ---neighborhood by neighborhood, the world. WE need laws that prohibit monopoly. I believe we used to have some anti trust laws in the days of railroads. But, we need to get some new ones for the wal mart situation. No one has opportunity when walmart is in control of retail and of the manufacture of everything sold retail. We need both consumers and the government to change the situation.
+6 # janla 2013-08-29 19:31
So we have to find places to shop where employees are decently paid and have benefits, like Costco where they are making about $20.00 per hour. It's a beginning.
-24 # MidwesTom 2013-08-29 11:39
Equality can never happen. In any group of people there is inequality of ability, desire, appearance, and personality. These people generally begat people with many of the same differences.

Much of the economic separations we see today are directly traceable to our government, First they forced we lowly taxpayers to bail out the banks who pay average wages 10 to 20 times the average wages that the rest of us get, including all manufacturing firms. True capitalism demands that risk takers pay the price if they fail. Second, our government then has increased the money supply by at least 50% in the last five years, thus making the owners of assets (stocks, farm land, etc.) much wealthier than the people just working for a living.
Yes, inequality has increased, thanks to our government.
+20 # Moefwn 2013-08-29 12:31
"Equality can never happen. In any group of people there is inequality of ability, desire, appearance, and personality."

People do differ individually, thus of course are not actually equal in the sense of being "the same as". What we are talking about here is equal OPPORTUNITY - starting out on an equal playing field where each person has similar chances to make the most of whatever talents he/she may have. Such an arrangement would arguably be much more useful to the country in terms of growth and progress. However, as you say, the current political shenanigans militate against that.

"These people generally begat people with many of the same differences."

Did you mean "beget" or were you talking about the past? Either way, I have to disagree with you. There are innumerable incidences of children reacting against their parents' limitations and ineffective lifestyles to create something better for themselves. The attitude you express - that children will almost inevitably become like their parents - is one of the primary social assumptions that make it so terribly hard for individuals to overcome a difficult background; that assumption needs to be done away with in order to give everyone their best chance.
+1 # MidwesTom 2013-08-29 15:00
Yes I meant beget; and I also said GENERALLY in front of beget, I am well aware that that children are not always copies of their parents. However, and I am not a social scientist, I believe that at least 50% are copies. Having worked in areas where there are few enlightened job opportunities I find that much of the local citizenry is much duller than what I will call the average person. A family;s bright children all leave the area, leaving behind those with less potential.

As a nation we keep lowering our standards to make more people feel accepted. Several weeks ago Alabama, like several other states introduced a lower grading standard for black students, so they can get higher grades. How does this help? Last week the ACT test people reported that only 5% of black high school graduates are prepared for college.

I am a great believer in equal opportunity, and our public school system has gone a long way in achieving that. However, trends in our society like single parenting are making equal opportunity for all much harder to achieve. I help support an intercity church school and hear first hand the struggles that unmarried high school dropouts that are 22 and 23 year olds have already have three kids, no jobs, and no outside support. There children face a very steep challenge.
I went to that school, and we had a lot of really poor kids then, but that literally all had two parents. Society is not equal, and never will offer equal opportunity.
+8 # janla 2013-08-29 19:33
The mainstream media is contributing to our increasing stupidity -
-1 # brux 2013-09-01 18:06
> Society is not equal, and never will offer equal opportunity.

yes, nothing is perfect, but it does not mean that the goal is not important. we don't have completely safe planes either, yet most of us board an airplane when we want to go on vacation without thinking about it ... much.
+8 # curmudgeon 2013-08-29 12:34
Spoken like a true troll of the '400'...bought and paid for!

or another sheepie idiot who has not learned any thinking skills....proba bly educated at one of the public school 'dumbed down' .
+15 # BradFromSalem 2013-08-29 13:39

You have typically for a Rightie identified the problem correctly but forgot to ask the questions: who, what, where, when and why.

Since government is not a real person anymore than a corporation is a real person the answer to the questions start with the human persons that believe they will benefit the most from inequality. Obviously that are the person that are already wealthy. The what is their influence on our government's law and regulation making function. Where and when is simply here and now, but to be more precise they have exerted their power via the corporations they control and the banking system they essentially monopolize. They started gaining ground during the 60's, using the Civil Rights, Women's, and anti War movements as the fulcrum to recruit people frightened by the changes. Under Reagan, their philosophy essentially took over the reins of government. It is this government, controlled by the wealthy for the benefit of the wealthy that is the problem. If we apply some disinfectant and disentangle the government function of laws and regulations from the control of the wealthy and write laws and regulations that help all human people first, and last, then equality will flourish.
+2 # MendoChuck 2013-08-29 19:44
I don't think so . . . . .
Not in this civilization and its present structure.

There will always be those that want more than is necessary and because of this want, there will always be those with MORE!
+1 # BradFromSalem 2013-08-30 07:06
(of a person, animal, or other living organism) grow or develop in a healthy or vigorous way, esp. as the result of a particularly favorable environment.

Yes, flourish. Not everyone exactly equal because we are not the same. But there can be less poverty, less ignorance, less suicides, less diseases caused by by environmental factors, and even less war. Not gone altogether, but less. And you may note that I discussed a major change to our civilization's structure to achieve it.

People First. Nothing Else Second.
+10 # suzyskier 2013-08-29 13:44
You are always so negative, it's depressing. Hopefully people won't give up. One must try even if the odds can be daunting.
+14 # wolflady52 2013-08-29 13:44
Actually, let's be a little more clear. The only reason the government bailed out the banks was to avoid total economic collapse. Who caused that economic emergency? Wall Street and the "too big to fail" banks. What's sad.....those same groups have so much influence on our government and economic policy that it no longer represents the common citizen. As long as the 1% rules, and Citizens United stands....thing s will remain the same.
+8 # Kathymoi 2013-08-29 15:29
Inequality of opportunity is increasing. And I trace that largely to the disappearance of the line between government and multinational corporations. Right now, we have government but the government is run by the owners of the big corporations and banks. They are the advisors to the lawmakers. They are the writers of the laws introduced in the house and the senate. They are the lobbyists who get the ear of the elected officials, not the petitions sent by CREDO and Move On, and not the marches and demonstrations of thousands of citizens in the street. There is nothing like equal representation in the government.
+1 # Phlippinout 2013-08-29 21:53
White man speak with fork tongue
0 # kalpal 2013-09-01 05:34
Yes, inequality has increased, thanks to our government.

So if the government giveth, it should also be able to take it. A marginal tax rate of 90% never impoverished this nation but a tax rate at less than half of it, does indeed impoverish most of the nation. Lets go back to the old tax rate. Clinton proved that higher taxes levied on teh rich did not harm the nation and Bush proved that RW luncay always will.
0 # brux 2013-09-01 18:09
Don't blame the government ... any more than you can blame the rivers or mountains ... our government is a reflection of ourselves, and we have allowed our government to get a kind of cancer because we stopped paying attention.
+14 # waldemar 2013-08-29 11:44
Oh, please -- Who is this mentor?
+9 # fuzzbuzz 2013-08-29 13:10
Why does it matter? Just someone who had an effect on the author.
-5 # Kathymoi 2013-08-29 15:31
Yes, Robert. We want to know.
+4 # Nominae 2013-08-29 22:18
Quoting waldemar:
Oh, please -- Who is this mentor?

There is certainly little wonder as to how easy it is for the Global Surveillance State to grow as it has.

These sorts of comments provide a perfect illustration.

Does it occur to no one that the identity of said mentor is simply and purely *none of your business* ?

Has it dawned upon anyone that the mentor may have requested anonymity, and that it is his perfect *right* to do so ?

Can people really be so clueless and without class as to fail to understand that the author, RR, (since he does write *professionally *), has already thought about the question of revealing his mentor's identity and has decided against it ?

If Reich had wanted us to know this man's name, he would have provided it.

In other words, RR has already determined that it's none of our damned business. And, he is *correct*.

The value is in the ideas that this mentor is willing to share, not in who he is, where he lives, and how often he washes his socks.

Get a grip, people. Ask your elders to explain to you the ancient and fast-fading concept of individual privacy. It once applied to all human beings, including well-known authors and their personal and professional mentors.
0 # brux 2013-09-01 18:10
No one is insisting, but probably like me everyone is curious. Why your your undies in a bunch over it as the saying goes?
+3 # bettymedsger 2013-08-29 11:57
Yes, tell us who the mentor is.
+12 # tclose 2013-08-29 12:00
It seems to me that the entrenched inequality inherent in the capitalist system has to re-learned - and dealt with - every few generations. It was learned in the late 1800s and something was done about it with the rise of progressive policy by state and business leaders, but with a lot of pressure from working people. It was re-learned at the time of the Depression by the despair of average people and the fear of the wealthy that all of their wealth would disappear should a socialist economy be enacted. The New Deal policy was built on a progressive income tax that taxed the rich at high - but fair and sustainable - rates (80% or more).

That lesson carried us through the war, and a burgeoning post-war economy that lifted all boats including a highly progressive tax rate. By the 70s, with an economy stagnant and under global competition, the progressive formula came under attack, and by the 80s it was clear that many of the baby boom generation had un-learned the lesson and embraced Ayn Rand's economic nightmare. Back to the Gilded Age of the 1890s, and the equally gilded Roaring Twenties.

Time to re-learn the progressive economy and society all over again.
+20 # fredboy 2013-08-29 12:13
Robert, you are so fortunate to have found a mentor with such character and foresight. I was unable to do so. I attended college in the late 60s and sadly found most faculty distant, aloof, and self-serving.

What's good is this prompted me to really care about students during my 25+ years as a professor. And to do all in my power to help them learn and succeed and find fulfillment and happiness.

Finally left my teaching post at Vanderbilt when I was ordered to apply a "forced curve" grading system that threw away 1/3 of my students--befor e I even met them! In effect, trying one's best to help them all succeed was bad. It was incredible, and I refused to do it.

Your mentor was right. The old South did its best to divide freed blacks and poor whites, stirring hatred to weaken both. I see that in play again now, as the white elite fear the massive political and educational potential of a united middle and poor class approach. If real leadership ever arises again--a visionary like Dr. King--the pure purposes of our nation can be restored and championed for all.
+4 # Kathymoi 2013-08-29 15:40
One of the problems that I see today is that the major political parties have become too expensive to operate on a budget supplied by people. Both major parties are funded by the wealthiest people, in every way that they can maneuver to fund the candidates who will then do what is good for the wealthiest people. Middle (lower) class people can not depend on either party to supply a candidate who will represent people over profit for multinational corporations. Middle class people now need to organize a new, low budget, group of people who will run for the full range of elected positions, including the presidency. There's no real reason that it needs to be expensive, and there's no reason why the people, we ourselves, can not locate, support and elect people---a significant large number of people to represent us. Then there can at least be a beginning.
+14 # 2013-08-29 12:18
This reminds me of a classic story my father shared with me. My dad is a true blue progressive who plays bridge with the 1%. He tells me of a conversation he had in which he suggested a more equitable distribution of wealth. His 1% er partner retorted : so what if we redistribute the wealth. It is only a matter of time - and not very long - that the money will accumulate in very few hands again. - my dad replied- " yeah that may be so but it won't be the same hands it is in now."
+7 # Kathymoi 2013-08-29 15:43
Greed is a tendency in humans and it takes a very strong and self-aware person to put limits on his/her own wealth. This is one of the roles of an elected representative government, to prevent monopoly and plutocracy.
+5 # Vardoz 2013-08-29 12:39
Between the TPP and the endless meltdown at Fukushima which as Dr. Caldicott says may kill all life on Earth, I don't think we have a very happy future.
0 # brux 2013-09-01 18:11
> as Dr. Caldicott says may kill all life on Earth

Does Helen Caldicott really say that? I doubt it, even she is not that alarmist, but it is a pretty big f-up, that's for damn sure!
+8 # Malcolm 2013-08-29 13:17
Nice to hear something more positive than the more common doom and gloom. But I hope this doesn't convince people that all we've gotta do is WAIT.
+6 # Kathymoi 2013-08-29 15:46
absolutely not. I think if we want to take our government back from the plutocrats who own it now, there is a great deal of work that we the people need to do, an enormous amount. It's possible, but it would not be a matter of waiting. For instance, we can not wait for the republican party or the democrat party to offer us candidates who will not support the major funders of both of those parties. ---One thing we need to do, as a public, is come up with our own candidates, not politicians, but people who will represent people, not profits, the environment, not profits, and a representative government, not a plutocracy.
+11 # soularddave 2013-08-29 13:57
Mr.Reich, Judging from ehat I see these dayd, and the comments so far, most folks just miss the point. Supposedly, the USA was set up for equality to happen. Things weren't "equal" back then, but the Constitution set things up so equality could be advanced where it couldn't before. Wittness the inclusion of women voters and slaves, then 18 year olds.

We've done some serious backsliding lately! Failure to quickly adopt the Equal Rights Amendment was my clue. Equality is an attitude, and we regular folk should be insensed that some are regarded as less than others and we accept that some others somehow are "more deserving" of basic human rights.

We should always be working to achieve equal opportunity for all whilst striving to be the best we can be.
0 # AMLLLLL 2013-08-30 12:01

Your comment reminded me of a phrase Alan Simpson used while on his economic/budget committee: "the lesser people".. referring to 47% of Americans. Ain't THAT the fox guarding the henhouse.
+7 # Doll 2013-08-29 16:39
"Just you wait," he laughed. "I wish I had another fifty years in me." A quote from the article.

I sure hope it doesn't take 50 years.

I seems to me that "the powers that be" (TPTB) are in their death throes. Just like in a Stephen King novel, the villain keeps coming back again and again from his/her certain doom and finally succumbs to death.

I do not wish death to anyone: only the ideal they are forcing upon us. I only wish jail time to the perps so that they have a chance to recover their lost humanity.

Many posters here talk about equality. I do not think this is the right phrase to use. We need to talk, instead, about equal opportunity.
+1 # Rationalist 2013-08-29 18:02
Among the several interviews I watched on TV during the past few days the quotes from the "mentor" strikingly resemble those of one of the interviewees. I regret that cannot remember which one for certain, but John Lewis comes to mind as the most likely. If so, and he said the same thing to an audience of millions this week, I am not sure why Reich would feel a need to protect his identity; so maybe I'm all wrong. Does anyone else remember what civil-rights veteran made similar comments about the distinction between the middle class and poor disappearing?
+2 # AMLLLLL 2013-08-30 12:07
Robert, I think your mentor is right about our future, but it won't happen without us being constantly vigilant, irritatingly loud, and irrepressibly mobilized. Like the energy of Occupy, we can make this into a positive energy that will not take no for an answer. Yes we can. Apartheid looked hopeless for many in South Africa, but protest and world opinion made the tipping point. Yes we can.

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