A homeless eight-year-old refugee from Nigeria wins the New York State Chess Championship in the K-3 division. Within weeks, the publicity that Tanitoluwa Adewumi receives, primarily through the New York Time’s Nicholas Kristof, leads to the boy getting a home, a six-figure bank account, scholarship offers from three private schools and an invitation to meet with former President Bill Clinton.
What a wonderful story of deserving talent being rewarded! How heart-warming to see this very smart young man get some breaks in what has been until now a perilous life! Only in America, land of opportunity. All you need is hard work and perseverance.
At least that’s all you need if you’re Tani, as he is mostly called. But for most other homeless children, eight years of age is not when things start getting easier. Tani left behind thousands of school-aged children without homes, many of whom have one or both parents who work but don’t make enough money to afford permanent lodging.
Right-wingers can point to Tani and say that those with extraordinary talent have the best chance to do something with it in the United States. These knee-jerk flag-saluters and liars ignore statistics showing there is less economic and social mobility in the United States today than in virtually every other western country, and far less than we had 40, 50, 60 and 70 years ago. More to the point, virtually every society in all ages has found ways to identify and reward the very talented. From ancient China’s system of examinations to the rise of meritocracy-based civil service bureaucracies in European nation states to academic scholarships in the 20th and 21st centuries, ruling elites have never had a problem locating the geniuses and the great athletes, and then helping them get to a point that they can contribute to society.
But what about everyone else?
While Tani is to be praised and honored, we should also examine how lucky he has been. Lucky to be born with great mathematical talent and an inborn competitive edge, as both are needed to win at chess at any level.
Lucky to go to a school that had a chess program in a city and state that care about the game.
Lucky not to be born in the first half of the 19th century, when he would arrive in the United States not as a homeless refuge required to attend school, but as a slave.
Lucky to excel at an endeavor in which an eight-year-old can have the success of an adult. In a few years, he’ll have competition from a lot of kids whose families can afford chess lessons with grand masters, chess camps and other kinds of enrichments like foreign travel that help children learn to think. By the age of 12, there may be 25 children across the country with the same kind of talent Tani has who come from wealthy families and practice three hours a day or more. With more kids playing and more kids serious in the future, Tani might have already had his best chance to win a major tournament. Or maybe he’ll become a chess professional. Hikaru Nakamura, one of the 10 highest rated chess players in the world had about the same rating as Tani at about the same age. Of course, Hikaru was studying chess three hours a day by the time he was ten.
But even if Tani never wins another chess tournament, his early achievement has identified him as a very special talent, and American society will now help him.
But kids like Tani are really few and far between. True talent, of the Tani or LeBron level, while distributed evenly among large populations (be they defined nationally, racially, by sex or by economic class), is nevertheless rare. It’s not the Tani’s of the world who get screwed when wealthy parents put their kids through test prep after test prep, hire consultants and use their money to cheat or bully their children into highly rated colleges. It’s the average kids, and especially the above average but not brilliant kids of limited means who get screwed. And the screwing starts early, as wealthier parents are able to give their children the type of enrichment that most other parents can’t afford, unless they live in a large city with lots of free cultural opportunities. You know, the kind of stuff for which Republicans have spent the last 40 years slashing budgets, like libraries, music and drama programs, free lessons after school
Let’s face it. We love our little darlings and think they are all little geniuses. But most people are pretty average in ability and potential. Luckily, our economy produces a wide range of jobs that require every possible talent at every level. What we don’t do is value everyone or value every job. Our current society produces CEOs who make hundreds of millions of dollars no matter how the company performs, while millions of people have to live on a minimum wage that has remained stagnant for so many years that it’s buying power has been eroded to the point that in not one state in the country can someone afford a home on minimum wages. Meanwhile, many million more have seen no raise or even a shrinking of income when you adjust for inflation.
Imagine a world in which the range of salaries and wealth was much less than today, a world in which the cost of tuition at state universities was in the hundreds of dollars, a world in which a relatively high level of unionization insured that both union and non-union jobs paid middle class wages, a world in which high rates of marginal income tax (marginal meaning you only pay the rate for income above a certain amount, not your entire income) financed the building of roads and bridges, cheap public education, robust research and development and other government programs that create a level playing field and equalize the rewards of the winners and losers.
That world existed for the most part from 1940-1975 or so. It was not a perfect world, as minorities, women and the disabled did not have the opportunities that white males had in the workplace. Some would call it ironic that the era in which American society created a more level playing field for minorities and women was the very period in which the playing field became tilted in favor of the rich and the rewards became to be distributed in a less fair manner. Of course, many, including myself, wouldn’t call the simultaneous emergence of these two trends a coincidence. Those interested in returning society to the Gilded Age of extremes in rich and poor in which selfishness reigned used the real plague of racism and the phony threat of job and status loss to the “other” to convince large numbers of both poorly and well educated voters to support candidates who created the conditions for today’s growing inequality by lowering taxes on the wealthy and cutting government programs.
The story of Tanitoluwa Adewumi makes us feel good, but it should make us feel ashamed and guilty, because it reminds us by virtue of being human everyone deserves the basics of an affordable home, a quality education, lifelong healthcare and a secure retirement. We shouldn’t judge a society on how well its talented do, but on how well the average and under-average do. We’re all people, whether we can figure out checkmates or have trouble adding two-digit numbers.