Sometimes, I wonder if my legal career might have been different if I had some more help along the way. That isn’t to say that no one helped me – there were a lot of lawyers who took an interest in me and helped to guide me. But as a young Asian-American lawyer, I always had a nagging feeling that I didn’t quite belong.
That’s because, as is the case in most professional industries, there just weren’t a lot of people that looked like me in higher-level positions. This wasn’t necessarily something that was done on purpose. It was a combination of conscious and unconscious biases, systematic things, and historical factors that led to a partnership that was ultimately not very representative of the overall population.
Unfortunately, this had an impact on the younger, minority lawyers like me. As in any system run by people, nothing is ever really equal. Systems are designed by people. And people create things based on the things they know, which, of course, tends to benefit the creators of that system. And when it’s a system that requires people to pick other people – well, they tend to pick people that look like them, consciously or not.
At my firm, it was a well-known fact that the vast majority of Black, Asian, and Hispanic associates typically left after 3-5 years. There were a number of reasons for this, but perhaps most telling might have been the fact that, from what I understood, billable hours for minority associates tended to be lower compared to the overall associate population.
It wasn’t quite clear why this was the case, but when you think about it, you can probably formulate some theories. Billing requires partners to give you work and take you under their wing. This requires partners to pick you. Most partners (as with most people) tend to gravitate towards those that remind them of themselves. And because most partners are white men, naturally, white male associates tend to get more assignments, build more skills, and accordingly, rise in the ranks sooner. The next group of partners then tend to be white and male and so the cycle continues (for example, see this New York firm’s partner class for 2019).
Which brings me to my ultimate point with this post. We live in a world that relies on systems. Systems created by people over hundreds of years. People that have their own biases and prejudices. If you don’t think that race matters in America, you’re simply wrong. It permeates every aspect of our lives, from where we live, to where we work, to where we go to school, to how we go about our day to day lives. And yes, it permeates our financial lives too.
I live in Minneapolis, so it pains me to see what happened to George Floyd happen in my own backyard. This wasn’t just an unfortunate accident or the result of a rogue cop or bad apple. It’s a result of a system that put police on the scene because a Black man allegedly used a $20 counterfeit bill. A system that allowed three other police officers to sit by and do nothing. A system that made it so that Black bystanders could only speak up and plead for a man’s life, but couldn’t do anything else while a man was being killed in front of them.
If we don’t acknowledge that the way things are right now isn’t natural – rather, it’s man-made and created by those in power to benefit certain people at the expense of others – we’ll never be able to critically think about why the world is the way it is and think about what we can do to make it better.
Personal Finance – Race Matters
There’s this insidious idea that comes about with personal finance and financial independence where success with money is often seen as something based on your own ability and self-control. Even as wages stagnate and as education and the cost of healthcare and other essential goods and services increase, the principles of personal finance and financial independence tells us that if we aren’t successful, it means we’re probably spending too much somewhere or not doing enough to earn more. It’s all our fault.
But if we dig a little deeper, we know that this can’t be the whole story. Money is a system, created by people in power to benefit themselves. For our entire history, power has been concentrated in men, specifically white men. If you aren’t part of that group, you’re automatically going to be at a disadvantage because the system was not designed to benefit you. It was designed to benefit them.
Out in the real world, our individual money experiences are never universal, and what one person can do cannot be done by everyone because of born characteristics they cannot control. If you want to see what I mean, just consider my own experiences with side hustling. I act like everyone can do it. But is that really true?
Take Airbnb for example. I write about how it’s possible to make significant income by house hacking a spare room in your house or renting out your entire house while you travel. But we know that Airbnb has a discrimination problem, with Black guests much more likely to have problems booking a place compared to non-Black guests. This isn’t something that Brian Chesky was trying to do when he created Airbnb. Rather, he was basing the system he created from his own experiences. He’s an upper, middle-class white male. He’s never experienced discrimination when it comes to housing, so it didn’t occur to him that a system where people choose who to let into their home based on names and pictures might create a system rife with conscious and unconscious discrimination.
For hosts, the problem must be the same as well. That is, Black Airbnb hosts likely receive fewer bookings, are forced to charge a lower rate in order to get bookings, and likely get lower quality guests as a result. Would a Black host living in my neighborhood receive the same number of bookings at the same rate as I do? I think absolutely not.
In fact, any of the gig economy stuff I do is subject to this same problem, where I’m at an advantage simply because I’m an Asian-American man, rather than a Black man. For example:
- Would I have the same success dogsitting on Rover if I was Black? I highly doubt it. The same discrimination and biases that occur with Airbnb most definitely occur with Rover. Do White dogsitters do better than I do because of their race? I think that’s definitely a possibility.
- Would I make the same amount of money doing food and grocery deliveries if I were Black? Would my delivery ratings be as high? Studies suggest that I’d receive smaller tips and would get worse ratings.
All this is to say, everything money-related is inherently going to be impacted by your race, gender, national origin, and many other factors that you do not get to control. Where you live, where you work, where you go to school – all of this matters when it comes to money. And it’s all determined by a system that might or might not benefit you. If we act like money is available to anyone if only people would step up and take responsibility for themselves, we’re being naive or ignorant.
Racism And Discrimination Isn’t About What You Can See – It’s About What You Can’t See
I think if you ask most people if they’re racist, the answer is going to be no. And I think this is generally true – most people understand that racism is objectively wrong and are not overtly racist.
The thing is, it’s not overt racism that’s the problem. Every law in existence prohibits racism and discrimination based on race. The problem is that most racism and discrimination isn’t overt. It’s unconscious, created by centuries of policies that were designed to marginalize certain people and promote some people over others.
The things you take for granted didn’t just happen. For instance:
Where you live isn’t an accident. Where you live has a dramatic impact on your income and overall life outcomes. And yet, where you live isn’t really a choice. It’s a product of centuries of discriminatory policies designed to segregate races. It’s easy to find plenty of evidence about the racist history of the suburbs. We know that Black homebuyers couldn’t get loans and weren’t allowed to buy homes in White neighborhoods. Today, neighborhood segregation continues to be as bad as it was when the Fair Housing Act was passed over 50 years ago. Segregation in housing is illegal. But it’s still happening because of an undercurrent of unconscious racism that isn’t being addressed. Look at where you live and who your neighbors are. That’s not an accident.
How your city looks isn’t an accident. Sometimes, I look at a big highway that cuts through a city and I ask myself, what was there before? The answer is that it was usually a poor neighborhood, and more often than not, it was a Black neighborhood. Building giant roads cutting through houses – typically Black houses – had a dramatic impact on people’s ability to build wealth. Worse yet, these huge roads completely split people apart, creating essentially de-facto walls dividing people. Look at how your city is laid out. That wasn’t an accident,
Where you go to school isn’t an accident. Schools were desegrated over 65 years ago. No school district can legally discriminate based on race. And yet, school segregation is actually getting worse. Residential segregation got worse. Schools were divided based on neighborhood lines. We stopped bussing in students from other places. Think about the school you went to and what the student body looked like. That wasn’t an accident.
I could go on forever with this. Healthcare is empirically worse for Black people than it is for White people. Standardized testing favors those with the means to study for these tests in advance. Jobs are harder to get if you have a Black sounding name. And of course, we know that the police state systematically targets Black men over anyone else.
The point is that racism and discrimination isn’t something that is always overt. It’s a mistake to think that racism only means you hate Black people or hate Hispanic people, or hate Asian people. That’s not the racism we really need to worry about. It’s the racism that we can’t see, the unconscious biases that all of us have.
Here’s an easy thought experiment. Imagine if everything you see today was happening to White men, rather than Black men. If White men were getting killed by police at extraordinarily high rates, or had military-style police presences in their neighborhoods, or were segregated into poor neighborhoods and bad schools, or had their homes destroyed to build a road to move people from the suburbs into a city . . . how much uproar would there be?
It’s not about what you can see. It’s about what you can’t see. If we don’t recognize this, we can never change things.
When it comes to race, being an Asian-American in the United States is sometimes a bit strange. The racism that we face isn’t as perverse. It gets to the point where even though Asians are an obvious and visible minority that also faces their own overt and systematic discrimination, we’re often treated as if we don’t face any problems.
I can see why people think this way though. Asian-Americans are often held up as the model of minority success in America. There’s the whole concept of the model minority – a racist concept in itself designed to downplay the systematic racism that exists in our system and place the blame on the affected group for why they aren’t able to make it (the idea being, if this race can do well, why can’t you?). It’s a backhanded thing – like when someone says a Black person is articulate.
But the history of Asian-American success in the United States wasn’t because Asians were just somehow able to overcome the prejudices against them. It was because America simply became less racist towards them. What a concept.
I don’t have answers to all these problems. I’m not a policy person. All I can do is recognize the problem, speak up, and do what I can to combat it.
As for personal finance and financial independence, it’s up to all of us to recognize the role we play in how people view money. We can teach others and give people ideas. But if we blame people and say it’s their fault they can’t do it, we’re discounting the system that makes what might be easy for us very difficult for others. And if we do that, it means we’re cool with the status quo. You can’t change things if you’re cool with the status quo.
If you’re looking for policy books about the impact of systems, one such book is The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander. I read this book back when I was in law school and it really opened my eyes to how the criminal justice system has shifted over the past 50 years to essentially create an underclass of Black men, relabeled as criminals, and then denied housing, jobs, education, voting rights, etc. This is essential reading if you really want to understand what is going on in policing and the legal system.