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Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Before I was born, I spent some time researching prospective parents. It wasn’t the best time to choose, ah, Negroes — as they were known back then — but I thought I could nevertheless pick a pair prepared to give me a good head start in life.

So I chose a married couple, neither of whom was addicted to alcohol or drugs. They were hardworking, churchgoing and thrifty — the sort who eschewed credit cards, saved for retirement and were not seduced by the latest consumer trends.

Equally important, I picked a couple who were both college educated, though that was quite rare for black Americans then. They were able to help me with homework, steer me toward enriching after-school activities and help me navigate college choices.

Because I took the time to choose the right parents, my childhood was safe, secure and productive. I made good grades. I went to college. I started a fulfilling career. Clearly, my pre-birth research paid off.

Does that sound like a fairy tale? Do you doubt I had anything to do with picking my parents?

Well, you may be right, but we conduct our politics as if children are responsible for the families into which they are born. Just look at the recent farm bill passed by the GOP-dominated House of Representatives. While leaving subsidies to large agricultural entities intact, it cut out the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (or food stamps). Half of its beneficiaries are under the age of 18.

Even politicians more compassionate than House Republicans have a hard time grasping the increasing importance of parents’ education and income in dictating a child’s future. Horatio Alger mythology — the notion that anyone can succeed in America with enough pluck and hard work — is deeply ingrained in the national consciousness.

But if that were ever true, it’s not so now. Class (as defined by family income and parental educational attainment) is now more important than race in determining a child’s chances at climbing the economic ladder.

There is certainly good news in that. For centuries, race was a formidable barrier for black Americans, no matter how hard they worked, no matter how much education they attained. They were still limited by law and custom.