The Huffington Post ran an article last week about white privilege, inheritances, and philanthropy. I have to admit, I was surprised that I found it so compelling.
It’s a frustrating article in several ways. The author begins by telling us he “wasn’t among the economic elite,” but that his father had “a rambling house in East Hampton with a heated pool.” For someone clearly committed to equality, there’s a strange detachment from reality in that opening salvo.
But the article is actually about how his kids requested he handle his inheritance from his late father. Their request: give it away—all of it. They didn’t want to keep some for their future down payments or college tuition, or the financial needs of their (potential) future children. They were “impatient,” he says, uninterested in making a plan or determining their “philanthropic priorities.”
There’s a strange irresponsibility in this impatient decision-making, and a stranger still willingness to give in to the whims of his 20-something children. Their generosity is commendable, to be sure, but the flippancy about the future is selfish. Their grandfather worked hard and saved so that his children and grandchildren could have the economic freedom to be generous with their selves and their time. The author recounts stories of social justice trips—“paid for with grandpa’s money”—to serve those in need.
But the telling of these stories has two problems.
In the first place: why the self-flagellation? There’s a lingering embarrassment about their ability to take trips to serve the needy. They can only do this, the author thinks, because they are “privileged” and white. This seems to miss the fact that his father “climbed his way into the upper middle class” by being “pretty hard-working” and “cheap,” as if the fact that he was “extremely lucky”—whatever that means—is the most important part of that triumvirate.
It’s strange, though, that their disposition toward their ancestors isn’t gratitude but shame—especially when they are using their inheritance to serve others. One would do well to be ashamed squandering his inheritance on, say, drugs, vacations, and other vices. But why would you be embarrassed of your wealth used to feed stray cats and pay off a friend’s debt?
The second problem is that, for all its generosity, the impatient demand to give it all away is short-sighted to the point of selfish. Nothing, the author writes, “would draw a bigger grin from my dad in heaven than watching his great-great-grandchildren step into a college classroom using the remains of his bank account.” His father, he told us, worked so that his children and grandchildren could own a home and have an education. This isn’t a selfish hoarding of wealth. This is a responsible stewardship of gifts for the benefit of future generations. Of course, this stewardship shouldn’t preclude extra-familial charity, and I have no idea whether the man was parsimonious in addition to saving for his children. But there is a sacrifice and a virtue here to be remembered.
The authors’ children—proudly insisting that the inheritance be given away whole hog—are stealing economic freedom from their future children and grandchildren. They desire to be freed of the “undue” comforts of wealth in the face of so much inequality. But here’s the thing: the inheritance of wealth is the inheritance of a burden to use that wealth well. We are duty bound to steward our riches—no matter the amount—to the benefit of our neighbor and our family; sloughing off that gift is sloughing off that duty and stealing that gift (and duty) from your future children.
Moreover, the hubris toward the desires of the grandparents is breathtaking. “White wealth is racism,” they scream, as if the grandfather and great-grandfather didn’t work hard and live responsibly to give their children and grandchildren gifts that they might steward toward the benefit of others and other generations.
For all its faults, however, there’s a healthy and profound insight at the heart of the article, and it stems from the children’s wisdom. The kids’ disinterest in making a plan for the inheritance is reckless and unwise; nevertheless, their disinterest in identifying their “philanthropic priorities” is born of a real generosity.
The main content of the article is the author wrestling with the fact that his children’s desire to give it all away was hard for him. “You’d think we would be easy targets for their agitating,” he writes. After all, he runs a nonprofit, and he supports Bernie. And yet, he balked, time and again at his kids’ insistence on non-strategically divesting of the inheritance for the benefit of . . . well, whoever needed it.
Two stories stand out.
“Let’s pay off Naima’s college debt,” our kids proposed. Naima is a Black, immigrant friend who has been part of our extended family since middle school. I balked, arguing that we need policies and programs for debt-free college and comprehensive reparations. My daughter’s eyes rolled again, skeptical that justice will emerge from a historically racist political system, the new administration notwithstanding. “Naima and her family are financially stressed every day,” she replied. “We have the resources to zero out their debt now. A kind of mini-reparation.”
The last sentence notwithstanding, this is a compelling story. Here’s someone we love who needs help today. Let’s help her today. That’s a healthy insight.
He tells another story when he joins his daughter working with refugees in Greece as she lugs around a 10-pound bag of cat food to feed the innumerable stray cats. Here’s how he tells the story, and really gets to the heart of the matter:
“There are too many,” I blurted, as we walked maddeningly slowly. “Feeding them is no solution.” Bending to scatter food, she calmly responded to my fit as a cat rubbed against around her ankle: “I can help some.” We’d had the argument many times before about being more “strategic” and less impulsive; it was strange, I admit, to suggest that she be a little less compassionate in such a heartless world.
For all of my maddening frustration at the article, I find that final line telling and moving. Ours is often a heartless world and what better way to respond than with compassion. A bit of warmth, instead of strategy: that is what we need. It might be nice if none of us had college debt, but a loving gift to a family friend who you can really help—that is warm, enfleshed, love. It would be nice if there were no hungry cats—but I can feed this one.
The reason the author was caught off guard by his kids’ “agitating” is not that he didn’t believe in philanthropy. It’s that he didn’t believe in charity.
The author wanted strategic and systemic solutions. “We can’t feed all the cats,” he worries. Or, “paying off Naima’s debt is hardly a solution,” he notes. That’s quite right. You can’t feed all the stray cats in Greece and paying a friend’s college debt doesn’t heal the hidden wound of racism in America.
But here’s what they can do: feed these stray cats and help this person whom they love. That’s what I like about the article and respect about the kids. They want to move their parents away from “strategic solutions” by encouraging them to be compassionate with these people right here. As far as I can tell, that’s detachment from wealth, and good for them for that.
I don’t agree with all the efforts they want to support, but I appreciate and admire that they are willing to support them loosely, freely, and lovingly.
Would it were that more of us managed our inheritances with compassion and even reckless generosity. That would make for a better world.
I wish the kids would keep some of the money for their (potential) children . . . . but I’m glad their charity is real charity. And I wish the parents would be more discerning (and insist upon gratitude!) where more discernment is needed, but good for them for admiring and following the compassion of their children.