For a moment I want you to imagine a steak. Not just any steak but the most amazing steak in the world. Imagine it cooked to perfection (however you like it). Imagine it seasoned perfectly. Imagine it hot and fresh, juicy and tender with an aroma that grabs your nose and lifts you up to the heavens. Yeah, that steak. If you have favorite sides (mushrooms, onions, peppers, asparagus, baked potato) add them to the plate. Along side it is a bottle of your favorite wine (perfect vintage, excellent aroma, and just delicious). Is your mouth watering like mine is right now? If so, good.
Apologies to vegetarians and vegans. If you can imagine the most exquisite meal you have ever had, the same will apply.
Now imagine that plate served to you in a very nice restaurant. It is on fine china with excellent silverware, a lavish linen tablecloth, and very comfortable seating. If you’re here in Wake County, North Carolina, the steak meal might be at Angus Barn or The Peddler Steakhouse or Sullivan’s Steakhouse (which ever you prefer). The waitstaff is extra courteous, the restaurant looks beautiful, and you are looking and feeling good.
If you have had an experience like this before, how does it feel to remember it? Would you like for other people to have the same experience? Would you like to have that experience again?
If you have not had an experience like this before, how much would you like to have this experience? What would you do to have that experience? What wouldn’t you do to have that experience?
I ask the question because this experience is much like “the American Dream”. It has been advertised and mythologized around the world as the best you can ask for. It is the reason why millions of people come from around the globe to the US trying to achieve it. It is the goal that all Americans were told since birth and it is the benchmark for success in this country, as well as many places around the world. You might ask, what does this dream, this meal, this scenario have to do with access. I’m so glad you asked.
Now I want you to imagine that this meal costs $100 (in many places that is well below the cost, but we’ll go with that for our purposes). Imagine that you take your $100 to the restaurant and decide that you want the dream meal experience, only you find that you are not treated to the same experience. You are in the same restaurant, but your steak is cooked to shoe leather consistency, your place setting is a paper plate on cloth with plastic silverware and you are given a wobbly seat. Your sides look like they came out of a can and were microwaved, your wine is served in a Dixie cup and your waiter is short and rude to you.
It is hard to imagine having an experience so bad while eating at a fine restaurant, isn’t it? Such disparity is normally the type of thing that people would complain to their waiter or the manager or their local business advocacy group over. Since your experience is so much worse than was advertised, you ask your waiter why is my experience so different? The reply you get is because you are one of “them”. He has a serious look about him that tells you that you will get no better here, so you can take it or leave it.
Them can be any demographic group that is subject to prejudice and systematic bigotry, in this or any other country. Known “them” groups include women, ethnic, religious and racial minorities, homosexuals, handicapped, came from the “wrong side of the tracks”, terminally-ill, elderly or merely poor people. There are many others but these groups tend to constitute the majority of people treated to “them” service.
Having thoroughly been dismissed and denied the dream meal experience, you leave that place and righteously tell all of your friends about how poorly you were treated and the blatant disparity. All of you “them” friends have similar stories and understand completely, so they’re willing to write that place off as BS and never go back. That is, until one of your “us” friends tells his experience of dining at that restaurant. They describe an experience that was so pampering, so delicious and so extraordinary that you are sure they can’t be talking about the same place. That place that treated you so horribly and dismissed you so out of hand can’t possibly be that amazing. At the same time, your “us” friend can’t believe that you had such a horrible experience…”they would never do that,” he says.
Wanting to put it to a test, you both go back to that restaurant another time and are seated separately. You get the same experience that you received the previous time, so does your “us” friend. By the end of the meal, your experiences could not have been more different. You ask the waiter over and tell him that you know the “us” customers are treated to a much better experience. What has to happen for you to get that same experience? He comes back to you with a menu. It reads…
Fine linen tablecloth…$35
Fine china plates…$45
Properly cooked steak…$150
Properly cooked sides…$60
Crystal wine glass…$30
Outraged you say, “Hold on, in order to have the “us” experience as a “them” my meal costs $600 when it only costs $100?”
“That’s right” Your experience is 6x as hard as your friend just because of who you are versus who they are. You have no opportunity to change it, you would not change it even if you could, but here you are hit with a 6x expense for the very same experience other people are enjoying. If you can understand the disparity, the unfairness, and the outrage, disgust and despair that might result from this experience. You can understand both the reality and the effects of that reality, as it pertains to access in this country (and many other countries).