07/10/2013 04:42 pm ET Updated Sep 09, 2013

Who You Know > What You Know

We educators need to be honest with our students.

We need to stop telling them that success in life is all about hard work and all about applying yourself and all about focus, desire and determination. That is not entirely and when we tell our children that piece of the whole truth we do them a major disservice. Hard work and perseverance has more to do with maintenance than it does with acquisition.

Whether our children understand it or not, they each take part in a process that actually classifies individuals in various categories at an early age: categories such as leaders, thinkers, workers, deviants and entertainers. This is what we all affectionately refer to as K-12 education in America. Once a child either graduates from or drops out of school, he or she is well aware of which category they are in. From there, their course in life is guided not by that category but rather by their relationships and how those relationships maximize their behavior and functions as whatever it is they've been categorized as. Those relationships are what lead to our promotion from positions of fair to good and from good to great. In the same way the sales associate becomes CEO, so does the corner dealer becomes the kingpin. Individuals themselves can be fair, good or great, but people don't always get the position that aligns with their respective intellectual and emotional capacity. In fact, capacity and positions are two different things, and we focus way too much on the former and not the latter.

We (educators) do a half-way decent job with stressing the importance of having intellectual capital, but more so than that, social capital is what our students need to have in order to make the leap from good to great. I work in an urban school district; an inner-city school to be specific. When I assess my students, intellectual capital isn't something they lack. Are some students more capable than others? Well, of course -- that is in every school, but as a whole, I am confident in my assessment that my students would excel in any academic or professional situation. In fact, a new study indicates that minority students who are admitted to elite colleges and universities typically do as well as their better-prepared contemporaries, despite having low grades and test scores. But where my students lack, and I would argue many students who are of color and/or are poor lack, is with their social capital. Some have very little and there are those with none.

There are young men and women in high school and college who are white, that are smart, hardworking and focused on their studies and career. I argue that of the group I just mentioned, those individuals with higher levels of social capital will receive better internships, better fellowships and better jobs than, and in some circumstances over, other students who happen to also be white or of different racial groups with lesser amounts of social capital. These higher levels of social capital, networks and connections that many whites have access to via family and family friends, were established during a time when many, if not most, racial minorities and poor people of all colors did not have the same opportunity to establish such networks. People can talk about and even subscribe to the demagogic imaginations of the post-racial society, a colorblind consciousness and even social and economic mobility, but the reality is that slavery, Jim Crow and even our current period of what Michelle Alexander calls the third racial caste system of mass incarceration has created the conditions for a collection of individuals, mostly white with small blotches of color, to amass huge amounts of social capital and build strong networks that cannot be penetrated by those who necessarily work hard and have intellectual capacity, and they've done so on the backs of people of color and the poor. What it takes to penetrate these networks is for an individual to be extraordinary; with extraordinary capacity and extraordinary skill -- like Barack Obama. What that means is that if you are connected, you can be incompetent and ordinary and still benefit -- like George W. Bush. Depending on who you know, you may or may not be at a higher level of privilege in comparison to your peers and in this country, both class and race matters. When both work together for you -- being both white and at the very least upper-middle class -- you enjoy an advantage that others would die for. Yet the race isn't to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor yet favor to men of skill... but time and chance happens to them all.

Poor children and children of color are the underdog; poor children of color are underdog of underdogs. So we (educators) need to stop lying to our students and start preparing them on how to strategically build relationships. We need to teach our students how to be comfortable in any setting with anyone regardless of their position, title or status. We've got to cultivate the charisma and charm that our students may have but are afraid to show. We must impress upon our students to join more clubs and organization outside of school, attend more regional as well as community events and functions, and to reach out to individuals whom they admire to request mentorship; whether they be teachers/professors, business leaders or community stakeholders. We've got to teach our children to take calculated risk in their building of relationships...

This is all in an effort to develop and grow their network; increasing their level of social capital because one day, they will soon find out the difference between them getting that job or getting that letter of acceptance from law school, business school or that doctoral program wasn't their resume or application but rather a phone call and conversation. Don't let their finding out be to their detriment. Let it have been because they heeded your lesson on such.

Think about it: How did you get your job?