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The bootstrap myth

As a little girl I remember eagerly learning about America as a “melting pot” of different races and cultures. From the time we are little we are indoctrinated with the ideals of American exceptionalism. We are told that what makes our country great is the freedom and opportunity for all.

Yet, regardless of race, it has become increasingly more difficult for lower and middle America to make ends meet or get ahead. In an attempt to protect the ever-elusive American Dream from slipping further away, we have become more individualistic. Efforts to address widening inequality are often met with resistance and defensiveness. “You can achieve anything in this country if you just work hard enough.” Or, “I pulled myself up by my bootstraps and worked hard to get where I am, so why can't they?”

But, what if you have no boots or bootstraps to begin with?

We are falling prey to us vs. them and either/or thinking, losing the binding forces of democracy, like compromise and community. This sense of fear and protectionism has fueled tribalism, overriding our sense of empathy and commitment to the common good. We have lost sight of what makes America great; not one political party, one religion, one race, or one culture. Rather, it is the thread of humanity that connects us all across our differences. We won’t ever move forward or bridge these divides until we first face our past, and recognize how systems and structures have created inequality along socioeconomic and racial lines.

Consider, for example, Social Security, the GI Bill, and FHA home loans. They are taken for granted as foundational and universal legislation that helped the growth and development of our country. That is true when you look at it through the lens of whiteness. But, what I didn’t realize was that 65% of black people were left out of Social Security. The bill excluded agriculture and domestic workers who were overwhelmingly people of color. Similarly, the GI Bill and FHA loans discriminated against black people, refusing loans and financial assistance provided to their white counterparts. While white people laced up their boots with financial security, home equity, and college degrees, communities of color were left behind.

So, the next time we are tempted to talk about our bootstraps or complain about discrimination against white people in college admissions or job interviews, it would serve us well to take a closer look at our history and take responsibility. We need to understand how we, as a race of white people, have benefited from the leg-up our ancestors were given through policies that could be considered “white affirmative action.”

The idea of “reverse racism”, or the growing outcry of “discrimination against white people” is inane and uninformed. However, it is effective at shutting down progress and maintaining the status quo. It makes sense when you think about it. When you have been conditioned to normalize these structures and power dynamics as we all have, it requires constant effort to be aware of it and fight against it. Are we willing to put aside our own comfort to stand up and advocate for others?

Now, you might be thinking: “But, what about Oprah, President Obama, or Condoleezza Rice? If they can do it, doesn’t that prove that it’s possible for everyone?” Without a doubt, these individuals overcame odds to reach such levels of success and achievement. More importantly, they are most definitely not the only smart, capable, talented black people with promise. African Americans make up around 14% of the population, yet they rarely hold positions of power. Today, only 4 black people currently hold CEO positions of Fortune 500 companies, and in the entire history of the United States Senate, only 10 have ever held a seat. What more would be possible with focused investments into communities of color so that all children have the hope and agency to rise above these pervasive disparities and achieve their American dreams?

“To say Obama is progress is saying that he’s the first black person that is qualified to be president. That’s not black progress. That’s white progress. There’ve been black people qualified to be president for hundreds of years.” --Chris Rock, 2014

Our communities are still largely segregated, and discrimination continues to widen inequality in wages, employment, housing, education, and criminal justice. The racial wealth divide continues to grow. While the median household wealth for white families is around $134,000, the median for black families is just $11,000. What’s worse, it is projected that in 30 years, when people of color comprise the majority of the nation’s population, their median wealth will have diminished to zero.

These findings paint a jarring picture of the disparity in our experiences across lines of color. The problems and struggles of communities of color we often point out to bolster the bootstrap argument are the results of this systematic oppression, not the cause of it. But, they also have staggering implications for the future of the national economy that will affect us all. Simply put, without policies aimed at improving education, employment opportunities and living wages for communities of color, the lack of economic security and upward mobility will have a devastating impact on the strength of our country.

If we believe that America is truly the land of opportunity, it cannot also be a zero-sum game. It reminds me of a core team value at my organization: "row together". It is meant to remind us that we are better together; that we should build each other up and provide support when someone is struggling. Certainly, it is not unfair to others who may be more experienced or skilled. In fact, the entire team becomes more productive and impactful. Helping others improves the circumstances, safety, and upward mobility for all of us, regardless of background or race.

Just as these systems were designed for the upliftment of white people, we can restructure the power and wealth distribution in this country for all people. Imagine the kind of improvements we could make to our society with that proposed $25 billion for a ridiculous border wall, for example. Even tweaks to our current national budget could redirect tax dollars from interventions on poverty or drugs and alcohol to preventative measures; things like improving schools, or incentivizing saving and homeownership programs for communities of color, much like what has been done in the past for white people. These changes are possible, but will require the political will and the leadership of white people.

Are we willing to restructure systems so that all communities can thrive? If not, we can no longer expect people to pull themselves up by bootstraps they don’t have -- the ones we were given.

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