Pull yourself up by your bootstraps

This is the second in a series of posts that will break down the vocabulary for techniques and fallacies that racists use when confronted with their racist actions and ideals.

Since I have started educating myself about systemic racism and how it has harmed BIPOC in our country, I have engaged in many conversations about racism. If I had a dollar for every time I heard someone say, “They should just pull themselves up by their bootstraps” I could quit my day job and commit to doing anti-racism work full-time

The phrase, “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps” is often used to insinuate that with enough hard work, personal responsibility and a strong moral center, any person born in the United States should be able to accomplish whatever they set their mind to. All one needs is enough grit and “stick-to-it-ness” and he too can run a company. This is a phrase that is used hand-in-hand with, “There is no such thing as White Privilege”.

The problem with the “boot strap” myth, is that even under the best of circumstances (white, male and middle class), this simply doesn’t work. In fact, when this phrase first became popular in the mid 1800’s it was used to describe something that is impossible to do. Think about it; Are you actually able to lift yourself up by pulling on your shoestrings? Tug as hard as you would like, the most you are probably going to accomplish is breaking your shoelaces and then falling flat on your behind.

There are many problems with the mentality that someone can simply work himself into prosperity. While a very small percentage of people are able to turn themselves into a “rags to riches” statistic, it is still false to say that all people have the ability to do so. In fact, Upward mobility in America has greatly diminished over the centuries. Even in the best of situations it is difficult for people to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” and “rise above”.

First of all, to say that all people can succeed if they simply work hard enough suggests that all Americans had the same opportunity. However, many times these opportunities came with extra help. Help that was not available to Americans who were not white. Things like the Homestead Act in the 1800’s which gave a parcel of land to any white man who was willing to farm the land for 5 years. In fact, over 25% of white Americans owe part of their families’ wealth to the Homestead Act.

There was also the GI Bill in the 1940’s which gave the opportunity for white veterans to purchase homes more easily but left out veterans of color as well. In addition to many other government programs that were designed specifically to benefit the disadvantaged white people of America. Those people were the priority of politicians.

One might argue that it is now the 21st century so we should all have moved beyond government policies which strictly benefit white people. While it is true that on paper we have gotten rid of many systemic racist policies in America, we have not moved to a place where Americans of color are on a level playing field with white Americans.

Imagine taking the wealth distribution of the country and dividing it into 5 separate pieces. According to a study from www.money.howstuffworks.com,  only 23% of white people who are born into the lower one-fifth of the wealth in America remain there as adults; while 16% are able to move their way into the top one-fifth of the nation’s wealth bracket. This is close to what people consider to be the “ideal” distribution of wealth—they are working their way up the proverbial ladder. However, for Black Americans, 50% will remain in the bottom one-fifth of the wealth bracket and only 3% will be able to make their way to the top. This is a huge disparity!

There are also other obstacles which Black Americans face more than their white counterparts. Thanks to hundreds of years of institutional racism, Black people and people of color are disproportionately represented in lower socio-economic classes. Studies show that children who live in lower income areas have lower performing schools (thanks to lower tax revenue) which puts them at an academic disadvantage. People in lower socioeconomic classes also deal with issues such as housing insecurity, food insecurity and job insecurity. It is it difficult to focus on “pulling up your boot straps” when you are focused on putting food on the table or a roof over your head.

When someone lives in privilege (access to better schools, college paid for, regular meals and a stable place to live) they are more likely to do better in school and therefore have a leg up in life. The idea that someone can simply “will” themselves to a better place by working hard and acting right ignores the different places in which people start. It ignores the struggles that people have simply because of where they were born or who their families are. The argument that people can simply rise above any situation assumes that we all come from an even playing field. It implies that equity can be attained once someone escapes their upbringing.

The next time someone talks about how hard work and good decision making is all that is needed to succeed in this country, I encourage you to ask them questions. Gently point out to them some of the advantages that white people have had in our history and how that gives them a better starting point. If anything, you can always point out that it is actually impossible to truly lift yourself up without help.

About NAFC

Newtown Allies For Change is a grassroots advocacy organization run by volunteers to promote diversity, equity and inclusion in Newtown. We are an unfunded organization and our mission is to center Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) in Newtown.