Monday, April 9, 2018

Strangled by Bootstraps

This was one of the more depressing poll results to appear recently--

Forty percent of white Americans think black people would be just as well off as white people if they worked harder, according to a new poll from YouGov on Wednesday.

Bootstraps, baby. We just assume everyone has the same boots and the same straps and all differences between outcomes are strictly the result of differences in how hard you yanked on those bootstraps.

It's difficult to know exactly, how hard it would be to track your way back through US history using the bootstrap theory. Despite red lining, black folks would have been able to buy decent housing if they'd just tried harder? If black folks had just tried harder, they wouldn't have been beaten down by Jim Crow laws? If black folks had just tried harder, segregation wouldn't have kept them out of white schools? If black folks had just tried harder, they wouldn't have been lynched? If black folks had tried harder, they wouldn't have been bought and sold as slaves?

Well, that was all in the past, declare the bootstrap enthusiasts. In this country you always get a clean fresh start, and the past doesn't have to hold you back. Which is true, I suppose, if there is nothing in your past or your family's past to hold you back. If your bootstraps are flopping free and not attached to anything. If nobody took your bootstraps away because they were afraid you might get too high and mighty.

Privilege is so often blind to itself; we are a nation of people who were born on third base and grow up thinking we hit a triple. To be fair, this is not simply arrogance and entitlement. There's an element to self-protection in blind privilege-- if I believe that what I have is earned and not luck, the result of merit and not circumstances, then I don't have to live in fear that some morning it will all just disappear as mysteriously as it appeared in the first place.

But forty percent! Forty freakin' percent!!

I keep worrying that the exact number translates into teaching staffs. How many teachers are bootstrap enthusiasts?

How many teachers figure that any student who's doing poorly is doing so because they just aren't trying? How many teachers apply that reasoning disproportionately to students of color? How much does this dynamic feed the other dynamic that we know about-- that students of color are disproportionately punished for disciplinary infractions? How many teachers and administrators look at a black kid who has screwed up and think, "This kid is not even trying to do better. Throw the book at 'em."

Sure, everyone can do "better" if they work harder with whatever bootage they have in life. Hard work matters. But then, it has to be the right amount of the right kind of work-- black folks worked hard to make their lives better during the Civil Rights movement, and plenty of white folks got mighty bent out of shape that the black folks were making too much fuss, being too uppity. Working too hard at it. Nor do I hear a lot of bootstrappers praising the Black Lives Matter movement saying, "Good for them-- they really grabbed their bootstraps and started to try to lift up their communities with whatever tools they could grasp." And don't even talk about brown folks walking their bootstraps to the USA to work their way to a better life. Those bootstraps can't be tolerated.

I've done okay for myself in life, but if we have to talk bootstraps-- well, I've had a lot of help. My parents pulled my bootstraps up and my schools pulled them up and some important people who decided to reach down and adjust my footwear a few times. It's a complicated dance; if you are fortunate, blessed, privileged, people open doors for you, but you have to walk through on your own two booted feet. I don't really get people who insist they not only pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, but they built the door and hung the frame and installed the hardware using their bootstraps as a kind of swiss army knife toolkit. Nobody does it himself or herself. Nobody. Nobody. Some people get a million dollar loan from their parents, and some have parents whose struggle is passed down to their children. Where some people have huge advantages, some have huge disadvantages. How can we still be debating this.

And that's before we even get to this part-- that advantages are more advantageous for some folks than for others. White children of the rich tend to stay rich; rich children of color do not. Look at some of the children of the rich and tell me that they kept their family's advantage through grit and hard work.

Sigh. Forty percent.

All this time, and we've still got all these white folks thinking that poor white folks are victims of circumstances, but poor black folks got there by being lazy.

There are so many bad ways for this to play out in education. Charter schools founded on the whole idea that what These People need to learn is how to work hard and grab their bootstraps. Public schools with teachers who make judgments about effort and ability based on race. If you're a white person teaching next door to a white person who thinks like this, talk to them about it. If you're a white person who thinks like this, go read some history and smarten yourself up.

Forty percent. Damn.


  1. And yet the Vietnamese who landed in the US were poor, unskilled and not highly regarded by the locals. They started lower than the black community.

    How is it that some groups can rise, despite adversity and discrimination.

    All over the world there are despised and disadvantaged groups that manage to rise. And other groups that don't. I wonder what the groups that have risen have in common

    Actually, we all know what it is. Only some of us will admit it. Because it is a dirty secret that liberals really, really would prefer was not true.

    1. I must have missed the part where Vietnamese refugees were brought here against their will and made to serve for generations as slaves. Or the part where they were denied a vote or the right to own property, or where as a matter of public policy, they were not allowed to live in certain neighborhoods.

      I run your comment only so people can see that people like you actually exist-- guys who fancy themselves as clever anti-liberals. You may call yourself a conservative, but your just one more racist with a blinding lack of knowledge about history.

  2. I'm one of those 40%. Well, let me clarify. I do NOT think that that blacks work less hard than whites. Many blacks work in menial jobs like fast food. Though these jobs do not pay well, they are often very arduous and subject to difficult schedules. Rather, I believe (and the data affirms) that blacks disproportionately make poor choices that determine income mobility - e.g. education (29% of blacks drop out of high school - about twice the rate of whites), family (an astounding 72% of black kids are born to single mothers) and crime (an unbelievable 1 out of 3 black men will at some point in their life be either paroled or incarcerated). But (and this is key to a fair society), if a black person makes the same positive choices as a white person (e.g. getting an education or getting married), they have the same probability of reaching any income quintile as a white person who does likewise - regardless of the income of their parents.

    One more thing. "How many teachers are bootstrap enthusiasts?" You are in the bootstrap business.

    1. Wow.

      I don't see any data to affirm that blacks disproportionately make poor choices, though there are some studies (one from Johns Hopkins appears elsewhere on this blog) that show that blacks suffer disproportionately for making the same bad choices as white (e.g., blacks and whites use drugs at the same rate, but blacks are more frequently punished by the legal system for drug use). And of course, your "key to a fair society" is exactly what data shows us is not happening (see links in this very post).

      Let's pretend for a moment that you are correct about blacks making more bad choices. What could explain that? Some folks will go with the "they're just naturally naughty" explanation. But it also strikes me that if you live in an unfair society, where making the "right" choices does not bring any of the benefits those "right" choices are supposed to bring, what reason would there be to make "right" choices? Especially when you can see white folks (like, say, the President) who have clearly made the "wrong" choice and still prosper anyway. In other words, if your society is loaded with institutionalized racism and white privilege, what sense does it make to say you should just work harder?

      Man. Your argument doesn't make sense. Your post is more depressing than the racist rant above. Please study up and think this through.

    2. It really is depressing to see posts from people with so little knowledge. I don't even know where to begin.

  3. Wonderfully observed and expressed. Thank you !