“Pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” In this one simple statement, is an ideology that is embedded in the institutions and individuals, historically and presently, of what it means to be a “true” United States citizen. I often jokingly offend many U.S. Americans when I tell them that I know more about their country than they do in the context of history, economics, socio-political conversations, and the public culture. And people are offended because more often than not, it’s true.
I’ve studied American history since I was 14 years old via schooling and my own personal time and interest. I find the United States a fascinating country and although I am often critical (because that is what I do for vocational purposes), it does not take away from my love of the United States as an ideology and a place. And while I am critical of many ideas that circulate in American public culture, I am also heavily invested in many of them. Meritocracy and the American dream, however, are where I draw the line.
Meritocracy is the belief that power and opportunities are gained because of merit. It feeds the American Dream that one can achieve anything one wants if you work hard enough. And of course we have our heroes and heroines throughout history and in our present who we point to as symbols of achievement. And thus the ideologies must be true, right? We forget that in a competitive society especially, and in a society that privileges some at the expense of others as a matter of institution reality, for every successful person, there are thousands if not millions that have to fail in spite of hard work.
My parents were dirt poor so they could easily be poster children for meritocratic ideals. Yet my parents would be the first people to point out that no matter how hard you work, someone has to give you a break; you have to get lucky especially when you do not come from privilege. And it is easier for some people to get luckier than others depending on their social positions in society. But I will stop beating around the bush: historically marginalized people do not all of a sudden pick up their boot straps, work hard, and have opportunities and dreams available to them. I would be all for a society like that. But the history of the world and its nations is such that implications of history are not rendered to their time and space, but are still experienced by generations long after.
Privilege – whether it exists as a matter of race, socio-economic factors, education, gender, sexuality, and all its many forms – does not exist without disadvantages to those born without it. That is to say, you cannot have those who profit without having those who lose. And the history of the United Sates is that race is strongly tied to education and socio-economic factors, and the institutions – education, employment, health, and societal behaviors historically were set up and presently are still maintained to privilege and disadvantage, despite any movements that have indeed made things better. Because better doesn’t mean sufficient.
One of the tragedies of the United States having a Black president in Obama is that it feeds this false idea of a post-racial society and heralds meritocracy and the American Dream. But it’s not just Obama, it’s Oprah, it’s Morgan Freeman, it’s Sonia Sotomayor, it’s Soledad O’Brien, it’s the entire problematic rhetoric of Asians as the model minority, and it’s your friend who you knew from high school or college or wherever who is a person of color, who is your token for why “everyone is equal and can make it.” And indeed some people who are tokenized themselves, choose to buy into meritocracy and choose to be representations of ‘what can happen through hard work.” But the mere fact that we have to have tokens for marginalized populations should signal some kind of discrepancy in our ideas of meritocracy.
I think the most dangerous result of our meritocratic rhetoric however, is how we view the poor, and working class people. The poor are shamed by virtue of the belief that “if they just worked hard enough, they would get out of their situations.” The poor are parodied as lazy and “feeding off the government.” And while I believe in revolutionizing societal institutions in order for people to have economic and social empowerment through individual work where possible, it is a ridiculous notion that the poor do not work hard. And if you don’t believe me, spend one day going to three jobs and raising two children, spend 12 hours picking cotton or three hours sweeping roads. Or spend a day at an immigrant work site where people wait to be picked up to do a full-day of work so their families may eat at night.
I loved the American Dream as a child. That’s the rhetoric many children receive – both you who were born here and us who grew up outside of here. But I am not a child anymore and no amount of childish enthusiasm can allow me to perpetuate the illusions of that dream. I am tokenized both as an African and a Black person in this country – it happens quite often. I long to tell people that my parents and grandparents sacrificed a lot, but they also got damn lucky; I got damn lucky, regardless of the effort or the aptitude I believe I have. And maybe I know that not everyone gets lucky – you can work hard and still fail miserably over a lifetime. And with the weight of institutional disadvantages against you, this is all the more likely. So before we are quick to say, “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” it would do us good to remember that some people are born without shoes.