The Bootstrap Lie and the Politics of Privilege

This is going to be difficult and uncomfortable.

I invite you, then, to be patient while I start with something slightly less uncomfortable but just as difficult.

The tragic but real story of Pat Tillman is many things — one of which is a complete unmasking of how powerful and dangerous cultural mythologies are and how often our cultural mythologies prove to be both false and serving the interests of privilege (primarily white, male, and wealth privilege).

Tillman believed in the sacred duty of a person to serve his country, and then, in that service, Tillman not only lost his life, but also had his death story fabricated to perpetuate the very false myth that failed him.

Those with power sullied Tillman’s legacy to reinforce that the false myth of patriotism could be preserved in the service of their power — and were willing to sacrifice anyone buying the myth.

Again, that is a very hard discussion, a nearly impossible reality to recognize and digest.

But this is even more difficult because it entails race and racism as well as the very ugly stereotypes the U.S. perpetuates and embraces about people in poverty.

And as a very privileged and successful white man, I am walking onto very thin ice by confronting and naming black leaders who, as I will outline, represent a tragedy similar to Tillman’s.

Next, before I become more pointed, my caveat here is that I offer this as a witness in the tradition of James Baldwin, to whom I will return at the end. These are critical views of the world that I have learned by listening carefully, by setting aside my own urge to mansplain, whitesplain — to be the authority.

I am not the authority, but I am a diligent student.

To be considered:

Lawyer Michelle Alexander has detailed a disturbing dynamic: many black communities have advocated against their own best interests by embracing the “get tough on crime” myth perpetuated in the service of privilege. Alexander’s best example, I think, is that police often sweep black neighborhoods (are often invited to do so by blacks themselves), but choose not to do similar sweeps in white and affluent areas such as college campuses — although both are likely to have recreational drugs being used and sold.

Critical educator Chris Emdin, writing on his Instagram page, confronts a parallel paradox in education: “Black teachers with white supremacist ideologies [are] just as dangerous as white folks who don’t understand culture.” From Geoffrey Canada to Steve Perry to Joe Clark — many black educators have embraced the essentially racist “no excuses” ideologies that target black, brown, and poor children while perpetuating that the problems with educating these children lies in deficits of the children, and not any systemic forces. Education designed to correct, “fix,” fundamentally broken children (racial minorities, impoverished children) is inherently racist and classist.

Scholar Stacey Patton advocates against corporal punishment, specifically addressing how many blacks have internalized racist demands that the black body be punished, reaching back to U.S. slavery. As Patton explains:

Dr. Stacey Patton: People think that hitting a child is a form of teaching. We think it will protect them. And people grow up to invert the violence they experience as children as something that was good, particularly in African-American culture. As a people, we attribute our success to having had our bodies processed through violence and quite frankly what it does is confirm a long-standing racist narrative about Black bodies. The only way to control us, the only way to make us “good,” law-abiding, moral people is with a good whupping. It seems that we unconsciously agree with that narrative.

Alexander, Emdin, and Patton represent a much larger body of work that recognizes how often privilege recruits outliers of marginalized groups in order to distort those outliers as proof of false myths, specifically pointing to any successful black person as proof that the bootstrap myth is real, that we have achieved a meritocracy.

Popular culture is filled with examples — O.J. Simpson, Ben Carson, Clarence Thomas, Bill Cosby, just to name a few who have become spokespersons in the service of privilege, who, as Emdin notes, are “just as dangerous.”

So here is the very hardest and most uncomfortable part, forced by the nomination of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education, an ideologue billionaire hell-bent on perpetuating the choice myth that serves only people like her at the expense of marginalized people, especially children who should not have to wait for the Invisible Hand and who should be served immediately by leaders of the wealthiest country in human history.

Senator Tim Scott (R-SC) has eagerly supported DeVos within his own unwavering advocacy for choice, often invoking that poor and minority families and children deserve the same choices as white and wealthy families and children.

Scott has sold his political soul (much like Clarence Thomas) to an ugly and harmful bootstrap myth, as expressed on his biography page:

An unbridled optimist, Senator Scott believes that despite our current challenges, our nation’s brightest days are ahead of us. As a teenager, Tim had the fortune of meeting a strong, conservative mentor, John Moniz. Moniz helped instill in Tim the notion that you can think your way out of poverty, and that the golden opportunity is always right around the corner. The American Dream is alive and well, and Tim’s story is a concrete example of that.

Scott is an outlier, and his story of success is commendable — except it is an ugly thing to hang one’s success over the heads of others, demanding that their not reaching a similar success is simply due to not “think[ing] [their] way out of poverty.”

No, the American Dream is not alive and well:

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At the same levels of effort, women and racial minorities remain disadvantaged by systemic forces that work against them; these inequities are not the result of the ugly “laziness” myth about black, brown, and poor people that lies underneath the bootstrap myth, the rugged individual myth, the meritocracy myth.

The free market and all sorts of choice are crap shoots, and they are in no way mechanisms for equity, for justice.

Scott’s “notion that you can think your way out of poverty” is a slap in the face of adults and children who are already working and trying as hard as they can, and worst of all, this bootstrap mantra maintains the very systemic forces it refuses to recognize.

Billionaires from Trump to DeVos are spreading cultural lies, and they depend along the way on recruits into these narratives, recruits — as Alexander, Emdin, and Patton reveal — who may even look just like the people being cheated.

And so I will end by coming back to Baldwin, whose legacy is being renewed, and whose message still resonates as Rich Blint concludes:

As the latest entry of the brilliance of James Baldwin on film, I Am Not Your Negro (along with Baldwin’s scathing account of American film-making, The Devil Finds Work) lays bare the rhetorical and imagistic sleight of hand that enables the fiction and terror of race in American life to persist with such a renewed and deadly power. As he suggests, the extent to which we truly wrestle with our psychic need for the myth of the “nigger,” will determine the future of the country. It is still the only song left to sing.

Written by

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education Furman University, taught high school English before moving to teacher education. https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/

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