Bootstraps – Economic Mobility Mythology and Injustice

It was a snowy afternoon in the winter of 1989; as I walked down one of the corridors leading to the classrooms and library of the New York State Police (NYSP) Academy, I approached the corner near the academy’s library a group of white state police officers talking about the ills of affirmative action. Before they noticed me, the captain, the highest-ranking officer in the group, said. It is “f%*%-in’ ridiculous; we have to hire them.” He sees me and immediately utters; “Oh, but he’s one of the good ones.” “He pulled himself up by his bootstraps.” I was at a training session for the NYSP’s Elite Mobile Response Team (SWAT). I earned a spot, on the NYSP’s version of a SWAT team by passing grueling series of tests, many had failed. I was the first–and for many years–the only member of Color on this team.

As an Afro-Caribbean Taíno Indian, I had been navigating the complex world of the NYSP. The state police had been forced to hire “minority males” and females of any ethnicity. However, a federal order does not change the culture of an organization; that takes leadership from within the agency.

I heard and would hear the phrase “lifting oneself by your bootstrap” or some version of it; “You are a credit to your race,” many times. It always made me angry. It felt like condescending and begrudging praise of whatever I had achieved. I felt the full impact of its spirit-crushing blow. How did it become a phrase used to acknowledge those of us who were deliberately and systemically prevented from success but were successful? When I researched its meaning and found out about its origins, I became more incensed. The “rags to riches” story of individual’s success without aid from anyone; derived from the perverse mythology of Horatio Alger. The rugged individualist who started with nothing, without help from others, and ended up very successful did not ring true to me.

Consider how much we take for granted, the light I used as I wrote and you now use as you read this is possible because of electricity. Electricity created by generators fueled by coal, natural gas, oil, or water; we will never meet or thank the people who drilled, mined, or directed these fuels. Every successful person is helped by the people around them known and unknown. I am not saying individual effort is not essential, but it does mean we need to acknowledge the social capital someone has shared with us. We all need social capital to succeed. An obvious example of social capital is when your friend acts as a job reference for your child seeking a job. We are social creatures and need to create reciprocal relations built on trust. Some of us have more capital than others. I believe those of us who do should share with others who have less. Empowerment coupled with accountability is a gracious way of demonstrating courageous equity. An example of courageous equity was aired on CBS’s Sixty Minutes this past weekend. New York University’s School of Medicine announced on Thursday that it would cover tuition for all its current and future students. “This decision recognizes a moral imperative that must be addressed, as institutions place an increasing debt burden on young people who aspire to become physicians,” the dean of the school said.

Where else might we exercise courageous equity here in Charlotte and across this nation? Do we truly want America to live up to its glorious goals of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?” Charlotte has embarked on a great crusade to lift up our most under-resourced communities through its “Leading on Opportunity Report” and Office, as well as, the city’s effort to create more affordable housing and greater socio-economic mobility. We are headed in the right direction.

~ Pedro J. Perez – Executive Diector of Charlotte Family Housing