The bootstrap myth, also called the meritocracy myth, says that anyone can come to America with nothing and, with hard work and clean living, rise into the middle-class in one, two or three generations: “My grandfather came here with $25 in his pocket. If he can do it, anyone can. What is wrong with black people?”
As commonly conceived it is
- way too simple and
- mainly used in a racist, self-serving way
Many whites use it to support their idea that American society is fair, that racism is dead. And then, in almost the same breath, they use it to support their own racist ideas! You know, that Asians and Jews have more intelligence, that blacks are shiftless layabouts, and so on.
In my experience, which mainly concerns West Indian New York, plenty of people do come to America with nothing and lift themselves into the middle-class – yet plenty more do not. Despite all their hard work and clean living. Because the key seems not to be hard work and clean living but a university degree in a useful field.
West Indians succeed not because racism died but because American public schools suck. New York, with its factories mostly gone, needs a work force that its schools cannot produce on their own.
Meanwhile one of the main images of America that is burned into my brain are the million or more people in New York who live in poverty through no fault of their own. And, by some Amazing Coincidence, few are white.
So when white people start with the bootstrap stuff it sounds self-serving and delusional. The Asians they love to talk about are part of a brain drain. They came to America with a much better education than most whites have. They hardly pulled themselves up from the bottom depending on American institutions.
And these Asians and West Indians most certainly do face racism. They succeed in spite of it, not because it has magically disappeared somehow.
The bootstrapper trope almost always overlooks black success. Half of blacks are now middle-class (or were just before the Great Recession). Something you would never know from the trope. They talk about Jews and Asians – and even the Irish – as if millions of blacks have not done the very same thing. Which shows that the trope comes from a racist mindset, not from the latest studies.
- political rights
- whether immigration is voluntary or involuntary
- how much one’s culture has been destroyed
- knowledge of English
- parents’s class and education
- family support
- ethnic support and institutions
- internalized racism
- growth of the labour market
- racist hiring and promotion practices
- racist incarceration rates
- labour market
- housing market
- the press
- Homestead Act
- manifest destiny
- cheap black and Latino labour
- 347 years of slave labour