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I'm continuing the examination of Jona Olsson's essay titled "Detour-Spotting," designed to examine the various ways our potential discussion of race and racism in America is constantly getting derailed.

The interesting thing about examining racism through this essay is how even the best intentions of people (especially white people, like Ms. Olsson) who truly want to help end racism can be blocked by the various elements on this list. The discussion changes and once that happens, nothing happens. That's why this is called "Detour-Spotting." We are looking at the ways we detour away from the topic of race in America, preventing the discussion and stopping any progress.

Today's detour was too long to fit into my title.

2) The Rugged Individual, the Level Playing Field and the Bootstrap Theory

“America is the land of opportunity, built by rugged individuals, where anyone with grit can succeed if they just pull up hard enough on their bootstraps.”

Reality Check and Consequence

These are three of the crown jewels of U. S. social propaganda. They have allowed generation after generation to say, “If you succeed, you did that, but if you fail, or if you’re poor, that’s your fault.” Belief in this propaganda is founded in a total denial of the impact of either oppression or privilege on any person’s chance for success.

Attacks on programs like affirmative action find rationalization in the belief that the playing field is now level, that is, that every individual, regardless of color (or gender or disability, etc.) has the same access to the rights, benefits and responsibilities of the society. The rationalization continues: since slavery is ended and people of color have civil rights, the playing field has now been leveled. It follows then, that there is no reason for a person of color to “fail” (whether manifested in low SAT scores or small numbers in management positions) EXCEPT individual character flaws or cultural inadequacies. This form of denial asserts that such “failures” could have no roots in racism and internalized racism.

The consequences include “justified” victim blaming, and denial of the daily impact of generations of institutionalized racism and white privilege.


This is a harsh one but a really common attitude from many white Americans, and you could see a lot of this from the Republican side of the aisle.

Yes, laws have changed. We no longer have Jim Crow. That ended in 1964. But we still have racism. And despite the fact that laws help, people's attitudes, assumptions and stances on people who are not like them continue to perpetuate the same kinds of reactions and responses.

Clearly, this is a method of ignoring the problems we need to be talking about, openly and honestly. Real estate agents will still be able to see the people who want to buy that property. Bankers can still note who is asking for a business loan.

What is really difficult to deal with is the fact that in the poorest parts of our country (not necessarily all that poor because many of them are couched within some of our most successful cities) no help has been offered to improve neighborhoods, infrastructure, or to provide people with support. Flint, Michigan is a great example of this. We haven't really heard any news about Flint in recent weeks. Yes, there have been a series of shootings and terrorist acts to divert our attention, but the truth is, nothing has changed there. People are still drinking from and bathing in bottled water. And there simply isn't enough bottled water available to do the job.

The fact that Flint legislators actively chose to send water from the Flint River, a body of water so polluted, even General Motors could find no use for it in the manufacture of its vehicles, into the sinks and bathtubs of people’s homes is beyond criminal. Children were poisoned, brain damaged, and there is no reversing that.

But the truth is, nothing has really changed there. People are still dealing with this continuing problem of not using indoor plumbing for anything but the toilet. How is THAT acceptable for this country?

In the United States, who you are matters a lot as far as what happens to you.

There are assumptions that are made, based on all of the various cues, and a decision to either help or ignore is made. We saw it during Hurricane Katrina. We saw it from the actions of key members of Congress against the President of the United States. But perhaps more tragically, we see it in every ghetto in every city in every state, every day.

The real difference between humans isn’t in the physical elements, the melanin content, the nose shape or the lip shape or the body type. The real difference between humans comes through the experiences we have had. This is what makes racism so horrific and tragic and makes the bad things we constantly talk about occur. Remove the experience of racism from everyone’s lives and suddenly, we have that level playing field. Schools are not prisons with teachers that are simply babysitting. People can get good paying jobs and earn a living. Poverty can start to erode. Crime, especially violent crime, can start to diminish.

But that requires the desire to actually make that happen, which, if we’re being honest, isn’t a very strong want from the people in charge.

I don’t want to get too far afield from the topic of this segment. There will be other times we can double back to some of these issues.

The point being made on this detour is that by doing the hard work, people can succeed, no matter who they are. And that’s the fallacy. Some people can succeed, and, as I pointed out in my essay about racism being an addiction, many black people who do become successful have done so because they received support from the system. They had a powerful white advocate that helped at a good moment or they had a lighter skin tone that wasn’t as offensive, or they had a charming personality or some other attractive element that made them “less threatening” to white folks who might have blocked their path.

I know that sounds like a hollow accusation. I know that sounds like blaming a non-existent entity for an individual's troubles. And I know that those thoughts are why any criticism of this "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" concept are usually rejected out of hand by many white people. They aren't aware of racism, what impact it has and how it upends many people who have every desire to do the work but can't because that option is not available.

Conversely, if you look at the easy path to success of many white folks in the nation, it's simply a matter of inheritance - getting money from their wealthy parents who got it from their parents and so on, all the way back to the slave trade days. A person like Donald Trump would not be on the world stage if he didn't have a father who gave him his start. That's privilege. Very few black people have that kind of experience. So, in the case of any black person's success, it really needs to be examined in a different way.

The problem with looking at any “success story” in the case of black Americans is that those are things that can never be recreated. There is no "system" of success. You can’t follow Oprah’s path to brilliance. You won’t be able to duplicate Will Smith’s career. And really, that’s the biggest issue. Finding a way into success when so many doors are closed or worse, locked, would be challenging for anyone. But what if you live in an unsafe neighborhood? What if you don’t get enough to eat on a daily basis? What if you are constantly dealing with police harassment or being offered drugs or alcohol? It's these extra "challenges" that create an unfair circumstance for many black citizens of this country and create the underclass that the well-to-do are so ready to mock, ridicule or perhaps worst of all, ignore.

Yes, some will still succeed. There are always exceptions to the rule that escape their life circumstances, just as surely as there are people who win huge jackpots at a Las Vegas Casino. But that opportunity is not available to all. And when it comes to racism, it’s about ALL. It’s about making things fair for everyone to have a good life, not just a random handful.

If that concept doesn’t make sense to you, that’s okay. We’re just getting started.

Previous thinkposts in this series:
1. Day One - "I'm Colorblind"

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