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A(nother) Word on Bootstraps

On the day the Senate Judiciary Committee considers her nomination:

I didn’t watch much of the Sotomayor hearings. I found them boring, and frankly, in some weird way they reminded me of my oral exams. And who wants recall that trauma on a weekday afternoon–especially when one is supposed to be writing a dissertation and not watching C-SPAN? Anyway, I caught part of Senator Jon Kyl’s discussion with Sotomayor. I believe this was the first round of questioning on July 14. At some point Kyl, as expected, turns to Sotomayor’s speeches and her “wise Latina” remark. He’s concerned because he thinks judging has (always been) and should (continue to) be neutral, and that Sotomayor might use her sassy Latina-ness to make decisions. Sotomayor says something to the effect of “I didn’t really mean it that way. I was just trying to encourage people who aren’t white, straight, male, privileged, etc.” Of course, I paraphrase. But Kyl likes her response. So he says:

And if I could just interrupt you right now [but, of course]: to me that’s the key. It’s good because it shows these young people that you’re talking to that with a little hard work, it doesn’t matter where you came from, you can make it. And that’s why you hope to see them on the bench. I totally appreciate that.

I don’t know about you–and by you I mean the one person who might read this–I cringe any time I hear a white dude talking to a person of color about working hard and making it. I’ve written about Sotomayor and bootstraps before, but I just need to reiterate. Kyl’s assertion that the recipe for success in this country is “a little hard work” plays right into this Ben Franklin, et. el.-inspired notion that that’s how people get ahead in life. How American. But that kind of thinking obscures biases and institutional barriers that folks, who probably don’t look anything like Jon Kyl, have to contend with every day. It assumes, for instance, that a little hard work can override an educational system in shambles, garner one a decent SAT score, and admission into college. It assumes that poor circumstances are the result of poor effort. It supposes that a little hard work can outdo racism or sexism or any other -ism that reinforces white supremacy. Believing this kind of stuff doesn’t leave one time to critically examine the cohort of folks sitting in front of Sotomayor asking her questions. It sounds nice, but it evades what’s really going on.

But I get it. This is something we all really want to believe. We want to think that we determine our success–or failure. We want to feel that if we just buckle down and grind it out, good things will come. That’s comforting. It’s nice to think that we got the job, into grad school, the promotion, or have money because of our deeds; that we deserve it. We want to identify with Sotomayor’s story, because it makes us forget and not have to contend with the folks before her who didn’t make it, and the folks after who won’t. Those whose hard work never really seem to be enough. We don’t want the disconcerting thought(s) that even if we follow the(ir) rules, and play the game with diligence that success can be elusive to some and an arbitrary stroke of luck to others. Thinking like that can be a real bummer. But what’s the alternative? Believing George Bush worked his way into the White House?

And what drooling over Sotomayor’s bootstraps and Obama’s Horatio Alger remixes speeches about folks working hard, going to college, getting jobs, owning homes gets us is a pleasant case of amnesia. No one wants to remember that in capitalism, someone always has to lose, and when you couple that with a system dedicated to disenfranchising people of color, most of the losers will have melanin. That’s the part that they want you to forget: that it’s a competition, and that not everyone can make it, not even with a little hard work.

The other day, I read an article about Obama’s highly touted campaign speech on race. Adam Mansbach writes, “The essence of white privilege is not knowing you have it; white people in America are bicyclists riding with the wind at their backs, never realizing that they owe part of their speed ­­– whatever speed that is – to forces beyond their control. By no means does this guarantee success. But few whites are conditioned to contemplate how much worse off they might be if they had to grapple with factors like police profiling and housing discrimination, in addition to the other travails of being [a white] American[.]” Jon Kyl appreciates the rhetoric of hard work because it provides him with the energy to just keep peddling without having to stop and think about the wind helping him along, or how that same wind challenges the efforts of other bikers–you know, the ones who have bikes. He keeps taking that blue pill–because he can afford health care.

I think I just needed to say all of this aloud, to remind myself (and maybe others), because getting excited about seeing the “first [insert a non-white, male, and privileged identity here] person to [something a bunch of white guys have done before] may lull us into forgetting to keep our eyes on the ball. (Remember November?) It’s really easy call to Sotomayor an exception to the rule without thinking about how she symbolically reinforces them. And sometimes it’s really difficult to discern whether or not the tellers believe their story.

Or maybe I overdosed on red pills.

That is all.


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