We’ve always used successful individuals as a barometer of possibility for everyone. “If I made it, then so can you.”
This the siren call of almost every motivational speaker. And it makes perfect sense. It’s encouraging to see someone that’s like you from similar circumstances achieve greatness.
As a guy that grew up in not so privileged neighborhood, I’m often used as an example of what hard work can achieve. But sometimes people use success stories as an excuse to not care about others. The fact is, when the system is failing people, one or two outliers are often used as an excuse to deflect social responsibility.
“If Oprah made it, why don’t people in the ghetto just get it together?”
To people that say things like this, I ask you one question, “Bill Gates was just a middle-class white kid, why aren’t you a billionaire?” Do you see how absurd that sounds?
I think it’s important we remember that while success stories can be motivational, they’re not a representation of overall opportunity. I’d like to publicly declare that no matter how my success is viewed, “Do not use me as an excuse.” Do not pretend that because I’ve achieved something, other people are just lazy. Do not use my identity as a weapon against my peers. Do not use the things I’ve achieved as a weapon against people who look like me. And please, for the love of God, do not use the work I’ve done as a shield for your apathy.
“Obama is president. There’s no more racism."
Systemic disenfranchisement is broader than work ethic. And social mobility is impacted by much more than 'pulling yourself up by the bootstraps.' In fact, social mobility is greatly impacted by the means of one's parents, as seen in reports by David Grusky and Pablo Mitnik from the Center on Poverty and Inequality.
High-income families tend to retain a much larger amount of wealth from generation to generation--obviously. Furthermore, men often retain a lot more of their parents' earnings than women do across the board, though women from upper-class families face less of an income dip due to the types of men they tend to marry.
Wealth is rarely about an individual's drive. More often than not, it's about the structure of our society. And in America, upward mobility is a lot more complicated than it’s made out to be in typical heroes tales of underdogs striking it rich.
No matter how many times we have to wipe tears away while watching them.
Beyond wealth disparities, there are also racial and environmental barriers. Put bluntly, black and brown people are facing an uphill battle. The inmate population in America is 37.8% black, despite black people being only 13% of the overall population. The majority of those crimes, nearly 50% of all prisoner offenses, are drug offenses.
The kicker? Incarceration rates are drastically incongruent to the racial breakdown of actual drug users. Spoiler alert: White people actually use drugs at a greater rate than other racial groups. When you add in how those felonies make it harder to get jobs and the mounting legal fees that make it near impossible to stay out of the system, you have a feedback loop that impacts communities of color at a higher rate than the rest of America.
“I had a woman boss once, so what are women complaining about?"
Add in discrimination based on gender and sexuality into the mix, and you’ve got a full nelson of systemic oppression. Do you know the number of Fortune 500 CEOs that are women? Twenty-one. Even though women are more than half the population, they’re only 4.2% of the CEOs at these high ranked companies.
This can’t simply be a reflection of how there are no qualified women to run these organizations. Certainly out of 157 million American women, we can find more than 21 qualified to be CEOs. Just for fun, only 9 of those 21 are Hispanic and just 5 are Black.
That's despite the fact that studies have shown women are not only effective leaders, but businesses with more women on their board outperform their competition. The inconsistency here can't be explained away by a lack of “hard work” and “perseverance”.
"My dad grew up on a farm, and now he's a business owner. What's your excuse?"
What we are experiencing is an example of systemic failure (or success if you’re a conspiracy theorist). But what's truly important is the understanding that systems are important. Communities, intergenerational wealth, and social mobility are major factors in success. This isn’t to say that financial and personal achievement aren't possible, but a few of us overcoming hardships is not an indictment of others that haven’t.
The successful aren’t always the harder working. Sometimes they’re products of a system that functions in their favor. So it's certainly time we stop using outliers as weapons against the disenfranchised and begin to look for ways to make those outliers more common. One of my favorite quotes of all time goes like this:
"When one fish dies, you question the fish. When all the fish die, you question the water."
I think it's time to start checking the water.