The bootstrap myth

Most of us are self-aware enough to know that whatever we managed to achieve in life, we did so with help from family, friends, teachers, other people, or the state. Even those who have overcome tremendous odds to get where they are, can usually point to the helping hands they received along the way. But there are those who seem to think that any achievement is largely because of one’s own efforts and such people tend to blame those who are having difficult lives on their moral failings, that they simply did not strive hard enough or lacked the innate qualities needed to succeed.

Michael Harriot writes that it seems to have become obligatory for Black Republicans to promote the myth that everybody can and should lift themselves up by their bootstraps, and that they have only themselves to blame for any failures.

Aside from racial gerrymandering, suppressing votes, underfunding schools, upholding a biased criminal justice system, denying a woman’s right to choose, preventing access to healthcare, undermining democracy, opposing reparations and thwarting every effort for equal rights, perhaps the most preposterous part of conservative mythology is the insidiously racist idea of “bootstraps”.

According to this wholly absurd construct, hard work – and hard work, alone – is a magical key that unlocks the promises of the American dream. And, if one accepts this premise, then the converse must also be true. Anyone who doesn’t achieve their dreams is simply not working hard enough.

Although “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” was originally intended to be an obviously sarcastic phrase suggesting an impossible accomplishment, the concept has become a key component of the Republican ideology, especially as it relates to racial inequality. Apparently, the infallible founding fathers and the heralded leaders of the past wasted 250 years constructing laws, traditions, practices and a constitution that provided an economic, political and social advantage to the white majority when all they had to do was put their noses to the grindstone. America’s white majority benefited from human trafficking, free labor, segregation, redlining and the whole of government-sanctioned racism. Yet, to fulfill the promise that America offers, all Black people ever needed is a strong back, a good idea and an unfailing work ethic.

He points to the examples of Herschel Walker (who is running for the US senate seat in Georgia), current senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, US Supreme Curt justice Clarence Thomas, and Ben Carson. All them never miss an opportunity to let others know that if only they could emulate their work ethic, they too could be successful, conveniently omitting key pieces of information.

I was struck by the fact that although I was very familiar with the “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” metaphor, it had never occurred to me until reading Harriot’s piece that it described something that is impossible to do and thus was intended to be used sarcastically, not as a genuine exhortation. It has for so long been assumed that it meant that one had to work hard and not depend upon others that the face meaning of the words was ignored. It is a great example of what George Orwell refers to in his essay Politics and the English Language about how people use phrases or metaphors without actually thinking about what they are saying or bringing up the image that the metaphor is supposed to convey.


  1. says

    I have recently been listening to the audiobook version of Slavery’s Capitalism which is a history of how US capitalism was built on slavery. One point that blew me away is that the depression of 1830 resulted from a bubble caused by the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” economics of Mississippi: you get a small piece of land and take out a loan with it as collateral then buy some slaves and use them as collateral for a mortgage on a bigger property. There was one guy who pulled those bootstraps so hard he went from slightly in debt to owning a 1700ac plantation with 200 slave workers in a month of rapid arbitrage. When the bubble deflated he lost everything except he fled out west with a few enslaved victims.

    American bootstrapping often depended on stolen humans.

  2. says

    When anybody tries to feed me that line, I usually ask them if Rudy was on cable last night.
    If pressed further, I start explaining scale-free networks, growth by preferential attachment, and power law distribution. That usually ends the conversation.

  3. brucegee1962 says

    One of Dickens’ shorter (and thus more readable) novels, Hard Times, deals with the bootstrap myth. I like to assign it in my British Lit classes because, of course, Dickens would today be considered a screaming liberal, so it’s a good way of sneaking some politics into a lit class.

    [Spoiler alert] A wealthy factory owner, Mr. Bounderby, is fond of telling everyone he meets how he is a “self-made man,” how he was born in a ditch, abandoned by his mother, beaten by his grandmother, ran away from home and apprenticed himself to a drunken vagabond, etc. etc. I like to explain to my class how, in previous generations, this sort of braggadocio had been the province of liars who tried to pretend they were upper class.
    Bounderby takes pains to explain the implications: since nobody helped him, he isn’t obliged to help anyone else, and furthermore, since everyone should be able to get to the top like he did through hard work, it follows that all the poor are lazy. Of course, by the end, it’s all exposed as a sham. His actual mother shows up and tells how she and her husband made sacrifices to send him to school. Dickens’ drives the point home that everybody who is a success had help along the way.

  4. Lassi Hippeläinen says

    I’ve always thought that the term comes from the tall stories of Baron von Münchhausen, and is therefore sarcastic. It is also used in computer engineering, where sarcastic humour is common (possibly because during midnight work hours quality of humour isn’t at its highest). Starting a computer is called booting it. The boot loader, the boot sector of the hard disk, etc.

  5. moarscienceplz says

    From Marcus Ranum #2:
    “American bootstrapping often depended on stolen humans.”
    True, but that is not the limit of whitey mendacity. Often, if outright slavery was not available, we whites would promise anything to “lesser beings” and then pull the rug out from under their feet. A perfect case is the Chinese and other Asian immigrants to the California gold rush. Middle class (not poor, because the poor could never pay the passage fees) Chinese and other Asians sailed to California to try to get their piece of the ‘Gold Mountain’, only to have the white majority pass onerous taxes on “non-American citizens”. So, mostly shut out of the gold fields, they looked for other ways to make money. The California Pacific Railroad needed a lot of labor because the whites they wanted to employ rightly determined that it was way too much work and way too much danger for the wages they offered, but the Chinese were desperate. They took the jobs and the risk, and they built the most difficult part of the transcontinental railroad, dying by the hundreds in the process, and their white employers couldn’t be bothered with even recording the names of those who died in their employ, let alone try to notify their families of the deaths of their loved ones.
    THEN, after all the hardship and death, the railroad was completed. Most of the Chinese were laid off, and then to add insult to injury, white Californians passed a series of Chinese exclusion acts to expel the Asians from America! “You worked hard, and many of you died to build the sinews of a continent-spanning America, now here’s a boot to your backside, you yellow peril!”
    In some ways, I feel that is even crueller than slavery.

  6. friedfish2718 says

    The audience and bloggers at FreeThoughtBlog are primarily non-Black.
    On the whole, non-Black cultures are different from Black cultures.
    Some cultures promote bootstrapping more than other cultures.
    Some Black cultures promote bootstrapping more than other Black cultures.
    It is not a racial issue. Look at Barbados (in the caribbean). During colonial times, black students outperform white students. After Independence, black students still outperform white students.
    It is a pity that the African-American group (in contrast with recent African immigrants and Caribbean immigrants) took the wrong turn in the early 1920’s when African American intellectuals overall went from the thinking of Booker T Washington (first director of the Tuskegee Institute) to that of W.E. Dubois (co-founder of NAACP).

    Booker T Washington called for black progress through education and entrepreneurship.

    W.E. Dubois called for aggressive pursuit of political power, denigration of capitalism, promotion of socialism, continual racial conflict.
    Pursuing political power over economic power is akin to spitting into the wind; such distortion of priorities results in either authoritarianism at best or totalitarianism at worst.
    There are other immigrant societies in the USA and have as first priority to attain economic power first. The average income of
    Nigerian American : $61,000
    Ghanaian American : $57,000
    Jamaican American : $50,000
    Haitian American : $42,000 (Haiti is the poorest country of the americas and yet the average immigrant to the US outperform the african-american).
    The average income of the African American : $39,000.
    It is sad to see Mr Singham suffering from the bigotry of low-expectation when it comes to african-americans.

  7. John Morales says


    It is sad to see Mr Singham suffering from the bigotry of low-expectation when it comes to african-americans.

    Nah. As usual, you utterly misapprehend and/or misrepresent the situation.

    The actual claim: “Michael Harriot writes that it seems to have become obligatory for Black Republicans to promote the myth that everybody can and should lift themselves up by their bootstraps, and that they have only themselves to blame for any failures.”

    (What I see in your comments is the actual bigotry of low-expectation when it comes to FTB bloggers)

  8. Mano Singham says

    friedfish2718 @#9,

    In my post from a week ago, I link to an article I published where I I discuss in detail the work of anthropologists who say that there is a world of difference between the experiences of what are referred as ‘voluntary minorities’ (i.e., those who came to the US of their own volition) and ‘involuntary minorities’ (those who had no choice like African-Americans brought by slave traders and Native Americans and Mexican Americans who were conquered), and comparing those two, like you have done, is meaningless. I go into this question in even greater detail in my book The Achievement Gap in US Education..

  9. Mano Singham says

    brucegee1962 @#4,

    Hard Times is a Dickens novel I have not read. Thanks to your recommendation I will read it.

    Do not worry about having revealed spoilers. Novels such as those are not ruined by knowing how they end.

  10. rockwhisperer says

    White USian here, age 62, grew up in a West Coast city with a large African-American population beginning in WWII. During that war, a large workforce, mostly African-American, mostly unskilled, was enticed from the US South to make war widgets. When the war ended, the widget factories closed, and a whole lot of people were left high and dry, without job skills that translated well into the non-military-contract world, in a very racist society. My very White, Midwestern-raised father, a conservative for the time (which would make him a liberal now) had watched the city struggle with the situation, deal with it badly, and for evermore hated the military contractor that he felt tricked all those workers and cheated them. (Dad was an Army soldier deployed in the Pacific Theater during the war.)

    And so it was that a very White, conservative (for the time) parent introduced me to the idea that a racist society could happily turn a blind eye toward some amazing White behavior, and that the result, handled badly, would not only screw over the most vulnerable, but leave a city divided by race in the wake of abandonment by folks whose portfolios were enhanced by the whole scheme.

    You can only pull yourself up by your own bootstraps if someone else is also simultaneously lifting your rear end.

  11. lanir says

    I did about the closest thing you can actually accomplish to what the republicans are talking about. But I was helped by other people along the way, although I also had my turn helping most of them. It’s nothing anyone would really want to do though.

    On more than one occasion it involved living with up to 4 other adults at once in a trailer. I had one near success but it involved a connection from highschool. That job fell through when my connection (the owner) got greedy and slashed my pay & hours so much I was slowly losing money working there. Eventually I got lucky and landed a job -- only took me 5 months and 3 interviews with the same place before they stopped hiring other people who didn’t work out for them and finally hired me. Between the time spent doing other things enough to realize I was stuck in nothing but dead-end jobs, the time learning about Linux/computers (about a year), the time spent trying to catch a break (I’ll get back to this part), quite a lot of time passed. I don’t think I’ll ever really retire at this rate.

    The time spent trying to catch a break was rough. It took a good chunk of years and I don’t have much to show for all that time. Suffice it to say that unless you do have some contacts you don’t even always know where to go to find the opportunities. And when you do find one you’re going for an entry level job so there’s going to be a lot of competition. Everyone wants to start a good career and a lot of people have better connections than you. For almost every job I’ve ever seen or interviewed for, hard work and the best skills were not what was going to get you hired. I think I’ve only seen one or two exceptions.

    Nothing about any of that scales well. So suggesting some large segment of the population do this would be equivalent to suggesting they all climb to the peak of Mt Everest. Unless your wishful thinking is going to let you fart rainbows and fly up there, there just aren’t enough sherpas to make that work.

  12. friedfish2718 says

    Mano Singham@11
    The experience of people who came to the USA INVOLUNTARILY (as slaves of course) happened more than 150 years ago. There are no living slaves as of 2022 AD. Jim Crow (legacy of the Democrat Party) is done for since the 1960’s (that is more than 50 years ago).
    But it is in the interest of academics (like the anthropologists you mentioned) to keep the african-american people on the plantation, keep the african-american people in the slave mindset.
    Booker T. Washington, 1911:
    “There is a class of colored people who make a business of keeping the troubles, the wrongs, and the hardships of the Negro race before the public. Having learned that they are able to make a living out of their troubles, they have grown into the settled habit of advertising their wrongs-partly because they want sympathy and partly because it pays. Some of these people do not want the Negro to lose his grievances, because they do not want to lose their jobs.”
    Nothing has changed since 1911. Non-Black political and academic hacks want to ride this racial grievance gravy train. Proponents for “slave reparations” will be amongst us till the end of time.
    Guess what. Caribbean immigrants are also descendants of slaves. Why said caribbean immigrants are not stuck in the “plantation” mindset? The skin of caribbean immigrants is just as dark as that of african-americans. The caribbean immigrant may be seen at a disadvantage because of language issues (for the haitian immigrant, for example) and such. Given the “foreign-ness” of the immigrants, the White (read: XENOPHOBIA!!!) Establishment should oppress/repress said immigrants. But that is not the case generally for either African or Caribbean immigrant.
    The past experience of african-americans is different from caribbean immigrants. The key word is : PAST. We are in the -- drum roll please -- PRESENT. PAST != PRESENT. The past experience of the haitian slave was much more brutal than that of the american slave. At least the haitian immigrant gets over its ancestors’ past experience.
    Let us look at the Japanese-Americans. Most of them were interned during WW2; many lost their homes and lands for good. Even before WW2 there were anti-asian laws applied against Chinese and Japanese. And yet Japanese outdo -- as a whole -- European-Americans in the USA. Yes, some reparations are paid to the internment survivors; the japanese community rebuilt itself without the reparations for the rebuilding was done before reparations were paid. By the way, the japanese-american were interned INVOLUNTARILY.
    Mr Singham, many books are written which are not worth the paper they are written on. To have an objective insight into the Black-White academic achievement gap, I recommend Thomas Sowell’s 1972 book: “Black Education: Myths and Tragedies”.

  13. Just an Organic Regular Expression says

    And don’t forget luck! Exhibit A, myself. First, having the luck to be born white, male and cis, thus automatically eligible for membership in the ruling classes. And born healthy to caring healthy parents. All of these factors were powerful influencers over which I had no control; and any could have gone another way. But I also had major strokes of luck at crucial times of life, for example when, bored with my job, I applied for a position for which I was really unqualified, just when that employer had started a major expansion and was willing to hire and train me. A year before or after, I’d have missed the chance to begin what became a long successful career. I can name other occasions when accidents of timing had life-changing effects, good and bad.

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