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.
For Black Republicans, accepting this sliver of ahistorical fiction is the first step to ascending to a position of power and prominence in the Grand Old Party. Counterbalancing the accusations of racism lobbed at the Republican party is the main job of Black conservatives. To do this, they are required to fabricate a life story that serves as a parable and proof of the bootstrapping thesis.
Even before Herschel Walker decided to vie for the Georgia Senate seat occupied by Senator Raphael Warnock, the NFL running-back-turned-bootstrap-evangelist made a habit of explaining how his work ethic and a don’t-quit mentality led to accomplishments as a student, multimillionaire and a business mogul. There was only one problem with Walker’s backstory:
It doesn’t seem to be true.
According to investigations by the Associated Press, Georgia Public Broadcasting and the Atlanta Constitution-Journal, there is no evidence that supports Walker’s claims to own the largest minority-owned food business in America, his supposed net worth of $65m, or his proprietary mist that can “kill any Covid in your body”. It is possible that Walker isn’t a liar; maybe he simply meant to inspire others with the story about how he worked his way out of poverty to graduate in the top 1% of his class at the University of Georgia … Except he didn’t graduate from college.
Although he was hailed as the only hope of regaining the invaluable Senate seat, Walker’s Republican challengers are now convinced that his fabricated backstory, and domestic violence allegations by his ex-wife, have become a risk to the party, according to a report by Politico . Now that Walker’s con has been exposed, he is of no use to his Republican colleagues. The fairytale life that was once his biggest attribute of him has become “baggage”.
The South Carolina senator Tim Scott is taking note. For years, he has repeatedly extolled the values of hard work as part of his origin story. He often recounts the tale of his poor, illiterate grandfather who – Scott conveniently forgets to mention – owned 900 acres in South Carolina. While Scott once told me during an interview that he “struggles to come up with a concise definition of what systemic racism looks like”, he confidently told the world that “America is not a racist country”. And, according to Axios, Scott is now preparing to give a speech that warns against “teaching kids that they are oppressors.” How convenient. I’m sure it has nothing to do with the fact that Scott’s name has been bandied about as a presidential candidate.
Perhaps America’s highest-ranking Black Republican is Clarence Thomas. During his rise to the supreme court, Thomas loved to tell the tale of how his sister was content to survive on government assistance while he embraced the all-American ethos of hard work. “She gets mad when the mailman is late with her welfare check,” Thomas told a group of Black conservatives in 1980. “What’s worse is that now her kids feel entitled to the check too. They have no motivation for doing better or getting out of that situation.” It turns out, it was all a lie. But of course, it served its purpose. As a supreme court justice, Thomas’s life has turned into a liability that may cost his party a supreme court seat.
“What has happened too often is that people who seem to mean well have promoted things that do not encourage development of any innate talent in people,” explained another Black bootstrapper, Ben Carson. Hence we have generation after generation living in dependent situations. It’s not that they’re bad people, it’s that this is what they’ve been given, and it’s all they know in some cases.” As secretary of the housing and urban development department, Carson, a former presidential candidate, pledged to reverse policies that “created a culture of dependency in urban communities”. Carson didn’t mention that those same policies provided shelter, food and even the ability to see clearly during his quest to become one of the most celebrated neurosurgeons in American history. But alas, he has been discarded, too.
Unlike their white counterparts, Black Republicans are required to promote the idea that – instead of discrimination, systemic inequality and history – Black people are victims of their own laziness. Kelly Loeffler, who held the Georgia Senate seat before Walker’s opponent, came from a family that benefited from government assistance. However, Loeffler didn’t bear the burden of representing the shiftlessness of white “culture”. Ben Carson didn’t point out that the man who appointed him could serve as the poster boy for white privilege, if Trump could manage to wrestle the title from the man who appointed Thomas to the supreme court, George HW Bush.
But that’s not what makes this a racist idea.
By preaching the tenets of the bootstrap gospel, Black Republicans are essentially saying that 83% of Black voters, 63% of Hispanic voters and 72% of Asian American voters are wrong. The fact that every non-white demographic in America has rejected this narrative cannot unseat this fraudulent conservative conception. They might not know much about history, business, systemic racism or inequality in their own country but, apparently, white people know what’s best for everyone else.
The willingness to toss aside the people who labored for the conservative movement actually disproves the logic of bootstrap mythology. Ultimately, when the premise of the false narrative is exposed as a fantasy, they have no use for the Black people whose lives once supported the idea that the gears to equality are lubricated with elbow grease.
It turns out, it was snake oil all along.