The Myth Of Hard Work And Education

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I received the following response to my recent op-ed published in the Dallas Morning News:

“She’d be better served if you put as much energy into teaching her that with hard work, and education – she can do anything she wants to do in life. Let her dream her dreams instead of burdening her with your hangups.”

Initially, I dismissed this comment, convinced there was no way this individual actually read the piece. But for several days the phrase “with hard work and education” stuck with me. Eventually, I chose to seize this opportunity and elaborate on my point about systemic racism.

The American Dream

Of course I understand the importance of hard work and education. I graduated from the United States Air Force Academy, went to medical school, trained at Harvard and Emory, and taught at one of the largest medical centers in the country.  I understand, as well as anyone, the value of hard work and education. It is an ethos I continuously work to instill in my daughter.

However,  I have a parental obligation to teach her based on the totality of my experience. An experience that mandates I give her the unfiltered truth. One that requires I arm her with the knowledge that for a person of color, hard work and education are not always enough.

If you accept, without question, that we live in a meritocracy, then you will not counter the assertion that hard work and education is all one needs to achieve their dreams. I wish it were true, but it is not.

It is a false narrative that marginalizes people of color who are navigating systemic barriers to success. We hear it in statements like “why don’t they work to improve their communities,” or “they should pull themselves up by their bootstraps and earn what they want.” These implicit messages of laziness disparage our morality, qualifications, and effort.

Money May Be Green, But Skin Is Still Black

Moreover, achieving success does not make one exempt from the effects of racism. Systemic racism is present within our institutions of education, housing, and employment. It is even present in my profession of medicine, notably in the exploitation of minorities for medical research as I discussed here.

Research from the Equal Opportunity Project shows that “sons of black families from the top 1 percent had about the same chance of being incarcerated on a given day as the sons of white families earning $36,000.” Regarding economic success, their research shows that the income gap also continues to grow.

The Land Of Opportunity

Our goal as a society must be to remove historical barriers of inequity so that everyone has the opportunity to achieve the pinnacle of success.

It is common to see the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spliced and quoted to simplify the nuances of racism. However, a significant portion of his civil rights platform focused intently on poverty and equity, including his leadership of The Poor People’s Campaign during the time of his death. In a January 1968 lecture at Ohio Northern University, he addressed the bootstraps adage saying:

“…it is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps. Through centuries of denial, centuries of neglect, and centuries of injustice many, many Negroes have been left bootless. This does not mean that we do nothing for ourselves. It does not mean that we should not amass our economic and political resources to reach our legitimate goals. It simply means recognizing, the nation recognizing, that it owes a great debt on the basis of the injustices of the past.”

Privilege and inequity are real concepts that have real effects on people’s lives. When speaking with teens, I use this four-minute video to illustrate how systemic barriers impact future success. There is a great message here for adults as well. Take a few minutes to watch it and tell me what you think.

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Brian H. Williams, MD