Problems With The “Bootstrap” Expression

Consider the phrase “Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps!” Although the phrase used to have a different meaning, it’s now implied that we are effectively in charge of our own destiny, that our efforts should be made without external help. Often heard in political discourse, the phrase seems to have merit on a surface level. We often think of our goals and our resolution to achieve these goals as interwoven: our efforts to achieve a goal will invariably lead us to success or failure. This seems to be consistent with how many people are taught, “The harder I work, the better off I will be.” This might actually be the case for a number of people. But, there is an obvious problem with this expression. It certainly cannot apply to everyone, and if we do apply it to everyone, we are inherently ignoring other factors that attribute to one’s successes or failures.

*****Side note: when referring to success, I’m only talking about financial success, such as income, assets and overall net worth*****

In order to understand why this common expression is fallacious, you have to look at an individual’s childhood (starting point in life), the laws and regulations that target specific groups, the societal pressures/expectations that certain people face and many other factors. I will briefly touch upon a few of these factors just to demonstrate that there are inherent differences amongst individuals, cultures and groups in society, and why the expression in question cannot and should not apply to everyone. My points are centred around the history and lives of black people in America. One of the reasons I do this is to show how there are deterrents throughout life, rather than just a single or few barriers (which people in the majority may have), for a single minority group, i.e. black Americans.

Initial Position in Life

By examining the starting points of different individuals, life paints stark differences. For instance, people have different levels of resources, assets, security and income. From birth, a large percentage of white Canadians and Americans have access to/possess luxuries and amenities that ensure their health and safety. Many people, in particular black Americans and black Canadians, have not been afforded such privileges–or, at least not to the extent that white people have been afforded. These amenities can vary from things like adequate drinking water, sufficient healthcare and education. A major recurring theme in the disparity amongst ethnic groups is where they live. Where you live plays an enormous role dictating the services that are provided and the value of your assets. Make no mistake, where you live is not simply “your decision.” It is a cycle. A great article by the Center for American Progress dives into the history of segregated housing in the United States. The article outlines the discriminatory practises that forced black people into federal housing programs that “lumped African Americans into highly segregated ghettos.” Stemming from the separation of blacks and whites came the use of redlining to finance suburban (white) neighbourhoods while undermining the federal housing programs. The government also chose to finance suburban homes, yet they almost exclusively approved loans to white applicants (around 98% of the loans) (Fulwood III, 2016). All of these discriminatory housing practises set up middle-class America to be financially better off than black Americans and other minorities. While white individuals held property that increased in value, many minority groups held housing that remained virtually worthless. Now, what comes from having low property value in the United States? Issues of business retention, poor education and poor healthcare. Services and resources in poorer areas are completely underfunded because of the value of the area and the continuous issues with state funding. I highly recommend watching Kandice Sumner give a TED Talk on the educational system in America and her personal account as an educator. I could go on about the inequality of initial starting points, but those were just a few key differences.

Laws and Regulations

I’ve already touched upon some of the laws and regulations within America–and, although I did not provide examples of it, covertly in Canada–that perpetuate inequality and institutional racism, but I did so to shed light on the history of financial inequality. I will continue with another example to show why laws and regulations also constrain black Americans and other minorities from “pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.” There are a number of laws and regulations in American history, and still to this day, that disproportionality target black Americans. Most laws that are biased are masked behind rhetoric that may constitutionally apply to everyone, but in reality heavily discriminate against black Americans, an example is the New Deal’s Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (FLSA). This act was used to help increase wages and working conditions across America; however, it exempted particular occupations within domestic, service and agriculture industries, which were primarily held by black Americans (these jobs were also forced onto black Americans through Jim Crow laws, “Black codes”) (Solomon & Maxwell, 2019). Effectively, black Americans were forced into particular jobs that were neglected from benefitting from the same kinds of government support as middle-class white Americans. Many black Americans are still in these jobs to this day with low wages and minimal benefits. Other laws that discriminate against black Americans include, and are not limited to, Nixon’s/Reagan’s “War on Drugs” campaign (Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970), zero-tolerance policing, “Stop and Frisk” and predictive policing. These laws and regulations were/are designed to target and incarcerate black Americans. While these kinds of laws and regulations don’t directly relate to a wage disparity or financial inequality in the way that the FLSA does, they are “the mortar to the brick.” These laws box black Americans in societal and geographical patterns that limit their ability to achieve “success” in the same way and to the same extent that white people can. I highly recommend watching a documentary–yes, it’s on Netflix–called the 13th. The documentary takes a look at racial inequality in America, focusing primarily on the penitentiary system.

Societal Pressures and Expectations

Societal pressures and expectations are often overlooked as a factor to determine one’s success. Part of the problem with being in a position of power, as a white person, is that we don’t experience the same societal pressures and expectations, and from this, we cannot begin to understand what it means to be a black person in America or Canada. I cannot speak on behalf of the feelings or the experiences of being a black person in America or Canada since I am white. I think it is important to note that even as an objective viewer I can still see pressures put on black men and women in this society, and if I can see these pressures objectively, then the societal pressures on black people personally and collectively must be even more (when I say “see,” I’m referring to information that I’ve absorbed through researching, witnessing and learning from personal accounts). Some of the pressures I see are ongoing police brutality, white fear that is inherently directed at black people due to racial profiling and stereotyping, and black “roles” (expectations on how to behave, norms they should follow, etc.) in public spaces. Michael Moore’s documentary Bowling for Columbine dives into America’s gun problem and the high homicide rates. Part of the documentary touches upon this white fear that is so often perpetuated in American news and, by and large, associated with black Americans.


While the phrase might seem tempting to support at first glance, it has some serious underlying implications that one cannot overlook. Using such a phrase only increases racial disparities and chooses to ignore societal and institutional issues: it victim blames. These points highlight some of the factors that have contributed to inequality and racism in America.


This post is in no way a comprehensive look at the racial inequalities that black people and other minorities face. This post is supposed to demonstrate why a phrase like “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” is fallacious and inappropriate. This post focused on black Americans and did not include information on other minorities, but this does not mean that other minorities should be overlooked or ignored when considering the factors that lead to a person’s “success.” All of the points taken have been boiled down into short statements, and to really understand the extent of what these mean, one has to read and educate themselves on individual points. Furthermore, I am in no way an expert on any of the above topics, and as such, it would be irresponsible of me to suggest–without question–that everything that has been brought forth as wholly accurate. I implore others to share their thoughts, add details, correct any information and please continue to learn.


Fulwood III, Sam. “The United States’ History of Segregated Housing Continues to Limit Affordable Housing.” Center for American Progress, December 15, 2016. https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/race/reports/2016/12/15/294374/the-united-states-history-of-segregated-housing-continues-to-limit-affordable-housing/.

Solomon, Danyelle, and Connor Maxwell. “Systematic Inequality and Economic Opportunity.” Center for American Progress, August 7, 2019. https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/race/reports/2019/08/07/472910/systematic-inequality-economic-opportunity/.

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