Monday, December 3, 2007

The Myth Of Hard Work

There is a common myth that runs through America, propagated by the wealthy for mass consumption. This myth has been one of the most dangerous and divisive instruments used against the American working class of all races. This myth has been a part of Americana from the beginning and continues today unabated for the most part and constantly being reinforced by the media, corporate America, and the talking heads. The myth is simply this: that if an individual will work hard, follow the rules, and be patient that they can be successful. The biggest determinate to a person’s rise in this society is hard work and personal responsibility.

On the surface this myth seems plausible and almost logical. The harder one works the more successful one will become. It is simple cause and effect, right? It is precisely this logic that allows the constant criticism of our poorest citizens as being lazy, irresponsible, and foolish to go unchallenged. If asked, the majority of Americans of all races will state unequivocally that most people are poor because of a lack of personal responsibility and hard work. The truth is that in accumulating wealth hard work plays a very small role. The wealth and income gaps between Americans is not based on the fact that one group worked harder than another. If that were in fact the case in American history no group has worked harder than the slaves that built this country, the Chinese that built the railroad, or the Mexicans that continue to do the menial labor that drives our information society.

Today, as Tim Wise writes in “The Mother of All Racial Preferences" white baby boomers are benefiting from the largest transfer of wealth in American history as they inherit their parents’ estates. Some of that wealth dates back to the years of slavery, when Blacks were forced to work for free while their white owners and the American economy accumulated the benefits of their toil. Another large category of the transferred wealth is land, much of it stolen by the American government from Native Americans and Mexicans and sold for a pittance to white settlers. For the average white family, however, some of the largest sources of wealth are the result of racial preferences in government policies that were started in the 20th century.[1]

As I was researching this essay, I began to look back on my own work experiences and it was a fact that I worked the hardest on the jobs that paid me the least. There is something wrong with a system that pays a person more who is actually doing less and not only are they paid more but there is a great disparity in those earnings. How can we in good conscious claim that the person working for minimum wage or working two menial jobs is not working hard enough and are therefore responsible for their lack of wealth? Unfortunately for them and most other poor minorities, wealth is the accumulation of advantages or disadvantages. If we are honest with ourselves we will acknowledge the discrepancy of labor to income, except for labor intensive trades. These low end wage earners work very hard and yet despite their efforts they continue to be poor.

The problem I have is simply this, I want the opportunity to be successful based on the premise that all are equal and therefore have equal access to the tools of success. The issue is not whether everyone will take the opportunity provided, the issue is that the opportunity be provided to all equally. Not every white person takes advantage of all of their advantages, but I don’t hear any talk that they as a group are not worthy to have opportunities. For some reason, if some blacks choose not to take advantage of their opportunities it is an indictment against all blacks and therefore we do not deserve any opportunities. The point is this, if not one black takes advantage of an equal education or employment opportunities, so what. Equality is the key, not what one does with it. These opportunities should still exist and be equal for all, because that is what is right.

Critics of affirmative action lean heavily on the myth that people make it on their own in the United States based on hard work and individual effort. They also maintain that government intervention in the wealth creation process is not just unprecedented, but un-American. Simply put, they ask: Why should the beneficiaries of affirmative action be the recipients of preferential governmental policies when whites acquired their wealth through hard work? The answer is simple: in reality governmental policy has played an absolutely crucial role in determining the racial character of the haves and the have nots in America.[2]

Since the beginning of America the government has provided the tools for one group to have advantages at the exclusion of other groups. The majority of wealth in America is based on the government policies that favored one group over another, for anyone to say that the government should not now show any favoritism is either being blatantly dishonest or ignorant of the history of America. The majority of personal wealth in America is based on home ownership, if governmental policies provided funds for one group and not all groups equally then that is favoritism. With the government condoning and encouraging “red-lining” in mortgage loans by the FHA, it allowed whites to receive low interest loans on their mortgages thus providing them with the needed equity to begin the process of wealth accumulation. This is just one of many government policies that helped to decide who was going to be well-off in America and who wasn’t.

I want to state that I believe that personal responsibility is important. It is important however not for accumulating wealth, its importance lies in the health of the society. The health of a society is based on the principle that everyone in that society is personally responsible for their actions, not because it leads to wealth but because it leads to a better society. Whether you are a low wage worker or the CEO of a Fortune 500, it is incumbent upon all of us to do what is right and to do our best. Again, the point is not that we base opportunity on a given person’s response to it, but on equal access. When we reach the stage where everyone has equal opportunity for success, then we can talk about who is taking advantage and who isn’t. Until that time it is a moot point, because the myth will still just be a myth.


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