Pull yourself up by your bootstraps! A common phrase. Many people believe this simple phrase explains the poor status of so many African Americans – they should just pull themselves up by their bootstraps. It assumes that many Black folks don’t succeed because they just don’t try hard enough.

This year is the 99th year after the Tulsa Massacre of 1921 (if you haven’t already, you should Google it for more information); the massacre took place in a section of Tulsa called Greenwood, which was nicknamed “the Black Wall Street.” Greenwood was a prosperous African American neighborhood that benefitted from the local oil industry and had nice homes, businesses, churches, banks – the whole nine yards of a thriving successful community.

Greenwood’s prosperity likely engendered some envy by the neighboring white community. One day, wild rumors of Black men accosting white women led to armed fighting – and at the end of it, hundreds of Blacks were killed, thousands were arrested, and thousands more were left homeless when most of the buildings in Greenwood were burnt to the ground.

The media and police of Tulsa called it a “race riot,” which excused insurance companies from having to pay Blacks for their losses. African Americans had pulled their boots up by the bootstraps in Greenwood, but violent white racism tore their boots away.

Homes and businesses burned in the Tulsa race massacre.

President Lincoln had a vision for Reconstruction in the South after the Civil War. The devastated South and generations of millions of newly freed slaves (who were mostly illiterate because slaves were not allowed to read or write) needed help and support so Lincoln urged in his second Inaugural speech:

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds…”

This vision died with Lincoln and later, federal troops abandoned the South after 12 years and Blacks had to fend for themselves. Whites in the South (and in many other parts of the country) began a free rein of domestic terrorism against Blacks replete with lynchings, mass imprisonment, and segregation-related inferior treatment.

In Louisiana in 1898, there were 130,000 Black registered voters, but through violent white intimidation, by 1908, just 10 years later, there were only 5,300 registered voters and by 1910, only 730! I wonder how many of us would have the courage to register to vote if it meant we could be lynched.

Soon Jim Crow laws passed by the white power structure found ways to incarcerate thousands of Blacks (mostly men) and make them work for free (a form of slavery called “convict leasing” and very lucrative for the state). A law that says “no spitting” sounds innocuous by itself but if it is selectively enforced only against Black people, then it becomes pernicious and evil.

Many of those Blacks who were thus arrested could not make bail, which led to lengthy incarceration. Once released from prison, these ex-convicts cannot vote, they are hard-pressed to find employment, and they can forget about getting a bank loan. These conditions make it hard to have boots with straps on them.

In the 1930s, Social Security was born, which helped millions of workers to build up some wealth and have a nest-egg for themselves — but from the onset, Social Security largely omitted Black workers who were engaged in domestic or farm work.

Remember the G.I. Bill after WWII? It helped millions of returning vets to get home loans and education grants, but Black vets were mostly excluded. In New York and New Jersey, nearly 67,000 home loans were insured by the G.I. Bill, but less than 100 were approved for Blacks!

Most banks refused to make loans to Blacks because they knew through the practice of “red-lining” that any Black who buys a home will immediately depreciate surrounding home values. Once again, no boots and bootstraps for Black folks.

Remember the “War on Drugs” and the “Law and Order – Tough on Crime” programs initiated by President Nixon in the 1970s? John Ehrlichman, one of Nixon’s top aides, admitted that the War on Drugs was really about incarcerating leftists and Black people. In 1980 America had about 500,000 prisoners, but by 2015, the number of prisoners increased by over 400% to 2.2 million and Blacks represented 33% of those incarcerated.

America has 5% of the world’s population but over 20% of the world’s prisoners and incarcerates more people than any other nation in the world. So much for the “land of the free”! It is hard to pull yourself up by your bootstraps when systemic racism keeps pulling the boots off your feet.

The great African American poet Langston Hughes wrote:

O, let America be America again —

The land that never has been yet —

And yet must be — the land where every man is free.

The system has been rigged for hundreds of years – rigged against Black Americans. We need to work alongside them to change the system, to make America the land it yet must be.


Bill Watanabe writes from Silverlake near downtown Los Angeles and can be contacted at Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *