In 1834, the first-known appearance in a text of the phrase “pulling oneself up by the bootstraps” was supposed to be satirical. It was intended as a metaphor for something that was absurdly impossible: In this case, the image of a man trying to haul himself across a river simply by tugging on his bootstraps. Yet, over time, the phrase has come to be the driving force behind the notion that anyone who works hard can become prosperous.
It may seem like a harmlessly earnest expression that inspires a national work ethic, propelling all who participate toward the American Dream. But, that kind of upward mobility is simply unattainable for the majority—and a new report says the narrative is a key driver of the racial wealth gap. The bootstraps trope, glamorized historically in the pursuits of heroic robber barons and the rags-to-riches tales of Horatio Alger, has become the basis for a belief in a meritocratic system—even though self-made stories are extremely rare.
“It has become something that really dominates our psyche,” says Anne Price, president of the Insight Center for Community Economic Development, which published the report. Coupled with another age-old narrative of anti-Black racism that the report says “undergirds policies that marginalize and disproportionately punish [Black people],” the myth serves to keep government from providing a route to wealth for Black Americans. “The impetus of this paper,” Price says, “was to fight against these tropes, and how they’ve been used against Black people.”