Bootstrap parables

Anna Quindlen

July 23, 1991|By Anna Quindlen

ALMOST everyone has known a grandfather who was a boot- strapper. The stories of hard work and personal achievement have a certain sameness: how he delivered newspapers to buy school shoes, how he worked his way through college driving an ice truck, how he started a business even though no one wanted to rent to someone of his ilk.

(Pick an ilk. Many ilks. I have heard this story from grandfathers Irish, Polish, German, Italian.)

These are inspiring stories that reinforce the notion that the United States is a place where perseverance and hard work can turn a poor person into a rich one. But there is sometimes something mean-spirited at the core of these simple parables.

They do not allow for lucky breaks or for the differences between the past and the present. They assume that adversity is somehow ennobling. The stories contain an accusatory moral, a rhetorical question: If I did it, why can't you?

At this moment America's best-known bootstrapper is Clarence Thomas, a man who has moved from the abject poverty of Pinpoint, Ga., to a nomination to the Supreme Court. His public statements on his past have been deeply moving and extraordinarily contradictory; this is a man who once said "any race-conscious remedy is no good," but also said of affirmative action measures, "But for them, God only knows where I would be today."

His policies as chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and his politics as a black conservative are classic boot- strapper, sure that individual initiative is key and that government aid -- affirmative action, quotas, welfare --is demeaning and ineffective.

"Employment is typically based on skills," he said in 1982, when he became chairman of the EEOC. "To become a news reporter, you must be able to write. Simple as that."

Oh, that it were so simple. This is a bootstrapper's belief, that merit is everything: in college admissions, in the job search. But it is human nature that when a hiring partner, a senior editor or a construction foreman looks across the desk at an applicant, one of many things that may play a part is a sense of seeing himself in the other person. That is one reason law firms, newspapers, construction sites are still mainly occupied by white men.

Affirmative action has changed some of that. In every job I have gotten in the last 15 years, my gender has played some part.

I was hired and promoted during a period when the corporate world was feeling the heat about diversity, just as Clarence Thomas was hired and promoted when the governmental world was feeling that heat.

Why should we deny or decry that? The fallacy is that there is some inherent conflict between self-sufficiency and programs that encourage or require participation by competent members of minority groups.

The latter open the door; once inside, the challenge is to give value for money, to do the job competently. The risk is that a white man who fails is considered incompetent, while a black man who fails is seen as evidence that blacks cannot do the job.

Several weeks ago, the president stood at Clarence Thomas' side and said that race had played no part in his selection for the court. Everyone knew that was not true. The question is, does it matter?

It matters to the bootstrappers, who embrace the fiction of color-blindness and who persist in saying that Thomas' race is irrelevant, although he himself once said, "There is nothing you can do to get past black skin."

It matters to liberal opponents, who are uncomfortable opposing a black man but cannot support a conservative. And it matters to some supporters, too. "Given the choice between two conservatives, I'll take the one who's been called 'nigger,' " the columnist William Raspberry quoted a friend as saying.

I don't believe that it matters how you get in the door, only how you perform once you're inside. Thurgood Marshall was chosen by Lyndon Johnson in no small measure because he was nTC African-American. He will always be known as the first black Supreme Court justice.

He will also be known as a great one. Putting those two adjectives in the same place at the same time moves this country forward in its national perceptions. Bootstrappers move it back, to a time when our grandfathers pretended that hard work alone could surmount prejudice for anyone.

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