In America, You’re Your Own Greatest Oppressor

Colin Kaepernick speaks to reporters after a game in San Diego, Calif., September 1, 2016. (Reuters photo: Jack Roth/USA Today Sports)
Your choices are the biggest factor in your success or failure – not an oppressive system.

Though it’s been largely lost in the Colin Kaepernick whirlwind, another ESPN personality is in hot water for his “offensive” comments asserting that “This country is not oppressing black people.” After initially defending himself, he walked back the statement in the strongest of terms, declaring “I could spend the rest of my life trying to talk my way out of it. But I can’t. I blew it.”

Did he blow it, though? Certainly there are still in this country individual instances of extreme oppression — and certainly there are some biased people, including people in authority — but the bottom-line reality is that post–Jim Crow America is perhaps the least oppressive place on earth. There is simply no “system” or “structure” that will oppress most Americans of any race as much as they can oppress themselves.

In other words, in most cases your own actions are by far the most important factor in your own success. Yet, at the same time, the rise of American victim culture is obscuring this reality, teaching us to obsess over minor obstacles while we ignore the elephant in the room: our own choices.

Let’s take two simple accomplishments: earning a degree and getting married. If a person simply finishes high school, their poverty rate plunges. If they finish college, the chance of achieving real prosperity skyrockets. If they get married (and stay married), the chance of family poverty drops by a whopping 71 percent.

Amid all the justified concern about the middle- and working-class stagnation, there is good news in America: The ranks of the upper-middle class continue to grow, with more people doing better than ever before. What are the characteristics that mark the upper-middle class? Its members are more likely to be married and more likely to finish college than those of any other economic cohort in the United States.

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This analysis hasn’t even touched the devastating effects of substance abuse, where illicit drug use is correlated with employment and education. While there’s no doubt that the stress of unemployment or lack of economic opportunity can increase the temptation to seek escape, there’s also little doubt that drug dependence makes a person less reliable and thus less employable or teachable.

In most cases your own actions are by far the most important factor in your own success.

These realities create self-perpetuating cycles of both prosperity and poverty. Children who grow up in intact homes certainly have an easier time understanding how to make marriage work than children in poverty-stricken neighborhoods who rarely encounter functional two-parent families. Children from educated families are more likely to learn the life habits and self-discipline necessary to finish school. Children who see self-discipline modeled in the home are more likely to exercise self-discipline in their own lives.

But here’s the key point: Even the poorest Americans have the capacity and ability to finish school. Even people who grow up in the most grievously broken homes have the capacity and ability to create intact, thriving families. We see examples all around us. Social mobility may be declining in the United States, but people still migrate across economic classes by the millions. There is still a choice.

All the micro-aggressions in the world can’t stop a person who’s committed to his education and his family. Even a discriminatory employer can’t impoverish a man with a college education who’s willing to look elsewhere. All the stress in the world doesn’t make a person snort a line of cocaine, smoke meth, drink themself into oblivion, or cheat on their wife.

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At the behest of its citizens, the American political class has taken upon itself a truly impossible task: preserving broad access to the American dream regardless of personal choices and cultural trends. The mandarins of pop culture denigrate fidelity and faith and then demand that politics clean up the resulting mess. When politics fails, as it inevitably does, cultural radicals actually double down rather than rethinking their libertine commitments. Black Lives Matter, for example, formally supports further disrupting the nuclear family.

#related#Of course the business cycle can ameliorate or exacerbate present trends. When thriving employers truly need people, they’ll often pick up less-educated or subpar workers just to meet the market’s demands, and when hard times return, that same group of workers is the first to go. Of course bad policies can make the crisis worse, but is there any government program that will be as culturally powerful as an intact family, as potent as self-discipline?

While we do our best to address individual injustice and maintain fair legal and economic systems, our truly great task is cultural and spiritual renewal — and that task is ultimately beyond politics. Americans are making foolish choices on a grand scale, and rather than look in the mirror all too many are casting blame elswhere. Ours is still the land of opportunity, but opportunity is elusive when you oppress yourself.

— David French is an attorney, and a staff writer at National Review.


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