Circumstances and race are no excuse

by seangljacobs

Part of the New Guinea Commerce Winners Don’t Cheat Series.

By Sean Jacobs

What’s interesting from reading about success is the sheer number of people who have risen from nothing. The universal stories of people lifting themselves from humble circumstances, in all sectors, at different times and of all different skin colours, is so common that it’s almost banal.

Yet young people, particularly minorities, are continually sold a picture of despair. A few years ago I attended Indigenous Australian cultural awareness training that presented a circular diagram called ‘the poverty wheel.’ This unbreakable and frustrating loop, garnished by references to historical and cultural considerations, laid out the setbacks that young black Australians face. ‘Why bother?’ it seemed to ask – the cycle simply couldn’t be broken.

I wondered what Booker T Washington or Frederick Douglass – Americans who had risen from slavery to statesmen – would think of the poverty wheel. Or George Washington Carver, the great American inventor, also born a slave. I wondered what America’s first female black astronaut, Mae Jemison, would think of it. Or Colin Powell, going from sweeping floors in a bottling factory to a four star general and US Secretary of State.

Ironically, just after the cultural ‘training’ session, I went straight to the library and read the biography of Australia’s Neville Bonner. Here was an Indigenous Australian – born under a tree in the early 1900s, enduring countless rounds of real discrimination and hardship – who reviled self-pity and resentment to become Australia’s first black federal parliamentarian.

‘A most prevalent cause of failure,’ says Dennis Kimbro, is ‘the use of race, sex, or circumstances as a reason for inactivity.’ I’ve seen countless people, not just young minorities, disqualify themselves because of these reasons. When I used to unload shipping containers I was always amazed at how the guys around me viewed this work as their destiny. For me, studying at the time and always reading about a world of possibilities, it was only temporary. But, for many of them, going beyond these circumstances wasn’t worth it.

In some youth minority circles, in particular, it’s common to hear that finishing high school or pursuing certain professions is ‘not for us’ – a view based entirely upon complexion and circumstances rather than any real examination of individual capability or passion. Young minorities often spend a great deal of time thinking about what ‘the group’ will think if they follow something that interests them, or if they dare to study or read books.

Compounding these problems are young people who, basing their desires only on people look like them, worship instant gratification over any sense of grit and persistence. From clothing to attitude, everything for these young people runs counter to building professional or social skills useful in the real, modern world. Achievement is scorned rather than promoted. Ideals of real character, like John Paul Jones’ timeless and universal traits of a naval officer – tact, patience, justice, firmness, kindness, and charity – is harpooned and even mocked.

On a deeper level, some intellectuals and social commentators do their best to reduce Australian history to just a series of dispossesive racially-based events and tag our institutional inheritance as the legacy of ‘old white men.’ Added to this ash heap of despair is the notion that the free market is simply a casino where luck is awarded over merit, skills and excellence. For crime and anti-social behaviour some fumble around for every kind of excuse where blame is prescribed to a range of ‘factors’ except the person that actually threw the punch or stole the car.

How is any of this useful in getting beyond difficult circumstances? Belief, I feel, is what it comes down to. Albert Einstein said that the first and most basic question all people must answer is ‘Is the world a friendly place?’. If young people decide that the world is unfriendly then, most likely, that’s what it’ll be – offensive, unequal and unfair. But there are three things to remind young people who think that they can’t claw themselves out of despair or tough conditions.

First, orienting toward success is made easier by following some basic benchmarks. An instructive study from the Working Seminar on the Family and American Welfare Policy says that if you finish school, try to stay employed, get married and avoid criminal behaviour, you’re bound to avoid long-run poverty. Such benchmarks, it seems, are not terribly rigorous.

Second, the groups that have generally done well tend to follow certain attitudes and priorities. Successful minorities, for example, from Chinese Americans to Indo-Fijians, have generally reviled self-pity, disliked blame, doggedly pursued education, spent wisely and constantly sought ways to provide a service or deliver goods that people want. Constant favors from government, ‘leg ups’ or specially designed welfare programs have played a very limited role in their advancement. But self-help has.

Third, character requires no money. ‘Can a poor person be a gentleman?’ asks a young schoolboy in Lloyd Jones’ Mr Pip. ‘A poor person most certainly can,’ replies the boy’s teacher Mr. Watts. ‘Money and social standing don’t come into it. We are talking about qualities. And those qualities are easily identified. A gentleman will always do the right thing.’

‘To want and to be ambitious and to want to be successful is not enough,’ says the actor Kevin Spacey in a memorable line. ‘That’s just desire. To know what you want, to understand why you’re doing it, to dedicate every breath in your body to achieve. If you feel you have something to give, if you feel that your particular talent is worth developing, is worth caring for, then there’s nothing you can’t achieve.’

Absent from his advice are circumstances or race. This is what our young people need to hear, not tired excuses like the poverty wheel.