Why men of color need to do more than work hard

Had whatever power controls the universe given me a different life, I’d be one of those men who believes that in this country, hard work is all you need for a successful life. I wouldn’t understand that being at the right place at the right time matters.

I grew up middle-class on Chicago’s Southwest side in the 1970s and 80s.  At least it was a life as comparable to, although not equal to, the middle-class lives I saw on TV. My parents owned a home. My father worked full-time after training as a mechanic—after having arrived in the country as an agricultural guest worker, a bracero.

My mother, born in Mexico but arriving here as a teenager, spoke and wrote well in English.  Both my parents became American citizens before I can remember. They became the first Mexicans on our 26th Street block to own a home.

My two brothers, and sister, and I attended Catholic school. I believed the elitism of the uniform. I covered my textbooks with paper bags, changed them each time the book covers tore. The public school kids wore no uniforms back then. They carried their books without book bags, without book covers.

I had faith that hard work would be enough to transform my life.

But when doctors diagnosed my sister with leukemia, after my father’s employer took away our family’s health insurance, the American dream showed itself to be an illusion that still taunts my aspirations to this day.

We almost lost everything because of the medical bills. My father lost his own health. My mother encountered struggles she could have never imagined when she entered this city on a train at fourteen. Still, she found an incomparable courage I admire to this day.

So, now, for me, a grown American man of Mexican descent in a country where racism demonstrates unashamed power after Trump’s election, I pause, perhaps too often, to question the relationship between aspiration and realization.

I understand now that being at the right place at the right time matters.

Over a couple of days, I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s editorial profile in the Atlantic: “My President Was Black.” I scanned the writing of this man of color who’s about my age, envisioning images to accompany his sentences while simultaneously wondering, “How did he do this?”

Coates celebrates Obama’s political ascendance and denounces the social outlook of “a black man with deep roots in the white world.”

After Obama’s election in 2008, I said in a conversation, “It wasn’t Obama’s black identity that got him to the White House; it was his white one.” Coates’s profile proves my conclusion true.

Coates writes that for Obama, growing up in Hawaii with white grandparents and a white mother, the “kinds of traumas that marked African Americans of his generation—beatings at the hands of racist police, being herded into poor schools, grinding out a life in a tenement building—were mostly abstract for him.”

In fact, Coates quotes Obama: “I always felt as if being black was cool.”

And that is how President Obama did this—challenged centuries of racism in the grand ol’ U.S. of A.

In a piece so revelatory, so close to tearing asunder the love affair many of us have with the black and, as Coates suggests, perhaps the only black U.S. president, I looked for the privilege that allowed Ta-nehisi Coates to pen this appropriately opinionated piece in a classic publication.

Because in this country, a man of color who attains national prominence as a journalist, a writer, a thinker originates from a privilege we must take into account when we embolden young men of color to succeed.

Late in the piece, Coates reveals the privilege that gave him this power: his father was a leader in the Black Panthers—so much so that J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI devoted a file to him.

I cannot even imagine what it must be like to be born of a father with a consciousness that aims to overthrow national injustice. (Coates’s mother was a teacher.)

Coates attended a historically black college, Howard.

I can only imagine what it must be like to exist within a university where the professors and the students look like me.

This is where we fail so many of our young men of color—we push them to imagine a successful future but we don’t confront the privilege needed in this country to transcend the inherent social limitations we’re born into.

We forget being at the right place at the right time matters.

Too many of our young men end up being at the wrong place at the wrong time.

“To secure the White House,” Coates writes, “Obama needed to be a Harvard-trained lawyer with a decade of political experience and an incredible gift for speaking to cross sections of the country; Donald Trump needed only money and white bluster.”

When we encourage young men of color to dream extraordinarily, we cannot make them blind to the reality of time and place.

Tradition tells us that there are two profiles of men of color who reach extraordinary prominence in this country.

First, there is the man of color who is born to a home with social or political power. I think here of Obama and Coates.

Then, there is the immigrant man of color who by work—along with chance or luck or some unpredicted intervention—reaches the echelons of success. Here, I think of Jorge Ramos, Junot Diaz, Jesus “Chuy” Garcia.

The documentary The Mask You Live In discusses the damage a comparative identity does to young men. They grow up comparing themselves to other men wishing they were like them, wondering how they did it and why they couldn’t.

The truth is—to change the history of underachievement by men of color in this country, men of color need to do more than work hard. They need others to give them access to opportunities. Racism restricts this.

Throughout the Obama administration, Ta-nehisi Coates had full access to President Obama in on-the-record and off-the-record conversations. Coates rode in the presidential motorcade.

In the presidential motorcade!

It becomes, then, the responsibility of successful men of color to ensure we work to create more opportunities for ambitious young men of color.

Sometimes, we overlook the young men of color with promise, young men on the cusp of transforming their lives because we think “they’ll be fine.” Instead, we reach for the young men of color who need more than a hand up, more than an opportunity to save themselves from the personal and the societal. We place them in a position so far from their realm of aspiration, we impose our belief system.  They fail.

And the ones who were on the cusp of transforming their lives—without opportunities granted to them—often fall short of their original aspirations.

I've learned, by making mistakes, to differently encourage each male student who shares his ambitions with me.

In these times where racist bravado exhibits itself increasingly in the mainstream, we must distinguish between men’s struggles. Every young man of color does not fight the same battle.

Each man of color’s work toward self-fulfillment remains affected by time and place.

Without this awareness, we risk becoming one of the incognizant “raceless” men Coates references.

I could have been one of those. Had circumstances not crushed my family financially, I would have gone to a private high school and off to college. I would have become a lawyer like I originally envisioned, but, today, I mistrust the concept of justice I would have probably invoked. I would have believed that hard work alone could change one’s circumstances.

Sadly, too many “successful” men of color still believe hard work is all a man needs to succeed.

I look at the professional attainment of men like Ta-nehisi Coates and feel, often, that I am a generation behind, that they achieved a professional reality I can still only envision.

I carry my own privilege. Being the oldest, by the time financial devastation hit our family, I had been exposed enough, had envisioned enough to see beyond my circumstances.

Thankfully, my father taught me how to work. Incredibly, under unimaginable circumstances, my mother showed me how to dream.

I inherited an incomparable cultural capital that financial stability would have robbed from me.

I continue to work hard to be a writer who lives from the words he writes. I recognize that because of a social standing outside of my control, I may not fulfill my dream of being a writer with incredible opportunities like Ta-nehisi Coates.

But I still aspire so that my son and my daughter, who are growing up with their own privilege, have opportunities I could have never even imagined.

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