Clichés abound these days. We hear the same platitudes being shouted from the rooftops, even amongst those within our community. “Just work harder!” “If I can do it, so can you!” “Stop expecting handouts!”
Yes, Latinos seem to be quite fond of the whole “hard work equals success” mantra. As a result, from among many in the community, there are frequent calls for individuals to simply take control of their lives and “rise up” out of their current downtrodden situations.
However, there can be very insidious (albeit, sometimes unintended) consequences for overestimating the role of personal responsibility in complex social situations. Such calls for personal responsibility, therefore, necessarily descend into a mindset of victim-blaming. In this instance, one need not actively engage in disparaging the intended target, in order to perpetuate hatred against it.
Take sexual assault crimes as a first example. The known prevalence of these horrific crimes is only a fraction of the actual picture, given that women do not always report such crimes out of fear, shame, and/or guilt. Yet, there are still a significant number of individuals who subscribe to the absurd notion that these crimes are “preventable,” if women somehow simply assumed the personal responsibility of dressing “less skimpy” in public or exercising more discretion before daring to walk alone.
Then there are those who, since the election of Barack Obama, are fond of gleefully proclaiming that “racism is dead.” Of course, others correctly note that there are still massive racial inequalities in many facets of society (consider, for example, that Blacks and Latinos are much more likely to be unemployed and to stay unemployed, compared to equally educated and qualified White folks). But these folks are met with cries that they are “using the race card” as an excuse for their own supposed laziness and lack of personal responsibility.
Finally, there are those who are fond of recounting their own personal success stories about how they “rose out of poverty” through hard work and dedication. They then accuse those who are currently mired in poverty of not assuming the personal responsibility of working harder to overcome their situation. They see poverty as an excuse, and blame those living in poverty for supposedly being content with “getting handouts” (even though the data clearly show that there is no rampant dependence on welfare).
It is not my intention to undermine anyone’s efforts to be successful. My point is and always will be the following: regardless of how noble your intentions are, it can be very dangerous to rely on calls for greater personal responsibility as a means for appropriately navigating systemic injustice. At best, this can serve to ignore the root causes and subsequent consequences of systemic injustice, such as gross disparities in educational opportunities, or the high prevalence of poverty-stricken Latino and Black youth through the decades. At worst, you can unwittingly play a role in perpetuating the very narratives that lead to such injustices in the first place.