Why men of color need to do more than work hard

*Hard work is not enough, men of color need to be at the right place at the right time: “They need others to give them access to opportunities.” VL

By Ray Salazar, Chicago Now (7.5 minute read) 

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 . . . READ MORE 

Since 1995, Ray has been an English teacher in the Chicago Public Schools. In 2003, Ray earned an M.A. in Writing, with distinction, from DePaul University. In 2009, he received National Board Certification. His writing aired on National Public Radio and Chicago Public Radio many times and have been published in the Chicago Tribune and CNN. For thirty years, Ray lived in Chicago’s 26th Street neighborhood. Today, he lives a little more south and a little more west in the city with his wife, son, and daughter.

You can “Like” The White Rhino Blog’s Facebook page.

[Photo by Patrick Giblin/Flickr]

Subscribe today!

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Must Read

Coronavirus: Mexican wrestlers sew Lucha Libre face masks

Victor Landa April 23, 2020

Unable to compete due to coronavirus, Mexico’s Lucha Libre wrestlers have taken up sewing face masks. Social distancing means the iconic sport is on hold for now, so fighters need […]

Latinos: COVID-19 Disrupts Finances, Daily Life, Mental Health

Victor Landa April 6, 2020

COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate. But U.S. Latinos are more likely than all Americans to say the coronavirus pandemic changed their daily lives, and disrupts their mental health, finances, and jobs, according to new Pew Research […]

A Profile of Coronavirus and the Latino Workforce

Victor Landa April 13, 2020

*This article was originally published in the NALCAB Blog. Over the last month, the Coronavirus pandemic has ravaged the lives and well-being of all Americans. It has disproportionately impacted the most […]

Hispanics more likely than Americans overall to see COVID-19 as a major threat to health and finances

Victor Landa April 14, 2020

Hispanics are more concerned than Americans overall about the threat the COVID-19 outbreak poses to the health of the U.S. population, their own financial situation and the day-to-day life of their local […]

Coronavirus could ‘decimate’ Latino wealth, which was hammered by the Great Recession

Victor Landa April 16, 2020

Octavia Nieto worked for over 10 years as a pastry chef at a bakery in Princeton, New Jersey. Now with the business closed indefinitely, she relies on a part-time job […]

Latino Teens: Distance Learning Is a Giant Stressor amid Coronavirus

Victor Landa April 22, 2020

Latino teens are more worried than their peers that they won’t be able to keep up with school work or extracurricular activities amid coronavirus, says a new survey by Common Sense and […]


Victor Landa

Despite these uncertain times, the 2020 NFL Draft will proceed as planned. But because of the COVID-19 outbreak, the 2020 NFL draft will be held virtually for the first time […]

Government Relief Less Likely To Reach Latino Businesses

Victor Landa April 23, 2020

Latino communities may face a generational setback in growing wealth, as the pandemic-driven downturn exacerbates an already present gap in funding for their small businesses. Juan Rios sits among the […]