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A Reflection on Historical Discrimination and Modern Victim Mentality in the United States - September 2017

posted Sep 27, 2017, 5:41 PM by RSO The Fenwick Review   [ updated Sep 27, 2017, 5:42 PM ]
By Seamus Brennan '20

Despite the significant dissimilarities between societal marginalization in the United States now and in previous centuries, the dominant ethos across many sectors of our country would suggest that America in 2017 is a toxic, rancorous nation that judges and discriminates against individuals on the basis of their demographic or ‘identity’ group.  Mindsets like this have paved the way to insistence upon the existence of systemic, universal discrimination based on these ultimately irrelevant factors, which has led to a subculture in which identity-based victimhood is celebrated while merit-based success is discouraged and virtually meaningless.  A culture in which victimhood is embraced ironically encompasses the very mindset that makes success impossible. Although some cases of identity-based marginalization certainly do exist, defaulting to accusations of discrimination in inequitable situations usually demonstrates flawed perception, not systemic inequality. Ultimately, society at large - drawing influences from the media, political rhetoric, higher education, and even one’s own family - must be doing something wrong if it is responsible for exposing and practically feeding this sort of mentality to America’s youth.
Historically, minority groups in the United States unquestionably faced discrimination in most facets of life.  The unique struggles immigrants encountered in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were real, significant barriers.  Immigrants had to vehemently fight for their position in society, and ultimately, they experienced the fruits of their labor not by demanding recognition and challenging pre-existing American societal norms, but by earning societal respect through contribution of labor and acceptance of the established American cultural fabric.
My grandfather, after whom I am named, immigrated to the United States from Ireland
in 1947, and after many unsuccessful attempts at finding work, he changed his name from Seamus to Jim to avoid the unfortunate stigma of being an Irish immigrant.  Of course he would have preferred to keep his name – a meaningful indicator of personal and cultural identity – but he felt that he needed to do so in order to take advantage of all that America had to offer as well as to more easily assimilate into American culture.  Meanwhile, he managed to find several jobs working in lumberyards and as a carpenter, until he saved enough money to create his own business in 1951 building homes in suburban Chicago.  His business continued to grow and prosper, and in the coming years he would get married and raise a family of five.
My grandfather’s story is a prototypical example of the American Dream, and surely there are countless other success stories similar in nature.  Ultimately, my grandfather realized that he needed to make the change to adapt to his new country, not the other way around.  The American Melting Pot did not come into being through demands of multicultural awareness and lack of pride in the United States.  Rather, immigrants toiled for their success – and a great deal of them reached it – through accepting the capitalistic nature of the American workforce and working hard while still upholding an appreciation for the country and culture they left behind.  My grandfather’s Irish heritage did not die when he chose to go by a different name, nor did his personal identity or sense of self-perception.  Cultural pride and making necessary changes to ensure opportunity are not mutually exclusive; rather, they complement each other quite well.  Culture is not a definitive asset to one’s life.  While culture ought to be recognized and celebrated for its frequent influences on one’s perspective and broader life outlook, life is not meant to be lived within tight, subjective cultural boundaries.  Often, it seems, clinging onto cultural significance is responsible for creating this self-perceived victimization, as people have difficulty drawing the line as to how much influence culture should have on one’s life, decisions, and identity.  Moderate cultural appreciation and the embracement of American opportunity truly make the best of both worlds. As my grandfather used to say, “Opportunity is not given; it’s earned.” To him, working hard and overcoming obstacles was a vital part of his path to realizing the unique freedoms and opportunities that only America could provide.
Of course, instances of inequality and discrimination still exist in 2017 America, although they are much less prevalent than in the post-war 1940s.  Given the significant disparity between these instances of discrimination in modern America and the extreme marginalization faced by many in previous centuries, one must ask: why do so many perceive themselves to be victims in the freest, most opportune, most tolerant and nondiscriminatory nation in the history of the world?  Does the very existence of this freedom, opportunity, tolerance, and nondiscrimination in the United States create illusions for certain people, leading to self-perceived needs for entitlements and a more socialistic government?  The competitive nature of the American economy may be intimidating or
misleading to certain individuals, but this dilemma is, once again, an issue of distorted perception rather than an unjust society.
At Marquette University in February 2017, political commentator and novelist Ben Shapiro justifiably claimed, “On campus, because there is such focus on victimhood, a certain ‘victim privilege’ has been established.  Not ‘white privilege,’ ‘victim privilege.’  If you’re a member of a victim group, you now have a privilege.  And that privilege amounts to, you get to tell other people to shut up and you also get to hurt people.”  The recently promulgated view that American society is ‘out to get’ certain individuals and groups of people based on their race, gender, or class is in fact what discourages these people from pursuing their dreams and seeking out any meaningful level of success.  As was true for my grandfather, the opportunity is there, and if it has not yet presented itself to you, ask yourself: is it truly American society holding you back, or are you holding you back?
Ultimately, having the expectation that others must change to meet your subjective needs is unhealthy and unproductive, and a much better alternative would be to start focusing on what can be created for oneself.  More often than not, this change in mentality can amount to life changing proportions.