(Author's note: yes, this was a school assignment - that's why it's, like, more organized than most of my other essays - and no, you should not stop reading now just because I was "forced" to write it. The prompt was to write an essay showing how America has lived up to one of five ideals that the teacher listed. And of course, being 'not Ross,' I had to twist the assignment a bit because that's what I do: do things I'm not supposed to. If I get REALLY bored this weekend, I may write another one because I came up with another great idea for the same prompt, but of course only after I spent 2 hours writing this one. Anyway. Enjoy! ~not Ross)
Opportunity and Other Mishaps
The year is 1904, and thousands of immigrants stand shoulder to shoulder in the waiting rooms at Ellis Island in New York. If you can hear above the din, ask one of them why they've come. "I am here to live the American dream," he responds in stilted English. "America, the land of opportunity." Opportunity, yes, what is that thing that we always brag about? Merriam Webster defines opportunity as "a good chance for advancement or progress." And it's true, America has always presented opportunity to her people – but opportunity always has a flip side. A bad sort of flip side. If good fortune is like kinetic energy, it can be transferred from substance to substance, from person to person, but one substance has to lose energy in order for another substance to gain it. America's history has always demonstrated this analogy: opportunity for the pilgrims and pioneers, oppression for the native Americans; opportunity for the land-owner to make fortunes on mass-grown crops, oppression for the Negro in the fields; opportunity for African American and Hispanic hopefuls, falsely increased competition for the average-white-Joe.
Opportunity has been showing both of its true colors since the Mayflower bumped into the East Coast in 1620. On the one hand, the pilgrims prospered tremendously in America – once they got past those first months. They went from one small town to thirteen colonies to an independent country with thirteen states and kept growing and ended up adding thirty-seven more states over the next 150 years or so. This growth was littered with religious and other freedoms, technological development, and increased standard of living. America became the most prosperous nation in the world. There is no question that there was a very "good chance for advancement or progress," nor is there question that Americans seized that chance and squeezed out every drop of advancement and progress they could. The land of opportunity, yes, yes! Where is the sour side? Well, what about all those brown-skinned natives that lived on this land before the pale Englishmen came on a ship and took it over? In contrast to all the revolutionary activity taking place among the settlers, the native Americans were pushed west as the whites sucked in land like a deep breath. It wouldn't be long before those natives were grouped into small, low-income settlements of their own, like little leper colonies: reservations. Who calls this opportunity? Where is the chance to expand and advance if an entire people is clumped onto a small area of land and told not to bother anyone? Opportunity for "new Americans" meant oppression for native Americans.
In the midst of such booming progress in this revolutionary country called America was the opportunity for land owners to spread out and enjoy themselves and their profits. All this land and no one using it – well, besides those pesky natives? Sign me up! Lots of land meant lots of space for lots of crops, and lots of crops meant lots of money, and that meant for some fat and happy plantation owners. While money may be the root of all evil, it is also one of the most accurate measures of a country's success and, in a certain sense, the success of an individual – economically speaking. Land owners sowed massive plantations full of cotton and grain and corn and what-have-you and collected massive profits from all their crops. It was in this setting that Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin for more efficient cotton-purification. There's advancement. There's progress. America, the land of opportunity, of economic success. Where is the sour side? To say that "the land owners sowed" is not exactly true. Rephrase that to say, "Black slaves sowed the crops for no pay and minimal 'benefits.'" Yes, much better. Slaves were the cogs behind the machine, and these slaves were not treated as employees. They were treated as stubborn old mules – bought, sold, beaten, forced to work long hours, not fed well, the list can go on. Slaves, who were almost exclusively imported from Africa through inhumane means, had no rights, not even the "unalienable rights" given to "all men" in Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence. There is no advancement or progress in this situation. Blacks could not become educated, could not hold property, had no time to do anything but sleep and work and hope that they were doing a good enough job lest they be sold off and separated from their families. Would any of those immigrants at Ellis Island have come had they been told, "Come to America, where you can be treated like a cow!"? Not a chance. There is no opportunity there. Not unless you're a rich, property-holding white man who knows how to manage large quantities of tobacco. Opportunity for that man meant a near lack of life for the black man.
In reaction to this obvious misinterpretation of Jefferson's reminder to all of us that "all men are created equal," the tables have turned 180 degrees. Many businesses are required to have a certain ratio of black employees to white employees. At face value, it is easy to wonder why we haven't thought of this concept before – since blacks are usually the bulk of the population in low-income, under-privileged neighborhoods, it makes sense to give them a kick in the right direction. They need all the help they can get, right? After all, it's not easy to grow up in a neighborhood where the kids next door are popping pills and inhaling spray paint and still end up above poverty level with a good job. However, whatever the require ratio of blacks to whites is in a company, the company can only support so many employees. This means that the Caucasian employees who have done the work and paid the high-level college tuition (because they couldn't get a scholarship because their parents were law-abiding citizens) and fought hard to even get to the job interview have a lesser chance of getting hired than the African American who, eh, kind of wanted the job because it pays well. Of course, there are many exceptions to both of these "stereotypes," but this is for the sake of argument. Not only will the more-qualified Caucasian walk away jobless, but the company will suffer for having hired a lesser employees just because they need to stick to the ratio. This kind of affirmative action may present a skewed, subsidized opportunity for a certain person based solely on his race, but it gets in the way of the opportunities for both his better-suited white competition and the company who has just been forced to hire him. Opportunity is sweet for the black, but its other side is very sour for all the other parties involved.
This essay is not written to bash on all the terrible things that America has done. There is no question that America has provided many wonderful opportunities for many people to do many wonderful things. It can be argued that, without America, there would be no iPods, no TV cameras, no telephones, and no Hunger Games – and what a terrible, bleak world that would be. Opportunity is an equally wonderful aspect of the world in general and America specifically. As one German Jewish immigrant said in 1848, "In [America] the talents, energy, and perseverance of a person...have far greater opportunity to display than in monarchies." That is what's so great about our country: opportunity does not come from birth, but from a person's willingness to work hard. But opportunity always comes at a cost, and it is important for us to look at the many examples of this in American history. That way, we can learn to look at both sides of this opportunity we're offered or offering and ask ourselves if we really think it's worth the price.