From Oppression Narrative to Opportunity Narrative

by James A. Bacon

I have fallen into a trap — a snare of my own making. Day after day, Americans are subjected to a barrage of commentary and “news” on the topic of racial/gender-driven victimhood and grievance, the most recent example being today’s New York Times‘ 16019 Project, which reinterprets American history through the lens of slavery and racism as if they were the sole defining attributes of the American experience. And I react to this stuff. When the issues hit home at a state/local level, I devote article after article detailing the falsehoods, unfounded assumptions, and sins of omission. Because there is a never-ending supply of victimhood-and-grievance stories, a never-ending rounds of rebuttals is called for. As a result, I spend far more time writing about what I’m against than what I’m for.

Today I shall devote myself today to outlining in broad brush strokes a positive vision for Virginia going forward. In the long run, parsing the  flaws of the Victimhood and Grievance Narrative will take us only so far. If those espousing conservative/libertarian principles wish to win converts, they need to formulate an alternative narrative — what I’ll call the Opportunity Narrative — that appeals to all peoples and creeds.

The Victimhood and Grievance Narrative is inherently backward looking, dwelling on past injustices to stoke the resentments of racial/ethnic groups. (It is important to note that some on the Right have adopted the rhetoric and logic of group-based grievance and victimhood, making them guilty of sins similar to those of the Left.) The forward-looking Opportunity Narrative asks, how do we empower individuals, regardless of racial/ethnic/gender identity, to improve their lives?

The Opportunity Narrative builds on a critical proposition: In the long run, after happenstance and luck and economic cycles are filtered out, an individual’s earning power is based upon his or her economic productivity. In other words, you get out of the economy what you put into the economy. This rule does not explain all variability in economic outcomes, but productivity is the key driver that dwarfs all others. To enjoy shared and widespread prosperity, we must bolster peoples’ labor productivity.

Many factors determine an individual’s productivity. One set of influences revolves around one’s character: one’s ambition, work ethic, perseverance in the face of setbacks and hardships, and willingess to defer gratification for future reward. Another set of influences — those that are more amenable to manipulation by public policy — consists of the knowledge and skills that an individual acquires. Americans, especially early in their careers, derive much of their economically useful knowledge and skills from the education system, both K-12 and higher education.

The Opportunity Narrative has a moral dimension. It says that the bourgeois virtues — hard work, thrift, perseverance, etc. — are not limited to particular racial/ethnic groups. (It is a libel to suggest, for instance, that excelling academically is “acting white.”) Anyone who embraces the bourgeois virtues can experience upward social mobility. Those who spurn the virtues will likely experience downward mobility… or just spend their lives at the bottom of the socioeconomic heap.

The Opportunity Narrative has a practical dimension as well: People need to avail themselves of educational opportunities in order to learn skills (reading, writing, etc.) they typically cannot acquire from their families. In the realm of public policy, the most important thing we can do is ensure that children receive a solid education. It is not realistic to expect schools to make up for all the deficiencies of a child’s upbringing and dysfunctional social environment, but they should provide core skills for those willing to learn.

For the most part Virginia public schools are pretty good, at least when judged by U.S. standards. Arguably, we should aim higher. In the meantime, we need to focus on the small subset of public schools that are manifest failures — schools that, for whatever reason, chronically under-perform peer institutions when educating children of comparably challenged backgrounds. We should endeavor to help those schools  reform themselves. If they cannot, then we should create mechanisms — charter schools, private-school vouchers, whatever — that allow parents to seek educational alternatives for their children. Society’s core commitment should be to the children, not to public schooling as an institution.

Most jobs require some education beyond high school. The Opportunity Narrative finds dignity in all types of work, whether white collar, blue collar, whatever. The Opportunity Narrative recognizes that different people have different skills and aptitudes, and that not everyone benefits from attending a four-residential college. Indeed, millions of Americans have endeavored and failed to earn four-year degrees, and they now drag around tens of thousands of dollar in student debt as a result. The Opportunity Narrative champions middle-skill occupations that can be acquired at the fraction of the cost of a four-year degree.

While not everyone is well advised to attend four-year colleges, we must make advanced education more accessible financially as well. Higher ed in Virginia, as it is nationally, has been captured by academic constituencies that put institutional interests before those of students. The result has been a soaring cost of education in exchange for negligible gains in educational value. The Opportunity Narrative calls for stripping down higher-ed to its core educational mission and passing along the savings to students and their families. Other missions are superfluous and should be dropped. Some missions, such as research and development, need to find other funding sources than students tuition and fees. As with K-12 pupils and schools, the Opportunity Narrative prioritizes the needs of college students over the needs of the colleges and universities as institutions.

The Opportunity Narrative has much to say as well about taxation, housing, health care, economic development, energy & the environment, public safety, and quality of life. But the top priority is ensuring Virginians access to a solid education at affordable cost to parents and taxpayers. What people do with that opportunity is up to them.

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21 responses to “From Oppression Narrative to Opportunity Narrative

  1. Interesting…. but badly flawed………

    First of all , one would have to admit that any kind of “opportunity” provided to everyone and funded by govt is a kind of socialism – income redistribution where we take from the rich and use that money for those not rich whose kids would surely grown up just as ignorant and poor as their parents.

    Right? That’s Grade A socialism……..but I digress….

    Then you have the problem of whether or not such “opportunity” is made available equally and without discrimination to everyone regardless of their sex or color or other …

    And if this is not done – and folks who did not get their equal share of “opportunity” had kids – who were brought up by parents without good educations and who suffered economically because they did not get their “fair share” of education “opportunity” – what’s the answer? just say that it’s been “fixed” and now their kids have “equal” access to education – is that a fact or a theory or a claim or hope?

    We’re not talking about equal “outcomes” – only asking if a child lives in a poverty neighborhood and goes to a school that is a “neighborhood” school – is that school the same as a school in a rich “neighborhood”?

    As said before several times – I have no problem with non-public schools competing with public schools as long as the do so on an EQUAL basis – in terms of accepting any/all demographics AND being held accountable in a similar way. Otherwise – it’s just a bogus and cynical concept – a dishonest concept. When I hear the proponents of charter schools ALSO – DEMAND that they meet the same standards – I’ll put more stock in their advocacy.

  2. Goodie! Good news!
    Maybe this is a good idea but looking at everything through a “conservative/Libertarian” lense is limiting. A steady stream of patronizing “Atta Boy” stories would get boring. Constant sermonizing on The Protestant Work Ethic would get annoying.

  3. Jim, meet Jack Kemp. Congressman Kemp? This is my friend Jim…..

    • Dear Steve,

      Yes, Jack Kemp was a swell fellow, until he talked about race. Then he became pathetic. He inflicted terrible damage on the Republican Party by his uncritical support of the conventional Black victim con artists who have done immense harm to their followers, and to his inane guilt-tripping of his fellow Whites.



  4. First of all, I disagree that the NYT series “reinterprets American history through the lens so slavery and racism as if they were the sole defining attributes of the American experience”. The experience of any nation or society is comprised of many defining elements, some contradictory. It is important to realize that slavery was an integral part of the American experience for hundreds of years before its abolishment a little more than 100 years ago. Therefore, it was one of the factors that went into defining the American experience and where we are today, regardless of how uncomfortable that may make us feel. The NYT articles help one to understand some of the effects of slavery that still affect us.

    As for Jim’s “Opportunity Narrative”, it is a great ideal and most people would agree with it. In fact, it is the very idea of the United States–the land of opportunity. It is the place where a Scottish immigrant can become the head of a giant steel company, where a black kid with a speech problem born in rural Georgia and raised by his grandparents can become a Supreme Court Justice, and a kid born in Hawaii to a hippie mother and a visiting professor from Kenya and who spent part of his youth in Indonesia can become President. We don’t have royalty or nobility or castes.

    That’s the ideal. What is the reality? Jim’ “critical proposition” is: In the long run, after happenstance and luck and economic cycles are filtered out, an individual’s earning power is based upon his or her economic productivity. Well, that is a lot of filtering. A child born into a household in McLean in Fairfax or Windsor Farms inRichmond has a lot more opportunity than one born in the projects in Norfolk or the coalfields of Southwest Va. (I am not sure how we got from “opportunity” to “productivity”, but that is another discussion. For the point of this discussion, I will concede the connection.)

    Jim goes further to say, “you get out of the economy what you put into the economy.” I would dispute this assertion along with the earlier one that one’s “earning power is based upon his or her economic productivity”. Construction workers, plumbers, auto mechanics, teachers, factory workers–all work harder, and add more to the productivity of the economy than investment bankers and hedge fund managers, but earn far less. Prison wardens are responsible for the well being and security of hundreds of inmates; supervise hundreds of employees; and oversee $20-30 million operations, and are on call 24/7. Yet, they are generally paid less $100,000, far less than others with such responsibilities. So, no, not everyone’s earning power is based on his or her economic productivity (however that is measured).

    Equality and Opportunity are our lodestars. Being human means that we will probably not achieve equality of opportunity, but that does not mean that we should not try. At the same, it is important that we recognize where we come up short and try to rectify those shortcomings.

  5. Dear Jim,

    Good move! Spending all of one’s energies battling incorrigibles is a waste of time, which is why I moved away from BR over time, because it was the same stuff, different day. This is a positive, if limited, vision. Let the naysayers prattle on, but point the way forward with things that people can do change in their own lives and how they can benefit from intelligent public policies, i.e. makes things better in measurable ways, rather than worse. The naysayers, being mostly godless, can hire their therapists to talk through their weltschmerz (“world-pain” auf Deutsch; sadly their wounds will not heal, alas, unless they seek the Healer of Souls. Arguing with these inveterate “tar-babies” does neither them or us any good, but at least we can learn to “cut our losses” after we have it “our good college try.”)



  6. Dick says, “A child born into a household in McLean in Fairfax or Windsor Farms in Richmond has a lot more opportunity than one born in the projects in Norfolk or the coalfields of Southwest Va.” Yes — but they both still have some opportunity – which is more than under any other society/ governance I know of. I agree with the Opportunity Narrative idea. Social mobility must be possible, and usually it simply isn’t. “Equal opportunity,” however, puts us right back into that grievance discussion.

  7. The conservative response to the lament of inequality has traditionally been that the American system does not promise pure equality but equal opportunity. Now, it seems that you want to take equality out of the equation altogether. If that is the case, we have reached our goal. There is school, hence, opportunity, available for everyone. But, if, as you say, there is not enough social mobility, how much would be enough?

  8. There’s plenty of social mobility in America. You just can’t do it your way and expect to move up. The median net worth of the top quintile of Americans is about $700,000. When you go to high school you have to study. You don’t have to be the valedictorian but you have to get good grades. I went to the (academically) worst public high school in Fairfax County. It wasn’t that hard to get good grades. After you’ve gotten through high school with decent grades you have to get into college. Again, not that hard. You have to obtain the right degree. Yes, anthropology seems fascinating but accounting is a better choice for upward social mobility. Sorry. After you graduate from college (on time) you need to get an entry level job in your chosen field with a company that will give you a chance at advancement. Finance or engineering are good choices. Then, you have to work your ass off … for decades. If you have to travel to advance, you travel. If you have to relocate, you relocate. If you have to switch companies, you switch companies. You fully fund your 401(k), you buy as many shares in your company as your employer matching allows, trade up houses until you’re in something substantial then pay off the mortgage.

    No, you won’t get to the top quintile by working for the government (unless you’re a Congressperson), you won’t get there as a teacher or a journalist. You can’t do whatever the hell you want and expect some magic invisible hand to propel you upward. But if you really want to be well off, if that’s your goal, I don’t see any reason why that isn’t achievable in today’s America.

    What bothers me is the private school dandies who had every advantage in their youth but they wanted to find fulfillment (rather than financial reward) in their employment (almost always in vain), toiled away at some dead end job where they didn’t have to travel, relocate or work endless overtime and now they’re in their 60s and angry. The world just isn’t fair in their minds. The game must be rigged! No, the game was perfectly fair and you are not the victim of anything but your own decisions. Once you decide you don’t want to work on weekends or you won’t move to Cleveland for that promotion you’ve made your decision. Live with the results.

    • Hmmm. There’s a back story to the tirade in DJ’s paragraph, betcha….

      • The only backstory is that Americans have started confusing opportunity with outcome. Nobody ever said that getting ahead would be easy. Too many of my friends are turning 60 and looking for somebody’s pocket to pick. They should get free healthcare, their kids’ student loans should be forgiven, their grandchildren ought to go to college for free. They seem to think it unfair that they aren’t rich. They went to private schools or Fairfax County Public Schools, they went to The University of Virginia. What have they been doing for the past 40 years? If I didn’t see people like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders only too happy to pander to them I wouldn’t care.

    • “You have to work your ass off … for decades. If you have to travel to advance, you travel. If you have to relocate, you relocate. If you have to switch companies, you switch companies.”

      This is absolutely right. Life is full of trade-offs. I made the decision after I got divorced that I always wanted to be involved in my kids’ lives and I would not move from Richmond, even if it meant limiting my career opportunities in journalism. Likewise, my wife had ample opportunities to climb the corporate ladder in Honeywell, but she did not want to move to Minnesota or New Jersey; a key component of her decision was a desire to remain near family (hers as well as mine). It would be absurd for us to complain that we were denied opportunities to move up the income scale. We made the lifestyle decision that we made enough money to be comfortable, and that making another $100,000 a year or more would add relatively little to our quality of life. Instead, we enjoyed the benefit of belonging to a tight-knit family.

      As far as I’m concerned, people who work 80 hours a week, and relocate to a new city every three years, and otherwise sacrifice their personal lives in order to climb the career ladder deserve to make more money. I don’t bear one ounce of resentment toward them. Indeed, I lose all patience with those who do.

      Income inequality? Let’s talk about quality-of-life inequality!

  9. Don the Ripper. Cleveland isn’t that bad. It ain’t Chcago but the countryside is nice. Great museums, music and sports

    • I lived in Chicago, traveled to Cleveland a number of times. Both have improving NFL teams. Both are fine. Cold but fine. Virginians, in particular, seem to have some odd belief that relocating from their hometown to some other place in the US will ruin their lives. People I know from college tell me they couldn’t possibly think of living anywhere but Richmond or Charlottesville or Arlington. Really? You hear some strange things from Virginians. “I couldn’t move to NoVa because NoVa is nothing but strip malls”. Really? What’s Midlothian? What’s Rt 29 north of Charlottesville? I don’t care that many Americans find it too inconvenient to relocate for a better job. I just want them to accept those decisions and live within their means rather than thinking everybody else’s money is really their money.

  10. Don, when i was moving from a Cleveland suburb to Richmond in 2000 my daughters were in grade school. One teacher was very concerned that the Virginia schools were so bad but in fact they are as good or better as the Ohio ones

  11. Pingback: Undercover Billionaire and the Opportunity Narrative - Bacon's Rebellion

  12. Cleveland really has it all, can’t figure out why you moved to Richmond. I have a golf shirt from the “Cleveland Polka Hall of Fame.” Really quite beautiful, a deep color blue with an accordion on the logo.

  13. Jim Bacon says:

    “I have fallen into a trap — a snare of my own making. Day after day, Americans are subjected to a barrage of commentary and “news” on the topic of racial/gender-driven victimhood and grievance, the most recent example being today’s New York Times‘ 16019 Project, which reinterprets American history through the lens of slavery and racism as if they were the sole defining attributes of the American experience. And I react to this stuff…”

    Yes, you have been taken for a long ride. Your reaction is exactly what the New Times hoped to accomplish. In that process, the Times hopes to destroy your history, your culture, and your identity. The goal of the New York Times is not to build good clear eyed history. It is the reverse. The New York Times wants to twist historical events into a cascading meme: a muddled, mangled mess of negative emotions laden with historically twisted ideology, a black and white monster without nuance or humanity. This creature the Times wants to use as a battering ram to stoke anger, hate, insecurity and division among Americans, pitting groups against one another, a society of victors and victims that will marshal that roiling mess all into radically new factions of political power built on racial conflict that destroys, like the French Revolution.

    • I suspect that the New York Times will come to regret its 1619 Project, as they have gotten into an area of history that is far over their head, and that the Times butchering of history will be exposed as a propaganda campaign of fictions, half truths, and outright falsehoods, waged to smear a nation and its people, for cheap political advantage.

      Already the New York Times 1619 Project is being picked apart and exposed by writers who know what they are talking about. Below is a small extract from a fine article that appeared yesterday in the Federalists entitled “The Ghost Of John C. Calhoun Haunts Today’s American Left, by John Daniel Davison, a senior correspondent for The Federalist:

      “The irony of the New York Times’ 1619 Project is that it embraces the critique of the American Founding espoused by the leading defender of Southern slavery, Sen. John C. Calhoun.

      It’s impossible to understand The New York Times’ 1619 Project as anything but sweeping historical revisionism in the service of contemporary left-wing politics.

      The gist of the project, named for the year the first Africans were brought to North America to be sold as slaves, is that everything about America, from our capitalist economy to our politics to the food we eat, can be explained by slavery and race. In other words, America was conceived in sin, born of evil intent, and all its lofty ideals about equality and liberty are nothing but a sham—the hypocritical stylings of slavers and white supremacists bent on the subjugation of their fellow man.

      The Times is unambiguous: “In the days and weeks to come, we will publish essays demonstrating that nearly everything that has made America exceptional grew out of slavery.” The arrival of those slaves in Virginia in 1619, we’re told, “inaugurated a barbaric system of chattel slavery that would last for the next 250 years and form the basis for almost every aspect of American life.”

      Everything that made America exceptional, every aspect of American life, all of it the legacy of slavery. The Times’ entire purpose here, by its own admission, is to “reframe the country’s history” by placing slavery “at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.” It should come as no surprise that, in this telling, we are an irredeemably wicked people, and always have been.

      The 1619 Project Is Garbage History

      … For example, the essay that launches the project, by Nikole Hannah-Jones, is premised on a series of false assertions about the American Founding, including that the Revolution was fought to protect slavery, that the British Empire was turning against slavery in the eighteenth century, and that the American Founders consciously disbelieved the ideals they espoused. Historically speaking, there’s no evidence for any of that.

      … She (also) argues persuasively that African-Americans are the true believers in America’s Founding ideals, but also that they are dupes because the ideals are a lie—a view thoroughly refuted by the likes of Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, Jr., who understood the principles of the Founding as a “promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.”

      … “(But) Perhaps the most disingenuous essay of the bunch is by Times opinion columnist Jamelle Bouie, who argues that the debt ceiling crisis of 2011 and Sen. Mitch McConnell’s use of the filibuster can be traced directly back to the political philosophy of John C. Calhoun and the secessionists of the antebellum South.

      No, really …

      … Calhoun Thought The Constitution Was Based On a Lie

      Bouie’s ignorance of Calhoun’s philosophical project helps explain his confusion over the Founding. …

      …Why would southerners at the time of the Founding support a prohibition on slavery on such a grand scale, and at such an early stage in the life of the new republic? The left will answer that it was all a cynical ploy to prevent future northern states from becoming competitors in the cotton industry.

      A far better historical explanation is that, from its founding, Americans really did believe in their principles—and were acutely aware of the gulf between those principles and practice, above all the practice of slavery. That’s one reason more than one-third of the states between 1776 and 1800 abolished slavery, and even more of them, including southern states, restricted it.

      That’s also why Calhoun, a generation later, had to construct an entirely new political philosophy, based on junk science and metaphysical determinism, of American government: he knew it would be impossible to preserve slavery under the Founders’ constitutional system, so he set out to scrap it altogether. He nearly succeeded.

      … In 1850, Calhoun famously predicted the coming war. But, to quote Jaffa, “he did not see that the Union had an interest in human freedom that was different from its interests in commerce, manufactures, or land. He did not see this because, although a patriot himself, there was no room in his theory of the human soul for love of country, any more than for love of justice.”

      What a bitter irony, then, that Bouie and the Times have come around to embracing the central tenets of Calhounian thought: that the American Founding was a monstrous lie, that natural law is pure folly, and that the promissory note is worthless.” End extract of article by John Daniel Davison, a senior correspondent for The Federalist.

      For much more of this very fine article found in The Federalists, go to:

  14. You, sir, sound like a statesman with these words. Thank you.

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