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The Myth of the Level Playing Field

Updated: Sep 17, 2021

How equity-focused programs impact lives

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Op-ed (Published on July 22, 2021)

Author: Dr. RL Booker

Editor: Sara Bishop

After nine years of marriage, my wife and I found ourselves with five college degrees, one house, two careers, and one beautiful child. We believed that we were living the American Dream.

But instead of picket fences, our American Dream was built inside an $81,000 wall of student loans and consumer debt. After working for more than a decade in our prospective careers, we could not seem to make any significant headway towards paying off our debts or saving money. This was frustrating and discouraging, to say the least. We made a conscious decision to get out of debt.

We began Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University program in June of 2018. After months of hard work, a second job, and lots of sacrifices later, we found ourselves 100% debt-free. We didn’t owe anybody anything! To add to our accomplishment, we were featured on the Dave Ramsey show, which has over 14 million followers.

Following our appearance, family, friends—even strangers—offered unsolicited words of encouragement and celebration. From the hallways of work to the open discussions on Facebook, our debt pay-off story was met with well-intentioned comments that echoed the praises I had received when I graduated from college, “you do your people proud.” They matched the words I heard when I received my masters degree, “if only more people like you would buckle down and do what you did.” And they affirmed the popular opinion shared with me when I earned my doctorate, “you are an example of how anyone in this country can make it if you just work hard enough.”

Unfortunately, comments such as these have done little to contribute to my self-confidence, affirm my decisions or motivate me for higher aspirations. In fact, they remain a stubborn obstacle to overcome. Why? Because every time I heard these praises, I heard the sound of surprise.

This surprise ties into Black Exceptionalism, which is often used as a tool to deny all of the systemic barriers that many have faced and continue to face. Black Exceptionalism is the belief that black folk who rise to a prominent status within the dominant culture are the model to which all other black folks should aspire to be. Jared Loggins, writer and civil rights scholar stated, “the pitfalls of Black Exceptionalism are in who and what it betrays and in who and what it fails to acknowledge.”

The surprise at my success was proof to me that there is a single story of black men in this country and that is not the story that I was living. So many who congratulated me for pulling myself up by my bootstraps were oblivious to their own buy-in of that single story. They assumed that there are no systemic barriers to individual success and believed that failure is not a consequence of social structures but comes from a flaw in individual character. But that’s not my story.

While my story may seem to fit neatly in the American Dream playbook, I know, firsthand, that the myth of the level playing field has broken the bootstraps and backs and dreams of generations of minoritized people in this country. I know that the reality is that people who look like me are 1.5 to 7 times more likely, than others, to have a bad outcome in the 5 major societal systems: health, education, law enforcement, child welfare, and finance. Not because of a “flaw in individual character” but because of centuries of laws, policies, and practices that create structural barriers to access and success for minoritized people.

My success does not amplify the myth of the American Dream; it amplifies the hurdles I’ve had to jump and am still having to jump, most often because people didn’t even expect me to succeed in the first place.

I’ve overcome a lot of barriers, but I could not have done it on my own—my success is, in great part, a product of programs designed specifically to mitigate inequities.

I grew up in a single-parent household, and for a period of time, we lived below the poverty level and utilized government assistance just to get by. In the 9th through 12th grade, I joined Upward Bound, a federally funded college prep program for low-income and first-generation college students. Without access to these equity-focused programs, I would not be writing this today. And yet as my mom always says, “people see your glory, but don’t know your story”.

I want people to understand that my success story might be the exception, but it is not the rule. I am Dr. Rickey Lee Booker, Jr. whether I am in a three-piece suit reflecting to you an inspirational visage of the American Dream or in a white tee, a hoodie, and a thick sterling silver chain reflecting to you that startle-reflex single story of a black man in America.

In the words of Vernon Wall, President of the American College Personnel Association (ACPA), "I don’t want you to step outside your box, I want you to expand your box." Expand your box to see beyond the myth of the level playing field and work to build boxes and workplaces and communities that measure success through the lens of equity.


To learn more about the danger of the Single Story, listen to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie:


Debt-Free Scream



Love, B., & Hayes-Greene, D. (2018). The Groundwater Approach: Building a practical understanding of structural racism. The Racial Equity Insitute.

The Dave Ramsey Show. (2019, June 13). Don't Be Afraid To Be Weird! [Video]. Youtube.

Ted. (2009, Oct. 7). The danger of a single story | Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. [Video] Youtube.

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