What is “upward mobility”? Integral to the mythology of the American Dream, upward mobility is the idea that people can climb the socioeconomic ladder and transcend inherited disadvantage through some combination of education, industry, and opportunity. Despite folk valorization of this idea and social scientists’ dissection of it, there is a limited vocabulary available for how to understand the ethical travails people face in their socioeconomic ascent. How can we better understand the common personal challenges people from disadvantaged communities face in their quest for upward mobility? A recent answer worth noting comes not from a social scientist, but from a philosopher.
In Moving Up without Losing Your Way, Jennifer M. Morton provides a new vocabulary for how we talk about the interpersonal and familial challenges people face in their quest to actualize the American Dream. The primary site Morton organizes her book around is higher education, which is often—though controversially—understood to be the conveyor belt to the middle and upper classes.
Morton doesn’t simply diagnose the sharp obstacles and real impossibilities that some talented college students face. Instead, she goes much further: insisting on wholly new narratives for understanding how upwardly mobile students might thrive, and why they often might not. And she offers guidance for how the upwardly mobile might stay grounded, even as they “rise,” by drawing strength and integrity from their communities of origin.
From Mark Twain’s 1873 parody of Horatio Alger’s stories to W. E. B. Du Bois’s concept of the Talented Tenth, scholars and cultural producers have long attempted to paint nuanced pictures of unlikely mobilities. Two extraordinary individuals from Los Angeles offer insight into the dilemmas people face on the proverbial road to riches.
Joseph Stanley Sanders, one of Watts’s brightest sons, is an unusually credentialed black man. Indeed, he seems the very definition of “upward mobility.” In addition to being a Whittier College alum, he has the distinction of being a Rhodes Scholar. Sanders also wields an Oxford graduate degree in one hand and a Yale Law degree in the other. And yet, in 1967, two years after the famous Watts uprising, Sanders somberly declared: “I’ll never escape from the ghetto.”
In an Ebony article that blended Sanders’s texts with pictures of him with his father, classmates of different racial identities, black activist Ocie Pastard, and legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin, the Watts native explained the dilemmas that arise when people leave communities that are central to their identities.1
For example, when Sanders opted to work in a Watts poverty program during a summer between classes, he was criticized from inside and outside of his community. People foreign to Watts claimed Sanders had “given up” a summer vacation, whereas neighborhood skeptics said he was “either a federal agent or a fool,” because “no reasonable man, they said, returns to Watts by choice.”
Nevertheless, Sanders made it clear that he had “affectionate ties” to his neighborhood, and that his interest in law stemmed from his concern about Watts. He knew that the conditions of that community were far from ideal, but still felt a sense of obligation to it. Sanders would go on to spend his first few years after graduation working at the Western Center on Law and Poverty. After moving into private practice and specializing in corporate law, Sanders ultimately became the founding partner of his own firm, in 1978. At that point, he could have pursued one route in the upward-mobility narrative that involves desertion of one’s former neighborhood. Instead, Sanders balanced corporate life with involvement in local politics and representation of various Watts community organizations.
Fast-forward four decades and one can see the dilemmas of upward mobility taking place a few neighborhoods over. Last year a family, the city of Los Angeles, and the larger hip-hop community mourned the loss of American rapper and entrepreneur Ermias Asghedom, also known as Nipsey Hussle.
At first glance, Asghedom’s story stands in sharp contrast to Sanders’s. Nipsey did not have the same educational bona fides as Sanders did, though he confidently explains, on tracks like “Blue Laces 2,” how he “dropped out of school, I’ma teach myself.” Ensconced among “third generation South Central gangbangers,” the noted Crip-member-turned-rapper-entrepreneur often rapped about German cars, bottles of Veuve Clicquot, and pungent marijuana in ways that would defy the portrait of respectable black upward mobility presented in Ebony.
But Nipsey also had a notable attachment to his hometown neighborhood that mirrors the inescapability of the ghetto, as described by Sanders. Opting for a brand of palpable hip-hop philanthropy, Nipsey opened up a local clothing store, as well as a coworking space for minorities in STEM. He also refurbished elementary school basketball courts and helped to revive a neighborhood roller rink. As former president Barack Obama noted in a letter that was read during Nipsey’s memorial at the Staples Center, “While most folks look at the Crenshaw neighborhood where he grew up and see only gangs, bullets, and despair, Nipsey saw potential. He saw hope. He saw a community that, even through its flaws, taught him to always keep going. His choice to invest in that community rather than ignore it … is a legacy worthy of celebration.”2
For Nipsey, just as for Sanders, “the ghetto” was a place that he was unwilling to abandon. Each chose to engage with his origins in different, though productive ways. Rather than simply remembering where they were from, these individuals actively stayed true to their origins by leveraging their statuses and resources to serve their communities.
Our narratives of upward mobility do not capture the opportunity costs and difficult choices that disadvantaged students face.
It is this choice, to move forward while still productively engaging with one’s past, that forms the heart of Morton’s useful book. The protagonists of Moving Up without Losing Your Way are a resilient group of young adults, whom the author refers to as “strivers.” These are students who grow up poor or working class and are often the first in their families to go to college. This population is diverse and includes, but is not limited to, racial minorities, poor whites, and first-generation immigrants. Like the “doubly disadvantaged” students sociologist Anthony Abraham Jack has powerfully described, these students do not inherit or possess the kinds of social, cultural, or financial capital that our stratified society unevenly distributes.3
COVID-19 postdates the publication of Morton’s book by a few months. But the shuttering of universities and colleges demonstrates the depths of income inequality in higher education and makes this book seem even more perceptive. These strivers are the high schoolers taking gap years to support financially fragile families; undergraduates returning home to cramped and crowded living quarters that are not conducive to learning; first-generation professional students who are the primary income earners in their family. These are dilemmas students from privileged backgrounds do not typically endure. Their road to success is patterned differently.
Our narratives of upward mobility are misleading, as Morton decisively argues across only 161 pages, and these narratives do not capture the opportunity costs and difficult choices that disadvantaged students face.
Morton is not the first person to describe the myths and ordeals of upward mobility. Nor is she the first to call attention to this group of striving students.4 But where Morton differs—and meaningfully contributes—is in her perspective as a philosopher. She breaks away from the attractively inclusive aura that first-gen rhetoric connotes. Instead, Morton uses her experience as a professor at the City College of New York, where she has been able to conduct interviews with strivers themselves, to unveil the unpleasant side of ladder climbing.
Upward mobility, and college in particular, poses challenges to strivers’ relationships with their families, friends, and communities, as well as to their senses of identity. In Morton’s narrative, these relationships and senses of self are ethical goods; they are ethical because they concern “those aspects of a life that give it value and meaning.”
Yet upward mobility can challenge the maintenance of these ethical goods. Of course, students from privileged backgrounds also possess these ethical goods. But because of these students’ background, the kinds of sacrifices—or ethical trade-offs—they have to make are fundamentally different.
Consider a variant of the example offered by Morton. Jared is raised in a well-to-do nuclear family of five, in the Los Angeles suburbs. Janet comes from a working-class family of four, in East Los Angeles. Both are freshmen at UCLA, and both are exceptional students. Their fathers are seriously ill. They both have excellent relationships with their respective fathers, so the nature of these ethical goods is similar. But the ethical trade-offs may be different.
Jared’s father has great employer-based health care, and his family has a reserve of savings that allows them to hire a caretaker. Janet’s family does not have these same opportunities for support. This may impose some family obligations on Janet that are explicit (such as her help being needed with babysitting or taking her father to his appointments) or implicit (such as a sense of duty that also has unique class and gender implications). While Jared goes home to see his father as often as possible, his visits may not have the same obligatory features. Janet, by contrast, has less time for assignments and misses some occasional classes because of these new commitments.
One piece of advice a professor or college counselor may offer Janet is that she needs to prioritize her education, limit her obligations, and manage her family’s expectations of her. To some this would seem callous. Another piece of advice would be for Janet to prioritize her family. But this would not comport with our standard mobility narrative. This advice would likely impact Janet’s academic performance. It could also lead to assumptions of incompetence by Janet’s professors (who are statistically unlikely to come from the same socioeconomic stratum as their student) or foment self-doubt in an otherwise capable 19-year-old facing a trying set of circumstances.
Now substitute Jared’s and Janet’s fathers’ sicknesses with financial precarity and need for an additional family income that is lost when a young adult goes to college; or a sibling’s involvement in the criminal justice system; or a mother’s need for technical or linguistic assistance navigating labyrinthine social services agencies; or housing insecurity; or a bureaucratic error that leads to the termination of public benefits.
Or consider the spatial mobility that upward mobility sometimes necessitates. This could be the striver who attends an elite college on the other side of the country, or the striver from a difficult-to-reach, rural part of the state. Imagine these two individuals navigating the aforementioned challenges. These dynamics also appear once one has left college and enters the workforce.
An underdiscussed reality—which we might refer to as a local brain drain—is often invisible in standard mobility narratives.
All of these concerns of privilege, economics, and geography are quandaries that Morton wants to highlight. In her view, the uncritical embrace of socioeconomic diversity, along with one-dimensional understandings of upward mobility, fails to account for the kinds of ethical trade-offs that strivers have to make in order to succeed in college and thereafter. And the ethical costs and trade-offs that strivers face also impact their communities and their senses of self.
When we encourage high school and college students to use education to lift themselves out of poverty, we are, in some ways, encouraging them to leave communities that they may not meaningfully return to, reside in, or bring their newfound capital to. This is a problem, because, as Morton describes, strivers who stay or return back to their communities make substantial contributions, “whether as a role model for other children, through volunteering, or by simply helping neighbors who need it.”
Since these communities are already disadvantaged, “the people in them depend on each other to provide critical support,” which exacerbates the costs of a striver’s departure. But for some strivers, opting into a neighborhood with heavy police presence, poor schools, and limited access to nutritious food is an unreasonable proposition. This underdiscussed reality—which we might refer to as a local brain drain—is often invisible in standard mobility narratives.
But strivers’ senses of identity are impacted, too. People unfortunately come to conclusions about competence, occupational fit, and deservingness based on where people are from, in addition to the bodies they occupy. This leads to the well-documented practice of code-switching—which is applicable to higher education and the workplace.
While professionally expedient, this practice of moving between the “real self” and the “professional self” also has costs that are not readily accessible to the peddlers of the upward-mobility narrative. These ethical costs may not be readily apparent to strivers who face circumstances where they have to make a choice between one of their many worlds or identities. As legal scholars Randall Kennedy, Devon W. Carbado, and Mitu Gulati have suggested, this kind of toggling can invite accusations of betrayal, and lead to performances of identity that harm strivers.5
Importantly, this book is generally free of proselytization. The author is not interested in telling her audience that they should privilege family over their education, or their careers over their family. That choice, in her opinion, is for the reader to make. She just wants strivers, and the people that they interface with (their families, communities, educators, and administrators), to be aware of the costs and the active negotiations that come with these young adults’ unique social position.
Having clarity on the ethical challenges of striving toward the American Dream leads Morton to close her book by emphasizing two strong positions. Morton calls for strivers to be more reflective about their social location and insists that we showcase the unglamorous aspects of social mobility to better support strivers.
First, she wants strivers to resist the complicity that can come with upward mobility. Here she draws on the story of Hristo Smirnenski, an early 20th-century Bulgarian communist, who wrote a short story titled “The Tale of the Stairs.” In it, a poor young man climbs a staircase to gain revenge on some well-fed nobles and princes at the top, for the suffering of his kinfolk on the bottom. The Devil, who serves as the guardian of the steps, refuses to allow the man to pass without a series of bribes.
Since he is poor, Smirnenski’s protagonist has nothing to offer, but the Devil settles for the man’s hearing. After taking a permitted three steps, the man no longer hears groans and misery, but instead hears happy singing and laughter. Thereafter, the Devil asks for the man’s eyes, in exchange for permission to go up three steps. The man complains that he would not be able “to see my brothers or those I go to punish,” to which the Devil responds by offering a better set of eyes. After objecting, and then relenting, the man no longer sees naked, bleeding bodies. Instead, he sees “beautiful clothes” and bodies with “splendid red roses.” Finally, the Devil demands the man’s heart and memory. After accepting, and reaching the top of the stairs, the man becomes “radiant, happy and content.” From above he sees his people down below “in holiday attire,” and “their groans were now hymns.” The Devil asks him who he is, and the man responds, “I am a prince by birth and the gods are my brothers. How beautiful the world is and how happy are the people!”
Morton uses this story to warn strivers—particularly those who have ascended into the positions of power—against reinforcing the structures that have extracted so much from their own social climb. Morton is wary of the strong possibility that strivers, like the man in Smirnenski’s story, can easily forget their modest rearings. She wants them to know that their actions can either maintain or subvert the status quo. She admits this is tricky, since the disruption of the status quo involves real risk to “hard-earned status.” Put simply, conformism can be attractively normal, but professional immolation and martyrdom is never sexy. Still, Morton asks strivers to challenge these structures, and consider their positions within them. Here, one is reminded of the folk saying, “don’t forget where you come from,” or the related motto of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs: “Lifting as we climb.”
While Morton carefully avoids heavy-handed prescriptions, the scholarship of USC scholar Elda María Román, who has studied racial mobility narratives in black and Mexican American literature, is helpful. Her work highlights three relevant archetypes that appear in these stories: status seekers, who seek mainstream approval; mediators, who leverage their new statuses in service of their less privileged counterparts; and gatekeepers, who use their positions to hoard resources for themselves to the exclusion of their comrades.6 While there are certainly more categorical possibilities, strivers need to specifically situate themselves either within or outside these categories, and reflect on the ethical costs and trade-offs that come with that location.
The second major point of the book’s conclusion is the need to transform the narratives of upward mobility, and to emphasize the messier parts of this version of success. These new narratives can inform how we think about admission in the educational context, as well as hiring in the employment realm. Such new ways of thinking about upward mobility should be a part of retention strategies and intentional programming in both settings.
The author acknowledges that the mobility of the few is not the neatest remedy for the structural determinants of inequality. In fact, the contributions of the book, while instructive, are nonetheless a far cry from the radical redistribution of resources that progressives call for in a truly equitable society.
But considering the current dictates of capitalism, true prosperity for all is aspirational and elusive. This makes the travails of those who are fortunate to move up the economic ladder worthy of our attention. And that’s true, even if reforming upward mobility is only a stopgap for some brighter and more egalitarian world. In the meantime, as the late Nip Hussle the Great would often say, “The marathon continues.”
This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloom.
- Stanley Sanders, “I’ll Never Escape from the Ghetto,” Ebony, August 1967. ↩
- See Niraj Chokshi, “Barack Obama’s Letter at Nipsey Hussle’s Funeral: ‘He Saw Hope,’” New York Times, April 11, 2019. Still, any serious consumer of Nipsey’s oeuvre will tell you that his unwavering commitment to his neighborhood was complicated. His loyalty to Slauson and Crenshaw—the streets that were emblazoned on his mixtapes and repped in his songs, and were the site of his untimely demise—was juxtaposed against the less glamorous aspects of prosperity: the criticism that comes when one is self-possessed and charts their own path, often from people who were envious of him “like it’s a crime to evolve.” ↩
- Anthony Abraham Jack, The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students (Harvard University Press, 2019). ↩
- Undergraduate universities are increasingly developing dedicated summer programs, directories, and student centers for this specific group. This first-gen activity has bubbled up to professional schools and the workplace, with law schools and law firms increasingly developing “first-generation professionals” affinity groups for people who are the first in their families to labor in the white-collar world. ↩
- See Randall Kennedy, Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal (Vintage, 2009); Devon W. Carbado and Mitu Gulati, Acting White? Rethinking Race in “Post-Racial” America (Oxford University Press, 2013). Taking another step, Morton illustrates how code-switching can be untenable as a personal matter. Most simply, there are some moments when our identities cannot be neatly divided. These are instances when people from different aspects of strivers’ lives collide, or when circumstances require the striver to make a choice between work and family/community. Code-switching that is unreflective of ethical goods and ethical tradeoffs, Morton maintains, leaves people unmoored and subject to the whims of circumstance. ↩
- Elda María Román, Race and Upward Mobility: Seeking, Gatekeeping, and Other Class Strategies in Postwar America (Stanford University Press, 2017). ↩