Why We Don’t Talk Honestly About Mobility

A hidden conversation is constantly taking place in the United States. It is a conversation about who is deserving, who is successful, and who has done better for themselves than other people. The measuring stick for these conversations is financial wealth, and we don’t have this conversation out in the open. Instead, we have this conversation covertly, by expressing who we are with the things we have and the places we go. Having the most stuff, the most expensive car, the biggest house, and taking the best trips is a sign of success, and all these factors allow us to compare ourselves to those who have and do not have as much as we do. Our country tells us that material wealth is what we should desire, and we tell ourselves that anyone can achieve great wealth as long as they try hard. Those who don’t achieve great wealth, in this conversation, obviously are not hard working, and didn’t get the memo that bettering themselves and working hard is the way to be successful in our country.

Michelle Alexander would like to change the way this conversation takes place. Specifically, Alexander wants to address caste systems in America and highlight the lack of mobility in our country. In The New Jim Crow she writes,

“Conversations about class are resisted in part because there is a tendency to imagine that one’s class reflects upon one’s character. What is key to America’s understanding of class is the persistent belief—despite all evidence to the contrary—that anyone, with the proper discipline and drive, can move from a lower class to a higher class. We recognize that mobility may be difficult, but the key to our collective self image is the assumption that mobility is always possible, so failure to move up reflects on one’s character. By extension, the failure of a race or ethnic group to move up reflects very poorly on the group as a whole.”

By anchoring success around financial wealth, we create a zero sum system where more wealth for one person means less wealth for another. This is a broad overstatement to be sure, but it is the way that many people feel, and it is accurate when comparing success defined by material wealth with success defined by many religious ideals, or success defined by service and impact within the community. We avoid talking honestly about mobility challenges, because to remedy the problem means to give up some level of material success so that others may join in. This reduces our measuring stick of success and gives others an unfair leap up the ladder of financial success, at least as we understand it.

Our nation will never see racial equity if we continue to think of success purely in financial terms and if we ignore the ways that our society has embraced racial and economic castes. We must be honest about the lack of mobility within our society and recognize that a drive toward material wealth is a drive toward a goal that we cannot control on our own. Individuals and groups may be hard workers, but not all hard work is rewarded with wealth. The impact of our effort is not always reflected by our salaries, and the total of our bank account is often impacted by factors beyond our control. In a nation that in its history has implemented policies to minimize the wealth accumulation of black people while enhancing the wealth accumulation of white people, we should be honest about our caste system and about the ways in which economic mobility has been denied to certain people. Our current system ignores the reality of financial wealth, encourages sometimes dangerous competition in a zero-sum world, and pretends that everyone can be upwardly mobile as long as they have the right character traits.