Magazine Feature

Debunking the Mobility Myth

The American dream discriminates on the basis of color. How do we explain that to African-American children?
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Illustration by Carlos Babase

Both my parents were born on plantations in the 1960s Mississippi Delta, years after the history books claim that sharecropping had ended in the South. That means that I, born in 1988, was of the first generation on both sides of my family not to be born on a plantation. After a decidedly working-class upbringing in rural Leland, Mississippi, I—the child of former sharecroppers—ended up earning a doctorate from Duke University and working as a sociology professor at the University of Texas in Austin.

On its face, my trajectory from Leland to Austin epitomizes the American Dream—proof that upward mobility is available to anyone willing to work hard and make the right sacrifices. Parents work for a better life for their children who, in turn, go on to perform slightly better in life than their parents. But despite the United States being dubbed the “land of opportunity,” my story is atypical—particularly for black Americans. Research consistently demonstrates that upward social mobility is uncommon for families like mine. Indeed, among middle-class black Americans, downward mobility is the norm.

Yet, research also shows that formal education can weaken the barriers black people face. Taken together, these facts raise vital questions for the teachers of black children about the best ways to help black students navigate a world of discrimination.


The Myth of the American Dream

Despite what we’re told about the American Dream, upward mobility for black Americans is relatively rare. According to the Brookings Institution, 51 percent of black Americans born into the bottom 20 percent of income earners remain there as adults. By comparison, only 23 percent of white Americans born into the bottom 20 percent of income earners remain there.

Even more alarming are the rates at which black Americans experience downward mobility. Black individuals born into middle- and upper-middle class homes fall into lower income brackets as adults at much higher rates than white Americans born into those same income positions. Furthermore, a 2017 study by economists William J. Collins and Marianne H. Wanamaker shows that differences in upward mobility between black and white Americans have remained consistent since 1880; they suggest that the lack of upward mobility for black Americans may be primarily responsible for the ongoing income gap between racial groups. Confronted with these facts, teachers of black students, particularly lower-income black students, face a tall task. Not only must educators explore ways to help students survive and thrive despite their individual challenges or limitations, but they also must seek to deconstruct the barriers students face—and empower students to join in that process of deconstruction.

"It may feel harsh or unkind to tell black students that they won’t be afforded the same opportunities as some of their fellow citizens. But honestly engaging them about the limitations of their social positions can help them understand that the barriers they face are real."

The Importance of Engaging With Race

One of the first steps toward changing an unfair system is to recognize its existence, and to share that recognition with students. It may feel harsh or unkind to tell black students that they won’t be afforded the same opportunities as some of their fellow citizens. But honestly engaging them about the limitations of their social positions can help them understand that the barriers they face are real. More importantly, it shows that these barriers are not of their own construction.  And evidence shows that addressing these issues with students can make a difference for them in the classroom and beyond.

A 2017 study by Erin B. Godfrey and colleagues published in the journal Child Development, for example, shows that middle schoolers of color acted out more when they were taught that society was fair. They exhibited lower self-esteem, more delinquency and overall worse classroom behavior. These students were lashing out at a system that denies them success even if they work hard. And when adults insisted on the fairness of that system, they were implying that the students themselves were to blame for struggling—an attitude that can easily breed fatalism and hopelessness.

Kate Gluckman, executive director of the Sunflower County Freedom Project in Mississippi, says that when her students learn how their lives and communities have been shaped by racism that is outside their control, they seem to feel as if a weight has been lifted from their shoulders.

“I think that they maybe get some satisfaction out of knowing ... there’s an explanation of the struggles they see in their communities,” she says. “It’s not just that your community is bad and people are lazy ... but to say, ‘No, this is a result of deliberate action, and let’s talk about that.’”

Incorporating discussions of race into the curriculum not only frees black students from the burden of feeling as if their struggles are a result of their own internal shortcomings; it also engages them in topics that pique their interest. They perform better when they discuss ideas that affect their lives in ways that are recognizable, immediate and significant. Cortez Moss, principal of Mississippi’s Quitman County Middle School, told me that when black students take time to understand the concepts in lessons about race and racism—even if what they learn makes them angry—their academic performance seems to trend upward.

“[T]hey struggled initially with being able to decode the language in Invisible Man, but after some analysis work, the students became very enraged and very frustrated with the text and what was happening in the text and later started moving to a place of questions,” he says. “Not only does the research tell us when students are engaged in high-interest texts, they have a tendency to perform better, but I saw that firsthand. ... Students perform better when their education is situated within the context of their communities or their culture or their background.”

The spark that this type of engagement ignites in students can have a massive positive effect on their long-term success. I still remember my first encounter with Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. It was the first text I’d read (outside of Black History Month lessons) to deal frankly with America’s racial reality. Like Moss’ students, I battled with the content of the book. I was fighting my own resistance and a lifetime of being told that my generation had overcome the violence of racial oppression. Eventually, like Gluckman’s students, I realized that characteristics of my hometown I had always viewed as benign—the dilapidated housing, the racial homogeneity of my high school—were, in fact, markers of persistent and pernicious racial and economic stratification. This awakening, prompted by a single text given to me by an educator, carried me through college and graduate school. Ultimately, it led me to pursue a career studying race and inequality.


Changing the System

Like the teacher who slipped me the copy of Ellison I still own, some educators have developed effective strategies for helping black students occasionally achieve the type of upward mobility supposedly valued in this country. But these strategies are only stopgap solutions and, while well-intentioned, they fall short of our ultimate goal as educators and as a society: to repair a system that forces students of color to work harder than their white counterparts.

This is, of course, easier said than done, and not only because of the inherent difficulties of changing large institutions. Change requires resources, and too often educators are forced to devote many of their best resources to simply preventing students from slipping further and further behind.

At Life Academy, a small public school in Oakland, California, teacher Lisa Kelly considers how the day-to-day rigors of teaching limit educators’ ability to enact large-scale changes in a system that she says was “never meant to serve all American students.” To best serve black and brown students, Kelly says, educators need to “actually create a new system that is meant to serve.”

“So often, we’re bogged down by the, ‘well my sixth-graders can’t write sentences, and ... I have to get their grade reports out, and I have to call this parent about that, and I have to do this,’” she says. “I can’t ever get my head above water to see how screwed up the system is and to imagine how the system could be different.”

Another challenge is the sheer size of the task at hand. What does it mean to “create a new system”? The ambiguity itself makes the idea seem too big to handle.

One answer is to maintain focus on the students themselves. In Mississippi, Moss was able to push his school district to begin important systemic changes in their interactions with students, including hiring a number of mental health professionals and offering training for their teachers to help them better work with students who have experienced trauma—racial and otherwise. Such new policies represent important, concrete steps to closing the persistent resource gap between schools that serve primarily black students and those that primarily serve white students. But it is only a start.

Black schools continue to lack the resources—such as funding for foundational courses like chemistry and advanced algebra—to offer their students a fair chance to compete in college. (I recall instructing my high school classmates in chemistry because our school’s chemistry teacher was not certified in the subject.) Closing this gap requires the type of tenacity and innovation that teachers are denied the opportunity to pursue day to day. Also, activists, administrators and community members must be prepared to share the burden of finding ways to permanently offer black students the resources they need to succeed.


Empowering the Students

Finally, we can encourage students to be their own advocates and become agents of change. Students do not idly accept inequality. Gluckman reports that her students are often moved to activism and express a willingness to take on large challenges in their communities.

“I feel like there’s a cycle of gaining this understanding and being empowered through that understanding. Then, there’s this period of wanting to do action,” she says. “'OK, I know you want to desegregate your town, but how can you do that within your community? Who can you reach out to across those lines?’... When we have the right balance, students can be motivated through that investigation of both the history, but also the current evaluation of their communities and schools.”

This type of student empowerment brings discussions of inequality full circle. Not only do students become more engaged with their work; they become more engaged with their communities. In this way, teaching race in the classroom compounds positive effects by helping students navigate their oppression and helping them combat it.

A fair amount of good fortune and the right attention from the right teachers at critical times in my life allowed me to overcome the challenges of a childhood in one of the poorest places in the nation. But good fortune is labeled as such because it is uncommon; most black children from similar circumstances won’t have my luck. Until the opportunities that now present as “good fortune” are the norm for black students, we have a long way to go, even in simply offering them equitable educational prospects—and in debunking the myth of the American Dream.

Reece is an assistant professor in the sociology department at University of Texas at Austin.