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Can Upward Mobility for Black Folks Really Exist?

I’m at a cocktail party fundraiser at a chic bar, in the middle of a crowd of middle and upper middle, mostly White people in their late 20s, 30s, and 40s. Everyone is dressed in their best cocktail attire, with the women carrying all manner of designer bags. As I look around at the crowd, and seeing maybe two or three other Black faces, I feel so out of place.

Similar scenes like the one above have been replayed throughout my life in the past few years; where although I try my best to look like I belong, I never actually feel like I belong. All I end up thinking about is the cheapness of the dress I have on that I got on sale at TJ Maxx, my non-designer heels from Macys, and the one designer purse that I destroyed my wallet to get. As I hear people’s conversations about their vacations and jobs, my relative poverty makes me more distressed than ever. Despite my advanced degree and downtown apartment, I do not feel like a young upwardly mobile Black woman who has it all. Mounting student loan debt, high rents in the big city, and a low paying nonprofit job has me feeling as if I haven’t progressed at all from my working poor childhood. Judging from my relatives’ Instagram photos of cars and houses, I think I’m doing worse than the ones who didn’t attend college.

When reading articles about Black STEM graduates having a higher unemployment rate than White graduates, and how Black people from middle class backgrounds end up poor as adults, it makes me wonder, is upward mobility possible for the vast majority of Black people in the United States? Despite national unemployment being at 5%, the black unemployment rate is almost double, at 9.5%. As you can see from the statistic above about Black STEM graduates, even a degree geared toward high salary, and ever growing industries, is not a panacea against unemployment for Black people. Even for the Black people who grew up with some economic advantage, those advantages don’t seem to last throughout their adulthood. We take on more student loan debt, have higher unemployment, and employers pay us less. This income inequity doesn’t seem like something that can be solved by webinars and workshops on saving, budgeting and investment. Would it have been personally helpful for me to receive guidance on credit, strategies for saving money, and the importance of having a 401k? Absolutely, but this guidance doesn’t get to the root of the issue, which is that our country is set up to purposely disadvantage Black people; from labor market racism, the slashing of budgets for higher education, criminalization and incarceration, the shredding of the safety net system, and job growth being in mostly low-wage, service sector employment. Yeah, a lucky few get to ascend the mountain of corporate success, but for the masses of us, we’re just trying to make sure all our bill are paid, we don’t overdraft, and hope that we don’t get a major illness or have an accident.

Back to the original question, is upward mobility for Black people possible? You can continue to try to pull yourself up by your bootstraps and work twice as hard to get half us much to make sure you and your people are good and forget everyone else, but that is a recipe for conditions to get worse than they already are. Instead of trying to increase the upward mobility of just a few us, let’s demand a basic standard of living for all of us. There are so many examples of grassroots organizing across the country, with people demanding a high quality standard of living for all, not just the few. I’ll list some organizing projects that you can plug into below.

Fight for $15

 

Grassroots Collaborative

Medicare for All

Southerners on New Ground

Detroit Black Community Food Security Network

Black Youth Project 100