The “Rules” of Social Mobility

This guest post is published as part of a series related to the American Sociological Association conference, which occurs from August 12 – 15 in Montreal, Quebec. #ASA17

By Ranita Ray, author of The Making of a Teenage Service Class: Poverty and Mobility in an American City

Trump’s administration considers “inner city” violence, drug use, and teen pregnancy to be major issues in perpetuating the cycle of poverty in black and brown communities. Those who embrace this rhetoric consider black and brown residents of this country as responsible for their own socio-economic marginalization. This rhetoric is embedded within racist ideologies that construct black and brown communities as culturally depraved. However, the assumption that various “risk behaviors” such as drug use, violence, and teen pregnancy are overwhelmingly responsible for economic marginalization of black and brown communities is regrettably not unique to the current administration.

Many progressive liberals including academics consider risk behaviors as one of the central stories of poverty, although they offer structural explanations that are vastly different than the cultural deficiency (of economically marginalized black and brown communities) arguments. Many liberals consider it important to make visible how and why poverty causes black and brown youth to become teen parents, drug users, and gang members.

While drug use and violence are arguably issues we need to tackle, they are hardly unique to economically marginalized black and brown communities. For example, rate of drug use is fairly consistent across all communities, police violence killed 991 civilians in the year 2015, and postponing pregnancy does not benefit economically marginalized women the way in benefits middle-class women. Moreover, overwhelming majority of economically marginalized black and brown U.S. Americans do not use drugs or join gangs, and they do not become teen parents.

Why then do we write about drugs, gangs, violence, and teen parenthood as the central stories of poverty? Why do government and non-profit organizations, schools, and communities focus on preventing risk behaviors among black and brown youth as the key to breaking the cycle of poverty? What are the consequences of this overwhelming focus on risk behaviors? These are some of the questions I tackle in my book The Making of A Teenage Service Class.

I spent three years among sixteen young economically marginalized black and brown youth, who denounce drugs, gangs and early parenthood, and pursue higher education and white-collar work, to find out if they are able to go beyond their families’ class positions. Their families, teachers, communities, and the youth themselves had to navigate the rhetoric that they were at risk of teen pregnancy, drugs, gangs, and violence by virtue of their membership in a particular socio-economic group. They were told that avoiding these risk behaviors should be their priority, and that should they be successful in avoiding them and pursuing higher education, they could lead the middle-class American dream. The young people were adamant on avoiding these risk behaviors, imagined that they are indeed socially mobile on counts of not engaging in risk behaviors, and stigmatized their friends, neighbors and family members who did not play by the “mobility rules.” On one hand, the young people struggled with hunger, subpar transportation, untreated illnesses, and lack of access to computers, Internet and college support programs while balancing school with minimum wage jobs. On the other hand, the community spent its resources and time in “preventing” risk behaviors.

This overwhelming focus on risk behaviors overshadows structural shortcomings and it reinforces race and class hierarchies by feeding the stereotypes that black and brown youth are at risk and that their behaviors are in need for modification. While there is a difference in how those in different ends of the political spectrum understand the causes of risk behaviors, what is dangerously similar is how risk behaviors are ubiquitously constructed as the central story of poverty around which policies ought to be built.

What we should ask ourselves—irrespective of our location on the political spectrum—is, how can we support all youth and their dreams and desires instead of focusing on risk behaviors? We know that avoiding early parenthood does not increase chances of mobility among poor black and brown youth, drug use is not unique to black and brown youth, and violence is related to mass incarceration in the U.S.—why are we preoccupied with these issues among economically marginalized black and brown youth at the cost of supporting their educational and occupational goals, and fostering larger structural changes?


Ranita Ray is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.