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|The Five Ring Circus - Upward mobility in the 21st Century|
|Friday, 21 October 2011|
I have been trying to find a way to explain to a young Black person how to achieve prosperity and pursue happiness in the USA. This is a natural pursuit of all people. If this pursuit eludes many African Americans, what can be done to sustain the progress, and lift more of us out of the underclass conditions that we live in?
Here is what a young Black observer encounters as he or she contemplates alternatives for their future. The intent of this analysis is to construct a more effective upward mobility strategy for the 21st Century.
Life in the USA is like a 5
Navigating the Five Rings
of the Circus
As he chooses a career, he finds out how the business and political rings are connected, and what the expected behavior of an upwardly mobile class participant is. This forces him into a hard choice -- to adopt the ways of the upwardly mobile class, and discard the influences of the underclass from which he came, or remain in the underclass.
So, he leaves the community where he grew up to pursue a business career, start a family, and begin to build his "American Dream."
As he becomes more accepted in the Upwardly Mobile Class, he finds that advantages to be enjoyed are often at the expense of his former associates in the Underclass. They are largely un-educated, while his new associates are college graduates. He advances to a position where he has authority to hire new workers. However, the criteria that he must use (based on his corporate business leaders' worldview) excludes most of the underclass associates he once knew.
Soon, he finds himself complaining about taxes and the "irresponsible underclass." He is contributing to "keeping them in their place" while he moves upward. In another place I argue that he is "apologizing for being Black."
He becomes a business leader in the corporate mainstream, and finds himself on the golf course and at fund raising dinners with Politicians and Government Leaders. They appeal more to his upwardly mobile interests than to the interests of the underclass from whence he came.
He becomes actively engaged in party politics and encouraged to run for office. This requires him to raise money, which points him to business leaders and their special interests, as well as financially well-off other upwardly mobile class members. While he still has glimmers of the worldview developed while growing up in the underclass, his former underclass associates are NOT major factors in his political success. The social activist class reminds him of his roots, and he makes calculated overtures to the underclass to quiet their complaints.
Finally, he arrives at the pinnacle of political success. As he begins to govern and respond to the special interests of each of the supporters from the five rings, he crafts a statement that seeks to offend no one -- "A rising tide lifts all ships." Sound familiar?
An Upward Mobility
Strategy for the 21st Century
Here's a thought. The circus acts described above will likely go on forever. This is the foundation and essence of what America is. As some young folks say, "It is what it is." There may be small shifts, but no major changes in the class structure. That's what this is all about. Also, many African Americans have traveled the upward mobility road and NOT forgotten about their underclass cousins. So, if the circus isn't going to change, perhaps we can learn from those who have maximized the outcomes for members of the underclass.
There was a time when we sent our "best" into the belly of the beast to make things better for the rest of us. Jackie Robinson was the "best" to break the color barrier in Professional Baseball. He wasn't necessarily the most talented, but he was chosen to create a path for others. The Tuskegee Airmen were the "best" among us to achieve a breakthrough in aviation for future Black pilots. Medgar Evers went to the University of Mississippi, and the Little Rock nine went to Central High to pave the way for all of us to compete at the highest education level available - not because these were White institutions, nor because they wanted to be White. In order to be the best, our children must compete against the best in the world - wherever they are.
If those who escape the underclass retain their consciousness about the nature of the struggle, they will respond as W.E.B Du Bois and Carter G. Woodson declared that they should respond. They will use their upward mobility to help others to move upward. The leaders of the South African struggle did the same thing. They sent their best and brightest to the far corners of the world to prepare them to lead the New South Africa in a Global society. They were strengthened by their past, but wasted no time looking backward. They returned to the motherland to help the masses in the Underclass to enjoy a greater measure of prosperity - with mixed success. They didn't eliminate the underclass. And to be sure, some of them became exploiters. But they secured freedom from oppression, and have ushered a greater number into the upwardly mobile class.
I believe a similar "new consciousness" can help improve the condition for the disproportionate number of Blacks stuck in the Underclass. So, when President Obama says that a "rising tide lifts all boats", there are some Black boats lifted for those who have escaped the Underclass. It is they who should use their "lifted boats" to help rescue more of their underclass cousins.
We should not rely on some Government silver bullet. Yes, the CBC should press the President and the Congress for programs and dollars directed to the needs of Urban America (that is political speak for programs for Blacks). However, when the dollars are made available, urban Blacks have to step up to the plate to claim those dollars -- for example, Title I funds for the poor. Blacks are the largest recipients in urban communities, and those Blacks who run education programs should strategize about how to use these increased funds to help their Title I constituents. The dollars won't come looking for us. We have to go looking for the dollars.
I have observed that other ethnic minorities recognize the circus for what it is, and develop strategies for navigating their way to better positions. They seem to retain a memory of their former condition and a desire to help their underclass relatives and friends.
African Americans who are able to recognize this circus and the five rings should also recognize how fragile their positions are when they make transitions alone. It should be a natural desire to act in our self-interests by helping to bring others into the rings where we have transitioned, so that we can secure our positions with greater support. Failure to do so will result in losing our precarious positions, and subsequent generations will be less well off.
The military tactics for such a strategy are called "secure and hold," then "advance." If those among us who are upwardly mobile only focus on advancing, there will not be sufficient resources to secure the positions they have gained. There will be a false sense of progress while most of us languish.
Evidence of this can be seen in nearly every aspect of American life. There are icons of progress in corporate America - top Black executives, but no Black pipeline. There are Black political leaders without protégés to pass the baton to. There are singular successes among Black inventors, scientists, lawyers, entertainers, entrepreneurs, athletes, and scholars who educate "others" while our children languish at the bottom of the achievement gap.
I challenge those who have escaped the Underclass Ring to consider a "secure and hold" strategy that includes mentoring a young person, cultivating a Black protégé, and collaborating with others who are upwardly mobile, so that our advances are sustainable. This would be an empowerment strategy that produces more effective progress that includes a pipeline for others to move toward greater prosperity.