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Race & Class: Who Is Worthy of Our Efforts?

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General Assembly 2007 Event 3065

Presenter: William E. Cross, Jr., The Graduate Center, City University of New York

Dr. William Cross gave an exciting and compelling session on social mobility in the past and today. He started by reminding the audience that most Unitarian Universalist's have probably benefited from the government assistance their parents or grandparents received, which helped them move from poor or working class into the middle class. And yet, the discussion about poverty and race today has been co-opted by conservatives with the ideas of meritocracy and personal choice. This takes our eyes "off the prize," away from the notion of organized public efforts to increase social mobility today.

William E. Cross, Jr. is head of Social-Personality Psychology, a subprogram of the Ph.D. Program in Psychology, and is affiliated with the interdisciplinary concentration in Africana Studies. He earned his Ph.D. from Princeton University and taught at Cornell University, Penn State, and the University of Massachusetts before coming to The Graduate Center.

Cross revisited the history of social mobility in the United States. The issue mistakenly becomes one of personal responsibility and merit that assumes if people make the right choices, they can achieve the good life. This gives us false ideas about the process of social mobility. "We have been inundated with the notion of meritocracy, and it is taking our attention away from doing a serious analysis of how social mobility is promoted," said Cross.

How do you promote social mobility? The poor and working class look to public institutions for help in the transformation of their children. They understand that their lot in life, though not fixed in stone, is somewhat limited, and they achieve a sense of hope in the birth of their children.

Cross reminded the audience that most of them came out of poor and working class white-ethnic life (Greeks, Italians, Jews, Irish, etc.) historically. At the time, these groups were poor, illiterate, with no ownership of property, and were regarded as the underclass. Through a process of social mobility, which was supported by public institutions, they got employment and improved their lives by getting benefits, and then home ownership through the Housing Acts of the 1930s. There were also public hospitals. But true social mobility was ultimately reserved for their children, the second generation.

The 40s, 50s and 60s were the most amazing social political economic periods in the United States. "All of you in the audience who have heard your uncles or dads say that they were self-made men, this is the time to chuckle," said Cross. "The greatest movement of working class people in the history of the United States to the cusp of the middle class occurred after World War II through the GI Bill." The GI Bill sent them to college, covered their tuition, paid them a comfortable stipend and, in some cases, provided housing. "Remember that today, when we talk about trying to take poor kids from the ghetto, we only provide them with tuition and think it is a big deal when if we provide them a modest stipend" he said.

This created a true melting pot, as the college experience put many diverse ethnic groups into the same space, romance happened and marriage occurred across groups. Before this, there was no melting pot. You had ethnic white communities and gangs that were at war with each other. Afterward, social mobility increased, but also, people moved from their sense of white ethnicity to "just being white or just being American."

Cross said "[Reagan] helped to rewrite history and put forth the notion of individuals being responsible for their own situation. Of course individuals have to take advantage of opportunities. But often the government provided significant opportunities, and if they hadn't been there, social mobility would not have take place."

He continued, "That is what you're supposed to forget. Now we are told it is all about meritocracy and tests, tests that are grounded in class status. Meritocracy is a one on one qualification scheme, it takes your eye away from the notion of organized public efforts to increase the probability that people can pass the tests in the first place," said Dr. Cross. "Putting it another way, if your dads and uncles had had to go through a meritocracy evaluation when we were starting up the GI Bill, most of them, and you, would not have been so well educated."

Cross concluded by saying "We must revisit public institutions, their value and functions and the way they are being twisted and distorted and gentrified. We have a public institution that should be experimenting with getting kids through. If you look at our state constitutions, ';You shall make public education accessible and affordable'. I don't want the City University of New York to be in competition with Harvard. I want it to excel, excel in the transformation of working class kids in a way that Harvard could never do!"

Reported by Dean Goddette, edited by Jone Johnson Lewis.

For more information contact web @ uua.org.

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Last updated on Tuesday, August 23, 2011.

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