The Price of Upward Mobility

By Mark Naison (February 8, 2018)

The people I grew up among in Crown Heights Brooklyn, second generation Italian Americans and Jews, were just getting a little breathing space in 1950’s America after being beaten down most of their lives by poverty and discrimination. Many were convinced that the country would never really accept or respect people like them, but they had hopes that their children would have an easier time. I observed their rage, their mistrust and their hopes as i surveyed my future, knowing that because of sports and academics, I would be one of the few kids in the neighborhood selected for training in one of those great centers of elite socialization, Ivy League colleges. What would I do when I got there? Would I run as far and fast away from the people I grew up among as possible? Would i do whatever was necessary to become rich, famous or successful, even if it violated everything I learned in my home and on the streets?

One part of me wanted desperately to be accepted in the new world I was entering and become like the people running the show, wanted to dress like them, talk like them, eat like them, and become comfortable around them. But another part, which emerged very quickly when I got to Columbia, was deeply offended by their arrogance and willingness to sacrifice people who made them uncomfortable, be they poor, be they black, be they uneducated, and push them as far away as possible.

So I never wholeheartedly embraced the elite socialization I was exposed to. I pursued success, but not at all costs. I rebelled, first a little, then a lot. At a time when many other people were rebelling.

But i don’t want to act like I am too proud of myself. These institutions still do a great job of taking people like me and cleaning them up, making them mirror images of the people who looked down on the people they grew up among. Rebels are far and few between. The machine keeps grinding on, taking the children of the working class, and the poor, and turning them into protectors of the status quo.


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