On my first day of college, the official who interviewed me for admission sat me down on the steps of the student centre, a newly renovated building surrounded by lush landscaping and stately ivy-covered buildings. She said to me: “People will make you feel like you don’t belong here, but you need to remember that you do.” I brushed this advice off at the time; I was 17 and had never spent time away from home, a tiny apartment in Queens, New York, and I brimmed with excitement about all the newness around me. Yet her words came back to me over the course of my four years, and again in graduate school, and even now, fourteen years later, as I move through New York City as a professional.
Class ascendance led me to become what Susan Jacoby classifies in her recent New York Times Op-Ed “Stop Apologizing for Being Elite” as an “elite”: a vague description of a group of people who have received advanced degrees. Jacoby urges elites to reject the shame that they have supposedly recently developed, a shame that somehow stems from failing to stop the working class from embracing Trumpism. Jacoby laments that, following the 2016 election, these elites no longer take pride in their wealth, their education, their social status, and posits that if only elites embraced their upward mobility, the working class would have something to aspire to and thus discard their fondness for Trump and his promises to save them.
Jacoby’s strategy for elevating the working class is not only ahistorical, it’s also rooted in a class dynamic that simply does not exist. As I have argued in the past, the working class is not responsible for the rise of Trump. White America, regardless of class status, put Trump in power. Moreover, the working class is a carefully designed byproduct of policy and culture that creates and maintains the ruling class. To be “elite” relies on differentiating oneself from the masses. Wealth and socioeconomic mobility for the elite come at the expense of the working class. It’s, therefore, more than strange that Jacoby imagines the rich as the intellectual philanthropists catering to the vacuous working people who just need a little knowledge from above.
Jacoby's pull yourself up by the bootstraps, trickle-down approach to culture and intellectualism discounts the long legacy and history-in-making of working-class organising against austerity.
College was the first moment where I truly experienced how wealthy and upwardly mobile people lived. I came from an immigrant family that oscillated between working class and truly poor. The electricity was often cut off, rent checks were late, money was perpetually tight, and in my earliest years in the US, we lived with a revolving door of cousins and relatives, 12 to a four-bedroom house. But I went to good, if overcrowded, New York City public schools and my parents had some time to help with homework. I received good grades, participated in extracurricular activities, got a steady job at the age of 14, and was accepted to excellent colleges. Once I arrived on campus, I struggled. There were few working-class kids at my well-regarded liberal arts school, and even fewer working-class students of colour. Though my public school education had been very good, it was not as rigorous as the schooling my peers had received at expensive private institutions. I found myself working twice as hard for little return. On top of the stress of coursework, the cost of textbooks and computer access meant I was constantly juggling which books I could get away with buying last, or which I could borrow from the library, at the cost of losing points for late assignments. The few students I knew with similar backgrounds had the same experience. I saw many who were unable to pay the cost of tuition leave school and go back home. In the end, I graduated on time and went on to receive a Master’s degree from an Ivy League university. Even with two degrees from excellent schools, I spent almost a year working minimum-wage service jobs, saddled with debt, before I found a salaried full-time position that paid $35,000 a year in New York City. Despite my entree into the world of the “elite”, I was still solidly working class.
We currently live in a moment of American history in which a college education does not guarantee entry to the middle class, where upward mobility comes with more hoops and obstacles than it has since the vast expansion of the middle class in the postwar period. The sheer definition of who constitutes the working class is shifting, as has been made evident by the teachers’ strikes in West Virginia and Oklahoma. This is especially true for young people of colour. Young people of colour who attend college still earn less than their white counterparts. And despite high degrees of educational attainment, wealth in these communities is at an all-time low. Jacoby’s assertion that a college education will lead to class ascendance is patently false, and her claim that the working class is responsible for the rise of Donald Trump is an offensive argument, one that allows the white, upper-middle-class readership of the New York Times to wash its hands of the role it plays in creating the class frissions that the author laments – through creating and supporting policies that have kept the rich wealthy, the middle class dwindling, and the poor immiserated.
Jacoby’s pull yourself up by the bootstraps, trickle-down approach to culture and intellectualism discounts the long legacy and history-in-making of working-class organising against austerity. In other words, the material gains that poor and working-class people have made come via direct resistance to the rich. She positions the working class as the creators of the Trump era and the elites as heroes in the making, when, in fact, elites are the architects of this political moment. Jacoby is correct in that elites must stop apologising for their education and their status. Beyond apology, what the upper middle class and, in particular, the white upper middle class, owes to this country is a claim of responsibility – responsibility in creating and profiteering from a financial crisis that led to ballooning student debt and stagnant wages, which especially impacts communities of colour, and responsibility in allowing this nation to become one of the most unequal countries on the planet, all to retain some sort of status as “elite”.
I’m now comfortably middle class. I have debt but I also have a stable income and I’m putting my degrees to work. I know that my class ascendance is not hinged solely on my college education, but on systemic factors (for instance, I’m a documented South Asian immigrant in the US and the child of a college educated parent). As a member of the “elite” that Jacoby refers to, I know that my success was built on the labour of the working classes who fought for people like me. And it’s time for those of us who “made it” to carry on that legacy by dismantling the systems that make elitism possible.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.