Rising income inequality and financial trauma in the middle class beg the question of whether social mobility, long a part of America’s narrative identity, is truly available to Americans residing in the lower rungs of society. This paper addresses the connection between culture and social mobility, looking particularly at how culture impacts social outcomes in America’s meritocratic educational system. Analyzing culture and cultural capital from a progressive perspective, this paper concludes that culture operates subtly, helping some retain or improve their existing position but interfering with the mobility of others. The rhetoric of individual merit, however, obscures the role that culture plays in reproducing existing social structures.
In the context of merit and mobility, this paper also analyzes class disadvantage as it relates to affirmative action. As the Supreme Court is set to decide another affirmative action case this term, we are reminded that barriers of disadvantage continue to prevent educational institutions from achieving acceptable levels of diversity. Often operating in tandem with economic and racial disadvantage, cultural disadvantage obstructs mobility in a powerful way. Accordingly, cultural disadvantage, captured using a robust set of socio-economic and race-conscious factors, should be something that institutions consider when formulating diversity plans. However, affirmative action plans, while necessary, cannot be the only solution to the problem. More radical and systemic solutions are needed to reboot social mobility in this country.
Part II of this paper provides a foundational understanding of progressive cultural theory, placing it in the context of the two opposing theories most often used to explain unequal outcomes in America: individual merit versus environmental/societal factors. Progressive cultural theory posits that unequal outcomes are not fully explainable by differences in individual merit. Rather, pre-existing cultural advantages help some advance, but for others, unequal structures produce cultural barriers that impede mobility. Relying upon recent social science research, Part III of this paper examines how culture and cultural capital interact with our merit based educational system; how cultural differences within the middle class impacts social mobility; and how culture interacts with pre-existing structures of racial inequality. As diversity within higher education mostly affects individuals in the middle class, Part IV analyzes what cultural disparities within the middle class mean for the affirmative action debate. Part IV concludes that the Supreme Court, in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, should reaffirm Justice O’Connor’s diversity rationale for using race-conscious measures to achieve a critical mass of minority students but also argues that we should not be trapped into a false choice between racial diversity or class-based diversity.
In grappling with the issues of disadvantage and mobility within the affirmative action debate, I ultimately conclude that the entire merit and selectivity system should be collapsed. Thus, Part V offers some suggestions for making our merit system less insular and more inclusive, including the salvo that successful professionals who have “won” the merit game take a hard look at ourselves and ask whether we are contributing to the trend toward oligarchy.