Beyond Uncle Tom: Towards a Theory on the Social Mobility Benefits of Cultural Treason

Jasmine Hill
Feb 10, 2017 · 3 min read

This is an idea I had today that I’m hashing out quickly. Anything I should read or have other ideas? Please, contribute to the conversation. I’ll continue to articulate these ideas at a later time. Please don’t steal :)

Our theories of social mobility to date have offered several examples of how an individual might move from lower to upper class status. Sociologists offer education, assimilation, and networks as mechanisms that can transform a person’s socioeconomic status. One almost obvious mechanism, that is however missing from the scholarship, is an account of the rewards to cultural or racial betrayal.

There are tremendous rewards to marginalized groups for alignment with white supremacy, patriarchy, republicanism, capital, etc. Beyond simple assimilation to mainstream culture or values, a special level of upward mobility seems to be available to those who commit deliberate acts of harm to the groups from which they came.

We all know empirical examples: black police officers, gay republicans, Stacey Dash, Chrisette Michele, women who don’t support other women, etc., etc. We all have seen these forms of betrayal and in our silos made remarks on the enormous checks these individuals must have received for their behavior. In some ways these individuals capitalize on a simple opportunity. There is an adversarial relationship of some kind (i.e. women vs. men) and the adversary requires support from someone of the opposing group.

The question becomes, what do these acts of cultural treason actually do besides benefit the perpetrators? As an example, is Trump really benefitted by Ben Carson nearby? Or, because most Black people can see through this treachery as a form of thinly veiled self-hatred, doesn’t this nullify the possibility Black support moving to Trump? Isn’t Carson actually the only one who benefits structurally from this relationship? Or perhaps, as some have argued, it comforts whites to see Trump associate with a black person. It remains to be seen if, in this example, on-the-fence voters or Trump supporters are truly assured by this allegiance. My hypothesis is that they aren’t. They could care less. And at the end of the day Carson, in some ways, is the only person intelligently playing the system and getting any real returns from this pseudo-reverse form of exploitation (of course at a lose of personal dignity and black social ties). Is it that cultural betrayers exploit the exploiters by exploiting their own?

I’m sure in some instances, treason really does assist the enemy. But in either case, treason is often rewarded warmly.

A further question might be whether or not treason as a social mobility option works every time. Are there instances where I could offer to snitch, betray or subvert my own and be denied? Where the oppressor says, “You got some information, eh? Naw. We’re good.” I’m unsure.

Finally, theoretically, where does cultural treason fit in the larger frame of capitalism or white supremacy? Is this a product of our economic system of exploitation or is this a symptom of racial tribalism? In any case, there is a publicly acknowledged but perhaps academically overlooked layer of returns to cultural betrayal. Along with our existing theories of social mobility (social capital, status attainment/Wisconsin model, segmented assimilation), there also exists space to account for how violence to one’s marginalized community leads to significant capital benefits.

Jasmine Hill

Written by | @jazdhill I'm a Ph.D candidate in Sociology at Stanford University. I write here about mobility, inequality, race and my work in the field.

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