What Jay Z Gets Right and Wrong about Black Upward Mobility

Jasmine Hill
Jul 11, 2017 · 4 min read

In his latest release, 4:44, Jay Z explains his belief that proper investing, creditworthiness, and savings will lead to financial freedom for Black people in America. As a sociologist studying Black upward mobility and the “escape hatches” out of poverty, I quickly applauded Jay for raising up the conversation and cringed a bit at the implications of his suggestions.

The internet seemed to both applaud and cringe with me.

The issues with Carter’s directives are multi-fold — for one, his emphasis on economic development seems to put the onus on Black Americans to work their way out of a problem they didn’t create. This perspective essentially lets white America, the private sector and the U.S. government off the hook for the ongoing exclusion and exploitation faced by Black communities. But despite seeing the flaws in this argument, as a pragmatist, I can live with this part of Jay’s assessment.

Why? Because, I don’t see America righting its wrongs anytime soon. Should it? Yes. Will it in our lifetime? …Hopefully?/probably not given the track record. We cannot count on allyship either. While I absolutely believe that they are necessary, I don’t see a progressive agenda around dismantling capitalism or redistributing wealth developing in the U.S. soon. I’ll give you a moment to look at the dumpster fire that is the American “left” to determine if you agree. And so, while I am #TeamReparations until the day I die, we cannot wait for liberals or white America to get it together. We don’t have time. Therefore, I can live with a discussion around how the Black community can do for self. I believe we can simultaneously continue to encourage total economic transformation and full accountability, but in the meantime, I can deal with Jay Z offering a do-for-self prescription.

My real issue with 4:44’s economic analysis isn’t about the need for self-determination, rather, its the ways we should be doing that in the first place. Carter’s personal finance recommendations to invest and save are activities for individuals, not for groups or institutions. Basically, Jay speaks to a large problem that we share as a nation,(disproportionate poverty, low mobility rates and the racial wealth gap) and gives a solution that may work out for about nine of us.

Its an easy mistake to make. In the heat of the moment, as the Titanic sank, I’m sure we all would recommend that each person get their respective life vest. But a wiser strategy says, “hey instead of descending into pure, individualist chaos why don’t we coordinate on these here rafts so more of us survive! How about you scoot over Rose and stop worrying just about yourself!” This tradition of Black capitalism has deep roots within Black political thought, espoused by some of our foremost leaders and thinkers.

In the mainstream, America often calls for individual economic action to spur upward mobility. Since World War II, politicians and academics alike have encouraged a particularly individualistic pursuit as the salve for economic inequality —that is, higher education. Without even getting into the extent to which college fails to deliver on its equalizing promise, at the end of the day, going to college, just like raising one’s credit score, is a lonely pursuit. You do it by yourself and the profits of that endeavor belong to you. And while personal finance may (or may not) work as an opportunity to pass wealth to one’s family, just as college promises to make life better for one’s children, these interventions don’t impact the majority of Black people. While college attendance rates have increased, still just 20% of Black adults hold a bachelor’s degree. So while we congratulate individual academic or financial achievement, it means little for the rest of us. Beyond telling you and I to independently save, we need larger transformations in the economy and community-owned structures (read co-ops, banking institutions, etc.) that will create upward mobility for a much wider swath of our community.

As a organizer turned academic, I’ve committed myself to figuring out ways to improve the economic condition of Black people in America. My doctoral dissertation is focused on identifying the “escape hatches” from poverty available within the present geopolitical, socio-racial and historical moment. My work is interested in identifying Black pathways into the middle class — be they occupational, spatial, political, network-based, socio-psychological or otherwise. I say “Black pathways” because I recognize that mechanisms of upward mobility are extremely radicalized. This may be Carter’s largest omission. He thinks the system, which has worked for others and even him, will work for most of us. My work reveals that what may be an option for one group has been shown to completely inaccessible to another. An example of this, perhaps to Jay Z’s dismay, is clear when you compare the discouraging overall outcomes of Black entrepreneurs with other racial groups. A traditionally mobility route, business ownership, does not yield the same results for Black people. Similar stories can be told for homeownership, college attendance, and other “sure fire” ways into the middle class.

This year, I’m following a cohort of Black high school seniors in their first year on the job market. None of them are attending a four-year university; just 13% of students from their high school were even eligible. As they embark on the working world, many of them share ideals similar to Jay Z’s, even before the album was released. In our interviews, each student told me that people who are unemployed need to try harder. Many of them told me that saving money was a pathway out of poverty, just like Jay Z did on 4:44. The problem is that they also had very little knowledge of labor market opportunities beyond retail and fast food. I fear that in a few months they will find that their $11 an hour salary won’t allow for much savings at all. In Los Angeles, where I do my work, $11 an hour isn’t enough to rent a studio apartment. Over time, I imagine their perspectives about inequality will change. More importantly, my hope is we all come to see upward mobility as a community-wide objective, rather than an individual pursuit.

Jasmine Hill

Written by

jasminediana.com | @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.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade