Elitist theory of social change and the DREAMers

In the fallout from Russell Brand’s advocacy of egalitarianism socialism, some folks complained about the attention paid to him, arguing that really it is the most exploited and most oppressed that make social change. Others pushed back, Doug Henwood leading the charge, arguing that, as an empirical matter, social movements have often been comprised of elite folks, or at minimum the most advantaged of the disadvantaged.

Henwood cites an article (Maurice Pinard, Jerome Kirk, and Donald von Eschen, “Processes of Recruitment in the Sit-In Movement,” Public Opinion Quarterly 33, no. 3 (1969): 355-69) which reports the demographics of the early civil rights sit-in movement. Henwood claims that the article reports that the early sit-in movement was about 1/3rd black, that only 4% were working class, that the black non-student participants were 60% upper-middle class, that the black student participants were 92% upper-middle class, and that the white student participants were 100% upper-middle class.

I know very little about the empirical literature on social movements, but in the course of watching this debate, I recalled the DREAM movement folks. For those not in the know, the DREAM movement is a movement meant to provide permanent residency to undocumented immigrant youth.

Interestingly, nearly every spokesperson or activist I’ve ever met or seen on TV from DREAM organizations (e.g. United We Dream) appear to be college students or recent graduates. No doubt this an elite subgroup within the overall group of undocumented immigrant youth. College students and graduates are an elite subgroup among youths in general, but, one presumes, among undocumented immigrant youth especially.

So, it seems like the DREAM movement could be a present-day example of the theory that says that social movements are led by the most advantaged of the disadvantaged.

Perhaps this also explains why recent versions of the DREAM Act have been so geared towards benefiting college students, condemning the overwhelming majority of undocumented youth to having to decide between remaining undocumented or enlisting in the military. For instance, I previously estimated with back-of-the-envelope math that around 74 percent of undocumented Latino youth would wind up on the military track in the DREAM Act for permanent residency, not the college track. If college student undocumented immigrants (the most advantaged of the disadvantaged) are leading the movement, it makes more sense why this fairly troubling policy proposal is the one being pushed.