The Black Middle Class Is Leaving Its Brothers And Sisters Behind

Your own achievement is not enough.
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I am a blessed Black man. Against enormous odds with respect to my family background and prospects for economic mobility, I have received great opportunities in my life. Those opportunities have afforded me a good living, a respectable profile in the public square and a resolute passion to serve others that I have always taken very seriously. The old biblical adage, “To whom much is given, much is required” is the standard by which I have lived my life and, in my mind, should be the burning platform for every middle and upper class African American in the United States.

Instead, too few of us take the time to really extend a hand to our fellow brothers and sisters who have lost their way and help bring them with us as we climb the proverbial corporate ladder, willing ourselves into the American Dream. And even fewer stand in unison against injustice or taken it upon ourselves to build up the communities from whence we came.

We, the black middle class, often find our comfort in the cultural notions of “black achievement” – escaping the surroundings that many others could not – and note that the symbol of a black man or black woman who provides a good home for his or her family and has a successful career should constitute “enough” inspiration for others. But it is not enough.

“Black achievement doesn’t consider the disparity between the black middle class and their lower income peers.”

We are buoyed by the occasional community service that comes from our affiliations in Historically Black Greek letter organizations or Masonic lodges and find it sufficient to prepare our sons and daughters through debutante balls and Jack and Jill affiliations to maintain the other, more elite, more intellectual black America.

Yet, Black achievement is not enough to make a difference for the black and brown men who comprise more than 60% of the prison population or the one-in-three black boys who are predicted to have a run in with the law in their lifetime.[1] Black achievement doesn’t make up for a widening opportunity gap between African Americans and their mainstream counterparts or for the fact that too many students labeled “underperforming” begin tracking away from college at early ages and become accustomed to limited choices as they come of age.

Black achievement doesn’t consider the obvious disparity between the black middle class and their lower income peers, individuals who feel no connection to the success of their favorite uncle, auntie or childhood best friend and as such, resent the profiles of their communities and their situations as something less than a fertile ground for developing a strong character and work ethic that can propel their journey. This particular chasm is significant as it shines a light on the crux of the concern. Specifically, brothers and sisters from struggling black communities can no longer see themselves or their dreams through the eyes of their more successful peers. And those successful peers, instead of running toward them in ways that can uplift and change their circumstances, too often run away and sometimes even disassociate their circumstance from that of the people with whom they were raised.

In the 2002 edition of State of Black America, my colleague Professor Leland Ware and I wrote “The Geography of Discrimination: Hypersegregation, Isolation and Fragmentation within the African-American Community” and highlighted the following:

“Generations of African Americans have benefited from opportunities created by the Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s. Those who were in a position to do so took advantage of the educational, employment and other opportunities that were foreclosed to African Americans during the first half of the 20th century. The success of middle- and upper-income African Americans and the growth in their numbers over the last thirty years is a testament to their intelligence, ambition and hard work. For these groups, the Civil Rights Movement created unprecedented avenues for advancement. However, for the one-third of the African-American population left behind in the nation’s inner cities, the Civil Rights Movement might as well have never happened.”[2]

The question is not who’s to blame, but rather what do we – middle-class African Americans ― do about it? What IS enough? In my view, it is an active re-integration of our people that should be the focus of the African American middle class. My contention is that such work must continue and should be bolstered by a grand return to densely populated urban settings where an influx of middle class incomes from black and brown citizens would help stabilize some communities and build enclaves of African-American achievement that are in closer proximity to the people and communities most notably left behind.

In the Urban Institute’s recently released report, “The Cost of Segregation,” they conclude “that higher levels of economic segregation are associated with lower incomes, particularly for black residents. Higher levels of racial segregation are associated with lower incomes for blacks, lower educational attainment for whites and blacks, and lower levels of safety for all area residents.”

The great debate between famed scholar W.E.B. du Bois and orator Booker T. Washington focused on the importance of creating meaningful educational prospects that could accelerate the economic and housing opportunities for people still under a Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) existence, versus a more conciliatory approach of providing basic agricultural and technical skills that would sustain a reasonable existence for them and their families. In many ways, the outcome of those discussions and years of civil rights laws and social change movements have created two divergent groups within the African American community. Not surprisingly, the first group is defined by the narrative that African Americans are plagued with historic and systemic inequalities that put them well behind their mainstream counterparts at birth. And throughout life, that distance widens on nearly every front that matters to achieve success. This results in densely populated, poor black communities that cycle through generations of poverty and impoverished conditions, making those communities fraught with challenges too many and too embedded to overcome.

The other narrative recognizes that there have been great gains made, particularly since the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and those gains have directly benefited a generation of African Americans, women and other minorities by enhancing their educational opportunities and successes in leadership and influence in both corporate America and the public sector. Further, those gains over the last 50 years have created a burgeoning black middle class, and many have used their new found wealth and opportunity to leave the largely rural and urban settings of their birth for suburban aspirations.

“Brothers and sisters from struggling black communities no longer see their dreams through the eyes of their more successful peers.”

In his documentary, “Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise,” Henry Louis Gates makes the chasm clear. On one hand, the percentage of African Americans making at least $75,000 annually more than doubled from 1970 to 2014, to 21 percent. Those making $100,000 or more nearly quadrupled. By contrast, Black America with income below $15,000 declined by only four points, from 26 to 22 percent. And the unemployment rate for African Americans overall is virtually the same as it was when the civil rights movement ebbed circa 1970.[1]

At Bank of America, in the mid-90’s, my colleagues Kieth Cockrell and Geri Thomas were founders of the Black Professional Group, a group committed to connecting black Bank of America teammates to each other so they could find the path to their professional success AND appreciate how such success came with deep, substantive responsibility to the broader black community. Now there are more than 100 Black Professional Group chapters throughout the country, all of whom use their collective talent to extend time, resources and heart to the surrounding communities that disproportionately look like they do, but suffer from the conditions of joblessness, poverty and under-education. And while examples of their good work abound, there is still much more to do before any of us can lay claim to success.

The way forward is to embrace an America where our tensions and intentions are not based in what we hope America to be, but rather in what it is. In 1903, du Bois wrote, “[We must] develop the Best of this race that they may guide the masses away from the contamination and death of the Worst, in their own and other races.” Contamination and death are here. And in this time, those who escaped those ills must remember from whence they came. Only then will it – will we – be enough. “To whom much is given, much is required.”

  1. Gates, H.L, “And Still I Rise: Black America Since MLK,” writer, narrator, and executive producer.
  2. Television series, PBS
  3. [1] Ware, L. & Allen, A. (2002). The Geography of Discrimination: Hyper segregation, Isolation and
  4. Fragmentation within the Black Community In L. Daniels (Ed.), The State of Black America (pp. 69-83). New York: National Urban League.
  5. [1] Mauer, M. Addressing Racial Disparities in Incarceration, 91 supp. 3 The Prison Journal 87S, 88S (Sept. 2011)

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