The Black Middle Class

If history is any guide, the recovery in jobs will trail the economic indicators, and the recovery for black workers in higher wage brackets will trail even further.
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Growing up in Crown Heights in the 1950's-60's was not only to be witness to the end of overt racial discrimination in New York City, but also to see the huge expansion of the black middle class. Black professionals had always lived in my neighborhood. In fact, a segregated New York of my childhood was filled with black professionals -- black doctors, ministers, dentists, lawyers like my father, real estate brokers, undertakers, chiropodists like my grandfather, pharmacists like my aunt, and the list goes on. During those years, we wouldn't have even considered going to any other professional and, given the virulent racism of the time, we wouldn't have been welcome in the waiting rooms of most white professionals.

The black middle class of my childhood was well educated and obsessed with education as a way to keep their children moving forward. When the civil rights movement of the 1960's hit its stride, it was this relatively small black professional middle class who were the overwhelming winners, stepping into the opportunities thrown open by the marches and sacrifices of the civil rights movement.

When I was at Yale Law School in the early 1970's, this was what I remember most vividly about my classmate Clarence Thomas, who use to wear overalls to class and castigate the rest of us as being the product of the middle and upper class group of black professionals, while he was up from the bottom. In essence, a privileged group of black professionals and their children were getting all the benefits of access to elite educational institutions, while the overwhelming majority of African-Americans -- with substandard educational preparation and without the social networks of the elite -- got very little, despite the end to overt discrimination.

There's more than a grain of truth in this argument. But, the fact was, the civil rights movement led in part to the first real explosion of the black middle class in America, expanding the original group many fold during the period 1960 to the present. I think that I along with many others thought this was a permanent structural change. Despite the fact that so many in the black community got left behind, still mired in lousy education and dead end jobs, the assumption was that the numbers of the black middle class would continue to expand. That is, until what now is accepted as the Great Recession hit, and suddenly the gains of the black middle class in many parts of the country are looking shaky.

With unemployment rates for black Americans fast approaching 20 percent in many communities, not only are the unskilled finding it difficult finding work, but also the nearly emerged black middle class and their children. The problem is being compounded by the fact that the primary method of wealth accumulation in the black community -- owning a home -- is the area which is seeing some of the sharpest declines in real estate values and, in part because of racism, is very much a part of the subprime debacle.

If history is any guide, the recovery in jobs will trail the economic indicators, and the recovery for black workers in higher wage brackets will trail even further. All this is to say that it is incumbent on the black political leadership to ask hard questions when stimulus proposals are examined -- just how effective are they in terms of the most seriously impacted groups in America, the black middle class among them. While stimulus dollars are moving Wall Street forward, we now need to use those stimulus funds to provide the unemployed with stable jobs and greater security.

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