In This Article Black Middle Class

  • Introduction
  • Historic Social Science
  • Post–Civil Rights Race and Class Debate
  • Economic Mobility
  • Segregation
  • The Great Recession
  • Gender and Family
  • Education

African American Studies Black Middle Class
by
David J. Leonard
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 June 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0015

Introduction

The middle class is traditionally defined by income: while adjusted for inflation, those making from $39,100 to $62,000 make up the middle class. While political, media, and social discourses continue to see the black community through the lens of the poor and underclass, more than 40 percent of black households earn between $25,000 and $75,000 (the 2010 census also found that more than 18 percent earn more than $75,000). In general, there are many problems in income-based definitions, which fail to account for varied cost of living, fluctuations in the economy, inflation, and the instability of job security and wealth. These sorts of definition erase the other signifiers of class status. Middle-class identity is often framed in relation to culture, socioeconomics, and connections to institutions, job, geography, and neighborhood. Thus, race complicates our understanding of the middle class in that racism has long precluded access to the very institutions, neighborhoods, schools, and opportunities seen as part and parcel of a middle-class experience. The cultural understanding of and representations of the middle class have relied on the experiences of white America, normalizing their experiences as those of the middle class at the expense of the specific realities of African Americans at these same income levels. Despite often having the income, African Americans have been historically “illegible” to the narrative of the middle class. This is not surprising; to sustain the system of race-based slavery through the eras sharecropping and Jim Crow required the creation and maintenance of an ideology that saw African Americans as destined to be at the bottom of the class structure. These arguments have continued into the 21st century, albeit with a focus on culture and values. At one level, the erasure of the black middle class, alongside the elevation of the black underclass, contributes to the conclusion that African Americans are destined for a life of poverty, crime, and dysfunction. At another level, an effort has been made to cite the success of a few members of the black middle class as evidence that anyone, with the requisite moral compass, work ethic, and values, can secure the American Dream. Ironically, both the erasure of the black middle class, in terms of its voice and its ethnic, geographic, and residential diversity, and its hyper visibility, works to deny the persistence of racism, in effect normalizing inequality. In working through the invisibility and hyper visibility, in terms of both the stereotypes and the homogenization and in terms of narratives of exceptionalism and post-raciality, the discourses surrounding the black middle class offer an important intervention.

History

While dominant political discourses, popular culture, and larger discourses tend to see the black middle class as a post–Civil Rights movement development, the existence of a robust black middle class is longstanding. With slavery (Ball 2012, Clamorgan 1999, Quarles 1991 [all cited under Pre–World War I]), Jim Crow (Myers 2011, Jewell 2007, Moore 1999 [all cited under Pre–World War I]), and urban poverty (Willson 2000, Winch 1988 [both cited under Pre–World War I]) dominating the representational landscape, the experiences of the black middle class during slavery and Reconstruction and within the Jim Crow South (Jewell 2007, Moore 1999) has been erased from the dominant imagination. Yet, as we look into the in-the-moment writings (primary documents) and in the current historiography, it is clear that the black middle-class has had a sizable influence on American life. As noted in Ball 2012 and Clamorgan 1999, they have been at the forefront of struggles for abolition. Both Jewell 2007 and Moore 1999 highlight how the black middle class was central in the fights against Jim Crow and racial terrorism through World War I. Other scholars, in works such as Ball 2012, Cromwell 1994, Feldman 1999 (cited under Black Middle-Class Resistance in the 20th Century), and Gatewood 1993 (cited under Pre–World War I), have spotlighted the role of the black middle class in the growth and development of African American institutions. Yet, despite their successes and contributions inside and outside the black community, and despite the ways that racism has invoked class arguments, class mobility has not procured acceptance and full citizenship for African Americans.

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