Are We Talking Enough About the Black Middle Class?

When it comes to racial inequality, most of the political conversation centers on black poverty. But this ignores a segment of black America that has attained some measure of success and is being held back from achieving more.
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When it comes to racial inequality, most of the political conversation centers on black poverty. But this ignores a segment of black America that has attained some measure of success and is being held back from achieving more.
National Harbor in Prince George's County, Maryland, the home of the nation’s largest concentration of affluent African Americans. (Photo: howardignatius/Flickr)

National Harbor in Prince George's County, Maryland, the home of the nation’s largest concentration of affluent African Americans. (Photo: howardignatius/Flickr)

In February, in case you missed it, hundreds of committed red state activists convened for the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference, affectionately known as CPAC, at National Harbor, Maryland. But, little known to most who visit, including the many conservative commentators, media stars, and prospective Republican presidential candidates, is that CPAC happened smack in the middle of the Crab State’s biggest and blackest suburban county. The swank National Harbor—with its impending Vegas-size MGM casino, docking stations for Potomac River yachts, and skyline views of the nation’s capitol—is the crown economic jewel of Prince George’s County, 70 percent black and home to the nation’s largest concentration of affluent African Americans.

CPAC reigns supreme as a well-televised exercise in ideological fire and brimstone for the political right. This year, the conservative dogma of slimmed government, low taxes, and even smaller social safety nets was hard to miss. Presidential aspirants such as Governor Scott Walker (R-Wisconsin) and Governor Chris Christie (R-New Jersey) spent a whole CPAC weekend taking on state employee unions and state government budgets. Yet unions and government workforces have been reliable avenues of economic stability for the black middle class—certainly for many of the middle class and affluent blacks who were commuting past CPAC (or working at National Harbor) that week.

With all the conservative fist pounding at CPAC about minority dependence on government programs, few at the event were bothering to pay much attention to the black middle-class story around them during those several days.

With all the conservative fist pounding at CPAC about minority dependence on government programs, few at the event were bothering to pay much attention to the black middle-class story around them during those several days. That has slightly riled county residents (like myself) who would appreciate, at least, the passing shout out. But when I’ve mentioned it on occasion to conservative activists proudly getting their CPAC on, I’d be lucky if they didn’t just walk off.

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Deliberate or unintentional ignorance of the black middle class is not entirely surprising. There’s always been a white attitudinal mismatch with black socio-economic reality. Over the years, wildly popular and celebrated pop culture shows such as The Cosby Show or The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and the more current Black-ish and Empire have planted images of black economic success and post-racial progress into the zeitgeist. Still, plenty of empirical and rhetorical evidence suggests that what most people think of black life in America is the opposite.

YouGov’s recent peek into racial attitudes shows whites overwhelmingly annoyed by discussions on race, the usual entry point into a conversation on black living. An earlier poll shows a slim majority of whites believing African Americans don’t face much discrimination today. Yet, released just before that was the Sentencing Project’s rather dark analysis on racial perceptions in a 2014 Race and Punishment study, which discovered whites’ strong association of blacks and Latinos with crime drives their support for “punitive policies.” A 2012 American National Election Study revealed the majority of whites believe blacks are less hard working and less intelligent. An oft-cited pre-election Associated Press 2012 poll reached similar conclusions on “anti-black attitudes.”

A 2012 American National Election Study revealed the majority of whites believe blacks are less hard working and less intelligent.

In these past few months, the topic of black poverty or struggle has dominated many newsfeeds, and it has risen to the top of the national conversation about direct correlations between black economic inequality and police brutality. Unsurprisingly, society’s perceptions—and ultimately its politics—may very well be stuck in Good Times.

In this #BlackLivesMatter year, it’s important to raise the misconceptions caused by rampant stereotypes and beliefs about black people when measuring the impact of economic inequality in their communities. Nowhere is this more striking than the persistent gap between the true complexities of black economic life (including its middle class) and the false perceptions most whites, according to the polls above, have about it. There seems no more fascinating an example of that gap than plopping CPAC down in Prince George’s County—and then watching the stark contrasts between talk and reality.

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Certainly, a discussion about African-American poverty is essential. The overall national poverty rate is 15 percent, yet black poverty is nearly double that at 27 percent, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. In Maryland, where the state’s black population is 33 percent, the black poverty rate is nearly 50 percent of that population. Official unemployment numbers released each month celebrate a revived post-recession economy, with a jobless rate now at 5.7 percent, but the black jobless rate remains double that at 10.3 percent—not including underemployment or lack of labor participation rates.

Without talking about, examining, and understanding black poverty, we can’t reasonably address it. Yet therein lies a dilemma: There is a socio-political risk in not talking about black poverty while there is a parallel socio-political risk in talking too much about it, especially when it is linked so heavily with the conversation on race. It’s a conversation, based on the recent YouGov poll cited above, most whites don’t want to have. And if most of us first conjure up images of poverty and crime when we talk about blacks in America, the story is dangerously skewed. We also must talk about the “other” black life.

Which brings us back to the example of CPAC in a majority black county experiencing relatively high rates of black economic success. It’s baffling—and yet not surprising—conservative attendees missed that: You’d think it could be an attractive talking point in their quixotic pursuit of black support and votes. After all, black economic and social mobility is the antidote to stubborn black poverty.

Recent federal election cycles show that voting choices by race trumped all other demographic indicators, such as income, education age, and sexual orientation.

In 1960, according to the Institute for Research on Poverty, the overall black poverty rate was near 60 percent; by 2011, it dropped to a little more than 27 percent. That reflects a substantial transition from black working middle class to upper-middle class. Along with that, black college enrollment rates rose from 45 percent in 1975 to 65 percent by 2010—now equal with white enrollment rates. Census Bureau figures show unprecedented growth in African-American businesses by 2007, which is most likely a direct result of a much more upwardly mobile and educated black population. Strengthening these numbers could easily be viewed as one way to alleviate poverty and crime in many black communities.

But there are troubling trends. Being “black middle class” today does not mean the same thing as being in the white middle class. Despite what many economists (but not all) think is a full economic “recovery,” many African Americans are firmly and disproportionately stuck in the tenuous position of reliance on local, state, and federal government resources just to get by.

On top of that, the college graduation rate for black students is still barely half that of whites. And nationally, racial wealth gaps are massive; according to Pew, the net worth of white America is 13 times greater than black net worth ($142,000 versus $11,000). As Brookings’ Richard Reeves points out, a black middle-class child today is much more likely to experience “downward intergenerational social mobility.”

Compounding those issues is a very real and persistent political problem erecting barriers to middle class entrance for African Americans: A powerful white electorate appears largely disinclined to sympathize or align its public policy interests with those of African Americans. Take the Affordable Care Act: When programs are politically derided as “Obamacare,” the result translates into 61 percent of whites disapproving of it, while 73 percent of blacks approve. These sentiments support a political climate of red states with large uninsured black populations, such as Texas and Louisiana, unwilling to accept a needed Medicaid expansion to make ACA fully effective. Perhaps more importantly, a recent Rasmussen poll found 49 percent of Americans believe government programs actually increase poverty. This is the kind of thinking that gives Congress little political incentive to pass something like an unemployment benefits extension. These are programs any battered middle class needs, especially a middle-class demographic as beat up as the black one.

In March of this year, the Joint Center for Politics and Economic Studies published a report that stated the semi-obvious: “party politics are sharply divided by race.” Recent federal election cycles show that voting choices by race trumped all other demographic indicators, such as income, education age, and sexual orientation. As the Joint Center report illustrates: “when a core dividing line in a nation becomes so closely aligned with race and ethnicity, larger concerns about inequality, conflict, and discrimination emerge.”

Just as the recent 2012 and 2014 elections were polarized by race, the Joint Center report also found that in urban or metropolitan elections, race “divides voters more than any other characteristic.” That people vote along racial lines also determines how much the government responds (positively) to the needs of those various demographic groups (whites, blacks, Latinos, Asians). A smaller black population is, therefore, subject to the whims of a much larger white population that is naturally inclined to deal with its needs first. As a result, data shows that blacks at the very bottom of that calculus are most likely policy losers: Positive policy outcomes happen only 31.9 percent of the time for African Americans compared to 37.6 percent for whites, 37 percent for Latinos, and an impressive 40.9 percent for Asians.

How did we get here?

In his 2003 analysis, “How the Poor Became Black: The Racialization of American Poverty in the Mass Media,” Princeton researcher Martin Gilens analyzed media trends between the 1950s to the 1990s. He found “[t]he media’s tendency to associate African Americans with the undeserving poor reflects – and reinforces – the centuries old stereotype of blacks as lazy.” “This coverage,” Gilens added, “has in turn shaped social, economic and political conditions.”

Gilens suggested these perceptions not only shape social interactions between blacks and whites but they eventually infect white electoral behavior. That behavior has managed to stunt black entry into the vaunted middle class: Because we think of blacks as poor, we also think of them as irresponsible, lazy, and violent. These stereotypes lead to either fearful or resentful whites—one group clutching its purse despite the neighboring black man in suit and tie, the other group voting against any candidate perceived as friendly to African-American political interests. Those interests are typically associated with health care programs, income inequality, wage gaps, and other issues key to black economic progress. But, rather than view these as remedies to longstanding social ills, a conservative—and mostly white—electorate will view them as “hand-outs” or “entitlements” to undeserving populations.

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Blacks, at 13 percent of the population, represent 22 percent of the poor and 14 percent of those receiving “safety net” benefits. Yet, according to a Center for Budget and Policy Priorities report, whites—at 64 percent of the population and 42 percent of the poor—receive 69 percent of government benefits.

Whites—at 64 percent of the population and 42 percent of the poor—receive 69 percent of government benefits.

The commonly held view that African Americans perpetually feed from the government trough could use a bit of course correction. The largest beneficiaries of safety net programs—food stamps included—are white people. Yet these same white recipients are the most likely to vote for Republican candidates who oppose the existence of such programs. GOP candidates, in turn, frequently dog whistle black poverty stereotypes as both a cultural confidence booster and a vote grabbing tool for white voters. Recall 2012 GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum’s comments during a campaign stop in Iowa: “[I] don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money.”

Quinnipiac University political scientist Khalilah Brown-Dean (one of the authors of the Joint Center report) says "discussing poverty isn’t the problem." "The ways we think about the causes of Black poverty,” she says, "are deeply problematic."

"Too many people view poverty as evidence of some moral failing or lack of work ethic," Brown-Dean says. "This approach negates the myriad ways that institutions—from schools to prisons to banks—structure and concentrate poverty. Discussing black poverty may in fact reinforce the stereotypes some people already have, but it's important to push back against that and address the root causes."

But even after pushing back, it becomes harder to refresh the black middle class. All of this creates a structural environment where the black middle class faces bigger hurdles in gaining financial stability. Compounding that is a political climate that’s placing enormous pressure on a black middle class, which, after the Great Recession, was already facing dramatic rollbacks on 30 years of economic gain, according to the National Urban League.

Politically and socially corrosive perceptions of black life—even more damaging with persistent income inequality—continue to hamper upward mobility. The extraordinary economic challenges faced by the black middle class show it needs key lifelines—like government jobs, labor unions, the ACA, unemployment insurance, and others—in an effort to rebuild. When a conversation about those problems revolves around old stereotypes, recovery becomes that much more difficult.

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