A BREAKDOWN OF THE BLACK MIDDLE CLASS IN AMERICA

My final research paper for my Black Popular Culture course.

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“The real story of the last forty years has been the emergence of the black middle class, whose income gains have been real and substantial. The growth in the size of the black middle class was so spectacular that as a group it outnumbers the black poor. Finally, for the first time in American history, a sizable number of black men are economically better off than white middle-class America. During the last twenty years alone, the odds of a black man penetrating the ranks of the economic elite increased tenfold.”[1]

At the end of the nineteenth century post-Reconstruction era, the black middle class emerged into American society. Determined to advance and elevate the African-American race, this class prospered from industrialization, urbanization, and education.[2] As industrial occupations gave blacks new opportunities in the labor force, the presence of their communities grew tremendously in metropolitan areas. Some of the professional positions that citizens of the black middle class held were as dentists, doctors, lawyers, journalists, educators, entrepreneurs, businessmen, social workers and ministers.

While historians, scholars, and the average American citizens have all acknowledged that African-Americans have made visible progress over the last century, the evolution of the black middle class has been a complicated and complex process every step of the way. As a member of the black middle class, I have always had difficulty identifying with my race because I never understood how to affiliate with a class that has no criteria or traditions. As a result of this gap, there is an on-going internal struggle for many members of the black middle class. Within the black middle class, there is also a structure that has been built around status and privilege that the media misrepresents. Through this paper, I will examine the historical context of the black middle class in relation to the tensions between the black middle class and the black community at large.

The one common goal that all citizens of the United States strive for is the American dream. It’s all about getting married, raising a family, and having a stable job to support that family so everyone can live happily ever after in a brick house surrounded by a white picket fence. Here’s the spoiler that nobody ever wants to hear: African-Americans were never supposed to have this dream.

“Middle-class black Americans appear to most whites to have secured the promises of the American dream. They and their families have sacrificed to get a good education; they have worked very hard; and they have done everything said to be required to achieve the American dream…They appear to be well integrated into middle-class America, and from a white perspective they have no real reason to link problems in their lives to skin color.”[3]

Once upon a time when slavery was an accepted activity, Americans firmly believed that “Negroes and whites could [not] be citizens of the same community.”[4] After World War II, the population of African-Americans in the United States increased significantly. Despite the conflict between fighting for the white man’s war instead of fighting for their freedom, black families sent their sons to serve for the U.S. Army, which was desegregated between 1948 and 1965, because it was a rare opportunity to display their strong and courageous masculinity. And “through their experience with the city life, Negroes acquired a certain sophistication towards the world and tended to redefine their problems in America” as members of a new black class.[5] Black children finally had access to a standard education in non-segregated schools, and their parents had the right to vote in the elections. Times have changed since then, but the black middle class ultimately suffers from an interior inferiority complex.

Even though segregated neighborhoods seemed like a blast from the past in the 1960s, black families were victims of discrimination and oppression in the suburbs. Black suburban homeowners were given fewer opportunities to settle down elsewhere and instead of expanding to new territories, they were forced to remain in their segregated neighborhoods. While this new class had achieved a higher status, most of them could not afford to fully upgrade to a more qualified lifestyle of a lack of social mobility. For those who had the privilege to move, they had to face the reality of being isolated in their integrated neighborhoods. In relation to the African-Americans integrating to the suburbs, Patterson stated that they were “bound to develop strategies of survival and patterns of adaptation to their centuries of discrimination and exclusion that were to become dysfunctional under newer, less constrained circumstances.”[6]

The introduction of a black middle class was a direct threat to the traditional order constructed by elite, white supremacists. While the black middle class was not immediately taking advantage of the chance to remove themselves from the home base of the black community, the fact that the black middle class is modeled off of the fundamental democratic values of the white upper class should not be overlooked. The black middle class has often “shown no interest in the “liberation” of Negroes except as it affected their own status or acceptance by the white community.”[7] The status that comes with being a member of the black middle class has caused emotional and mental conflicts on external and internal levels. “Racial stereotyping, prejudice, and hostility still operate indiscriminately, despite the actual identities and achievements of the black individuals discriminated against.”[8]

With a new class came new values, morals and expectations. “The strength of the Black community is always in the family.”[9] Socioeconomic standards added constraints on the color line, making the black middle class even more exclusive in an attempt to protect their ideal image of respectability and eradicate former definitions that were racialized and class bound. More alienated from their cultural origins, African-Americans of the black middle class dismissed ethnocentricity. Published in 1903, W. E. B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk became the black middle class’ bible for cultural sensibility as it instilled a collective historical destiny for countless generations.[10]

African-American men from the black middle class resisted late-Victorian social conventions of masculinity and redefined their manhood in the presentation of the body and a concentration in consumer culture. African-American women also held themselves to a higher standard of beauty, a complication that still exists today in crafting the black female identity. The black youth were expected to live chaste lives and forbidden from engaging in premarital sexual relations.[11] Commitment to the church was also crucial in black life across the board. Most importantly, education was prioritized as the key to liberation.[12]

Childbearing practices became an intense part of the black middle class. Black parents were harsh about teaching their children to be “deferential and self-effacing.”[13] In stressing obedience, militance and good behavior, African-American parents often instructed their children not to “speak unless spoken to or not to stare anyone in the eye.”[14] Author Orlando Patterson stated that children of the black middle class will be “second and third-generation burghers with all the confidence, educational resources and, most of all, cultural capital to find a more secure niche in the nation’s economy.”[15]

The best representation of an ideal black middle class in popular culture and the mass media is The Cosby Show. Produced in 1984, this was the first sitcom on American television with a predominately black cast. The Cosby Show displayed a positive image of a successful obstetrician and his attorney wife raising their seven children in Brooklyn, New York. Due to strict parenting, all of the Huxtable children were well-educated and attended prestigious colleges after they graduated from high school. (This experience is captured on 1987’s spin-off sitcom “A Different World” when Denise goes to Hillman College, a historically black college in Virginia.) The show incorporated elements of black culture such as black music, art, literature, and dance. The Cosby Show succeeded in transforming everyone’s perceptions of what defines a black family and was considered a huge milestone by the entertainment industry at that time. This was a program that broke the mold for U.S. sitcoms and challenged the notion that blacks could be defined by their racial stereotypes. Furhermore, The Cosby Show presented positive role models and positive values for black families.

Despite all of this positivity, The Cosby Show has received backlash since it stopped airing after eight seasons and 198 episodes in 1992. Leslie B. Innis and Joe R. Feagin present arguments from critics and researchers that claim that the show’s popularity has set back race relations because its view of black assimilation fails to take into account the context of the world outside of program.[16] In other words, the show depicts a false image of blackness and creates the dimension of a white image in black culture. In Enlightened Racism, critics stated that The Cosby Show is a “misleading cozy picture, a sugar candy world unfettered by racism, crime, and economic deprivation.”[17] Contrary to popular belief, the show excuses institutional discrimination and further encourages the American public to be colorblind in the face of racism.[18] The promotion of colorblind politics transports viewers into a fantasy world far away from America.

Separate from The Cosby Show, Bill Cosby has vocalized his own flawed views of the black community. Time and time again, he has argued that he is not an expert on blackness, but blacks should not turn to television for their social liberation.[19] In his speech at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)’s event in honor of the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, Cosby said that the black middle class should not be held to a higher standard because “the lower economic and lower middle economic people are not holding up their end in this deal.” He believes that Black America should stop blaming their problems on racism, inequality and America’s past. In Cosby’s eyes, modern forms of black resistance against white culture are misplaced. Though he formerly did his best to avoid racial controversy, his recent involvement in discussions regarding race has proved to be extremely problematic. Several times, Cosby has turned around and pointed his disapproving finger on poorer blacks of the “Ghettocracy”—unemployed/underemployed blacks trapped in underground economics that work menial jobs— and criticizes their general laziness, inappropriate clothing, misuse of proper English, and lack of effort.[20] While Cosby had wholehearted intentions behind The Cosby Show, his failure to integrate a black middle class family’s socio-economic standing in correlation with issues of race as a central piece to the plot might have been a huge mistake.

The Huxtables are an exception, portraying a lifestyle that most black middle class families cannot and do not relate to. Upon further examination, this isn’t the average American family— they are extraordinary, and they are exempt from dealing with critical racial issues. If anything, the worst thing that ever happened to the Huxtables was when Vanessa received a bad grade from school and Theo was diagnosed with dyslexia. At the root of this attitude of ambivalence surrounding this debacle is the experience of struggle. This is a family that never worries about making end’s meet or finding their place in American society. The Cosby Show approaches ways to handle social issues, but it never takes a stance on race because the Huxtables are held to a different standard of normality.

On the other hand, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air contrasted almost everything that The Cosby Show stood for. Will Smith’s character came straight from the west side of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to the high ends of Bel-Air, California. The assimilation of Will into a suburban society of the upper black class from 1990-1996 became humorous. He cuts off the classical Beethoven and cranks up hip-hop, an alleged variant of success that evaded the integrated path towards upward mobility.[21] What viewers don’t realize is that the characters with urban roots play directly into their racial stereotypes while the Banks family was in juxtaposition of this exploitation. The Banks children are preppy, spoiled brats, but Will helps them to become more grounded individuals in the black community.

In breaking down social constructs shaped around race, Will also has a tendency to tease Carlton about not being as “black” as him. This is where the concept of being an “oreo”— black on the outside, white on the inside— became acknowledged. In contrasting Will and Carlton, the show exposes the complication in characterizing black masculinity. In terms of respectability, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air expresses the importance of an education, a stable home life, and a strong father figure for raising a family. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air also tackles real issues such as sex, drugs, bullying, and even family. Despite the clichés, it’s almost more relatable, especially for younger audiences as they develop into their adulthood.

The Cosby Show is idealistic while The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is realistic, but both shows present an image of hope and optimism for Black America. Today, there are no black families from the upper, middle or working class represented on mainstream television, but what the general public can take away from these programs of the past is the critique of the portrayal of blackness from different levels of the black community. Black life and black issues are not comedic in the slightest.

While “prosperity and integration” exists behind the white illusion of the black middle class, there is an even deeper divide within Black America and the communities that build it.[22] Amidst the common black struggle, there is discrimination and prejudice brought on by their fellow brothers and sisters of color due to class differentiations. W. E. B. Du Bois once said, “A rising race must be aristocratic; the good cannot consort with the bad— not even the best with the less good.” Michael Dawson, a political scientist at the University of Michigan, suggested that as increasing numbers of middle-class blacks moved up the economic ladder, they began to distance themselves from poorer blacks in order to be viewed as a part of the middle-class rather than an inferior underclass.[23] This is why self-hatred has transpired within the black community.

During the Harlem Renaissance, the black middle class rejected the New Negro’s love of leisure and enjoyment of life by maintaining frugal and abstemious habits. They “strove to attain middle-class respectability through industry and morality. They maintained middle-class ideals.”[24] This separate-but-equal split mentality has gone on for far too long, and simply cannot cut it anymore.

In response to the discrepancy, many black scholars have criticized the youth of the black middle class. In his commencement speech at Howard University in 1930, W. E. B. Du Bois accused the black youth of being a “growing mass of stupidity and indifference” that was preoccupied with consumer goods and leisure. To be fair though, do they really know any better if this is what they have been taught in their homes? This issue is more than a generational gap. Martin Summers argues that the black middle class is defined by “its self-conscious positioning against the black working class— through its adherence to a specific set of social values and the public performance of those values— than by real economic and occupational differences.”[25] Black elites have distinguished themselves as bourgeois agents of civilization that seek status, moral authority and recognition of their humanity against a “backdrop of ongoing racial discrimination and persistent black poverty.”[26],[27]

Over time, the black middle class and their “residential enclaves” became nearly invisible to white society because of the “intense (and mostly negative) attention given to poor urban ghettos”.[28] Similar to this claim, Mary Patillo-McCoy reiterates that the black middle class received little scholarly attention from the 1960s to 1980s because society was more focused on studying the black poor. A desire to disassociate from this negative depiction of blacks living in poverty within the projects and the ghettos is expected, but Dawson believes that this problem will most likely be resolved in the not-so-distant future. “The real test will come in the next generation, when we see if an affluent black middle class influences black politics to move toward the (more conservative) mainstream. If that is to happen, it will occur first in the new black middle class.”[29] Failure to reconnect racial solidarity and to play the role of a responsible elite in the black community leaves us to blame only ourselves, and each other for disproportionate black poverty.

In Living with Racism: The Black Middle-Class Experience, Joe R. Feagin and Melvin P. Sike aim to present a portrait of the black middle-class directly from the black point of view. These authors recorded black middle class experiences as they were, and nothing in the text is whitewashed. While Feagin and Sike argue that “no amount of hard work and achievement, no amount of money, resources, and success, can protect black people from the persisting ravages of white racism in their everyday lives,” they never considered the backlash that this class has received from their own communities.[30]

As the black race is uplifted, African-Americans are supposed to struggle for freedom and social advancement together as a group.[31] However, this has not been the reality of the situation. The black middle class’ ideals of racial uplift have been envisioned as racial solidarity in uniting black elites with the masses. They have emphasized self-help, temperance, thrift, chastity, social purity, patriarchal authority and accumulation of wealth.[32] Class differentiation has made the racial uplift all the more complicated as cultural hierarchies were established in black society.

In Black Picket Fences, Mary Patillo-McCoy brings up something important that is often forgotten when examining race and class in a community: “The in-between position of the black middle class sets up certain crossroads for its youth.”[33] The black middle class aimed to dismantle the fixed biological racial differences with an “evolutionary view of cultural assimilation, measured primarily by the status of family and civilization.”[34] But in doing so, they ultimately left a huge portion of their colored brothers and sisters out of the picture. As the black middle class legitimized social differentiation, they also initiated internalized racism.

In Black Bourgeoisie, sociologist E. Franklin Frazier argues that intellectuals and artists from the black middle class of the 1920s were “acquiring a more objective attitude towards their experience in American life and that they were overcoming their feelings of inferiority,” and criticizes the black middle class for not playing their part in the movement.[35] Instead of collectively bettering the race as a whole and collectively working towards racial equality, African-Americans have turned around and marginalized their own people on both sides of the fence. The impending question remains unanswered though: Which is more important, class or race?

Maintaining a black identity separate from the identity of an even larger community continues to be a struggle for many African-Americans today. In the process of building a race by repainting the color of blackness and overcoming obstacles, African-Americans have become desensitized by society’s racial insensitivity. The black middle class lacks cultural tradition and as a result, rejects identification with the black and white masses. “Too often, people forget that most middle-class blacks don’t function exclusively in a racially distinct environment. Instead, they routinely move back and forth between the black world and the white world.”[36] In Race Rebels, Robin Kelley stated that blackness is prominent in the collective identities of the black working class.[37]

Nothing about the black middle class is concrete, but class position will always influence how we identify with our race and our overall concept of black consciousness. There is no single source for the problems of black communities within Black America, and it’s time that we realized that there is no burden to bear— we are all black, and that is a common denominator worth acknowledging. There is not a universal black experience; there are many different ones.

Works Cited

Durant, Thomas J. Jr., and Louden, Joyce S. “The Black Middle Class in America: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives”. Phylon (1960-), Vol. 47, No. 4 (4th Qtr., 1986), pp. 253-263, Clark Atlanta University

Dyson, Michael Eric. “Is Bill Cosby Right? Or has the black middle class lost its mind?” New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2005.

Feagin, Joe R. and Sike, Melvin P. “Living with Racism: The Black Middle-class Experience”.

Boston: Beacon Press, 1994.

Feagin, Joe R. 2007. “The Black Middle Class: Social Mobility-and Vulnerability“. Contemporary Sociology 36 (5): 433-435.

Frazier, Franklin E. “Black Bourgeoisie”. New York: The Free Press, 1957.

Fulwood, Sam. “COLUMN ONE Blacks Find Bias Amid Affluence A Rapidly

Growing Black Middle Class Raises the Prospect of a New Order in Civil Rights and Social Patterns. but Many Say Whites Still do Not Accept Or Understand them.” Los Angeles Times (Pre-1997 Fulltext), Nov 20, 1991. http://search.proquest.com/docview/281655290?accountid=8285.

Gaines, Kevin K. “Uplifting The Race”. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

Inniss, Leslie B. and Feagin, Joe R. “The Cosby Show: The View from the Black Middle Class”.

Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 25, No. 6 (Jul., 1995), pp. 692-711, Sage Publications, Inc.

Jally, Sut and Lewis, Justin. “Enlightened Racism: The Cosby Show, Audiences, and the Myth of the American Dream (Cultural Studies Series)”, Boulder: Westview Press, 1992.

Kelley, Robin E. D. “Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class”. New York: The Free Press, 1994, 1996.

Landry, Bart and Marsh, Kris. “The Evolution of the New Black Middle Class”. Annual Review of

Sociology , Vol. 37, (2011), pp. 373-378, C1-C3, 379-394, Annual Reviews.

Lacy, Karyn R. “Blue-Chip Black: Race, Class and Status in the New Black Middle Class.” Berkeley

and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2007.

Marsh, Kris, Darity,William A.,,Jr, Philip N. Cohen, Lynne M. Casper, and Danielle Salters.

The Emerging Black Middle Class: Single and Living Alone“. Social Forces 86 (2): 735-762. (2007)

Orlando Patterson, “The Ordeal of Integration: Progress and Resentment in America’s “Racial” Crisis”. New York Times, 1997.

Pattillo-McCoy, Mary. “Black Picket Fences”. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Summers, Martin. “Manliness And Its Discontents: The Black Middle Class And The Transformation of Masculinity, 1900-1930”.Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2004.


[1] Orlando Patterson, The Ordeal of Integration: Progress and Resentment in America’s “Racial” Crisis (New York Times, 1997).

[2] Thomas J. Durant Jr. and Joyce S. Louden, The Black Middle Class in America: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives, (Clark Atlanta University, 1986), 254.

[3] Joe R. Feagin. The Black Middle Class: Social Mobility-and Vulnerability, (Contemporary Sociology 36), viii.

[4] Franklin E. Frazier, Black Bourgeoisie, (New York: The Free Press, 1957).

[5] Frazier, Black Bourgeoisie.

[6] Patterson, The Ordeal of Integration: Progress and Resentment in America’s “Racial” Crisis.

[7] Frazier, Black Bourgeoisie, 235.

[8] Joe R. Feagin, The Black Middle Class: Social Mobility-and Vulnerability, (Contemporary Sociology 36, 2007), ix

[9] Leslie B. Innis and Joe R. Feagin, The Cosby Show: The View from the Black Middle Class,

(Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 25, No. 6, 1995), 708

[10] Gaines, Uplifting The Race, 10.

[11] Frazier, Black Bourgeoisie, 78.

[12] Kevin G. Gaines, Uplifting The Race, (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1996), 1.

[13] Innis and Feagin, The Cosby Show: The View from the Black Middle Class, 701

[14] Innis and Feagin, The Cosby Show: The View from the Black Middle Class, 701

[15] Patterson, The Ordeal of Integration: Progress and Resentment in America’s “Racial” Crisis.

[16] Innis and Feagin, The Cosby Show: The View from the Black Middle Class, 692.

[17] Sut Jally and Justin Lewis, Enlightened Racism: The Cosby Show, Audiences, and the Myth of the American Dream (Cultural Studies Series), (Boulder: Westview Press, 1992).

[18] Innis and Feagin, The Cosby Show: The View from the Black Middle Class, 692.

[19] Innis and Feagin, The Cosby Show: The View from the Black Middle Class, 697.

[20] Michael Eric Dyson, Is Bill Cosby Right? Or has the black middle class lost its mind?, (New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2005), xiv.

[21] Karyn R. Lacy, Blue-Chip Black: Race, Class and Status in the New Black Middle Class, (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2007), xii.

[22] Feagin, The Black Middle Class: Social Mobility-and Vulnerability, viii.

[23] Sam Fulwood, Blacks Find Bias Amid Affluence A Rapidly Growing Black Middle Class Raises the Prospect of a New Order in Civil Rights and Social Patterns. but Many Say Whites Still do Not Accept Or Understand them, (Los Angeles Times, 1991)

[24] Frazier, Black Bourgeoisie, 125.

[25] Summers, Martin, Manliness And Its Discontents: The Black Middle Class And The Transformation of Masculinity, 1900-1930”, 6.

[26] Gaines, Uplifting The Race, 2.

[27] Lacy, Blue-Chip Black, xii.

[28] Mary Patillo-McCoy, Black Picket Fences, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1999), 1.

[29] Fulwood, Blacks Find Bias Amid Affluence A Rapidly Growing Black Middle Class Raises the Prospect of a New Order in Civil Rights and Social Patterns. but Many Say Whites Still do Not Accept Or Understand them.

[30]Joe R. Feagin and Melvin P. Sike, Living with Racism: The Black Middle-class Experience, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994).

[31] Gaines, Uplifting The Race, 1.

[32] Gaines, Uplifting The Race, 2.

[33] Patillo-McCoy, Black Picket Fences, 6.

[34] Gaines, Uplifting The Race, 2-3.

[35] Frazier, Black Bourgeoisie, 123.

[36] Lacy, Blue-Chip Black, xiv.

[37] Robin D. G. Kelley, Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class, (New York: The Free Press, 1994, 1996), 5.

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