Roundable: The African-American Middle Class As a series of discussions on class issues continues, the conversation focuses on the tenuous nature of the African-American middle class. Farai Chideya's guests include economist and author Julianne Malveaux; Mark Winston Griffith, founder of the non-profit Central Brooklyn Partnership and a fellow at the Drum Major Institute; and Lester Spence, political science professor at Johns Hopkins University.
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Roundable: The African-American Middle Class

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Roundable: The African-American Middle Class

Roundable: The African-American Middle Class

Roundable: The African-American Middle Class

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

As a series of discussions on class issues continues, the conversation focuses on the tenuous nature of the African-American middle class. Farai Chideya's guests include economist and author Julianne Malveaux; Mark Winston Griffith, founder of the non-profit Central Brooklyn Partnership and a fellow at the Drum Major Institute; and Lester Spence, political science professor at Johns Hopkins University.


This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

Today's roundtable continues our series on wealth and poverty. This time we take a closer look at the black middle class. Even during slavery, there were free black people. Some were crafts people and entrepreneurs who built comfortable lives. But the black middle class that we know today grew out of the post-civil rights era. African-Americans gained access to education, new job options and greater incomes. Today, the black middle class has grown, but not without challenges.

With me to discuss how the black middle class can grow and prosper are economist and author, Julianne Malveaux. She joins us from Washington, DC. From our New York bureau is Mark Winston Griffith, the founder of the non-profit Central Brooklyn Partnership. He's also a fellow at the Drum Major Institute, a non-partisan New York-based think tank. And from Baltimore, we welcome Lester Spence, a professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University. Welcome all, and let's jump right into it.

I'm going to ask you, Julianne, what is the middle class; particularly the black middle class?

Dr. JULIANNE MALVEAUX (Economist, Author): If you looked at numbers, people would define middle-income as something with an income between 35 and $75,000. That's a huge range. If you look at values, you would be looking at things like ownership. Stability and safety are things that make people middle class as opposed to working class or lower class where people don't have stability in their lives. So one of the characteristics really of a lower, working-class life is that people--emergencies totally discombobulate them. Whereas with a middle-class life, people have some buffer which to withstand emergencies.

So what you know is that the black middle class is smaller, it's often more fragile. The question of values is one that clearly has been debated since Bill Cosby threw his, you know, pain out there about the issue of the black middle class being out of touch. And I think there is also an issue of even when there is a solid middle class, it's a middle class that's vulnerability is magnified by the issue of race.

CHIDEYA: Let me ask you, Mark, Mark Winston Griffith. What does it mean in terms of what Dr. Malveaux's been saying about stability? Is the black middle class stable or is it unstable?

Mr. MARK WINSTON GRIFFITH (Founder, Central Brooklyn Partnership; Fellow, Drum Major Institute): Well, it's difficult to make broad, sweeping generalizations, but I can say that I think, today, the middle class, at lest the black middle class, is probably not as financially stable as one would think when we talk about the middle class. I think that the middle class is now paying more for education and housing and health care than our forebearers: my grandparents, for instance, my parents. I think they all lived in a world where they strived and they were able to achieve things and reach a certain stability and give down to their children. And I think there was an assumption that as, you know--that their children would be more comfortable. And I think that we're finding in this day and age that that's not, indeed, the case.

CHIDEYA: Lester, let me ask you. Your a professor of political science at Johns Hopkins. I've been lucky enough to meet some of your family, including your parents and your youngest child of five. It takes a lot of guts to have five children in an economy that people are worried about. What made you make that decision? And are you middle class?

Professor LESTER SPENCE (Political Science, Johns Hopkins University): That decision was something that--it's a little bit more complex, I think, with black men and women--the decision whether or not to have a family, how large your family is. When we had our children, what we did have to do after we had them was make some really tactical decisions about where we lived, about what we were going to do with school, about how we were going to plan for the future, that I don't think our white counterparts, at least before Delphi went under, and our parents had to make. If that makes any sense.

Dr. MALVEAUX: Now that's a really powerful point because I think that's always been the point with the black middle class. You said, `until Delphi went under.' And I think I want to pick up on that because what you're saying is when economic vulnerability was introduced to your white counterparts.

Prof. SPENCE: Right.

Dr. MALVEAUX: We've know economic vulnerability all the time. I mean, if you and your spouse are both workers, you have more economic insecurity as workers than your white counterparts do. The issue of making educational decisions is more fraught. You don't--you can't afford to make mistakes. In terms of public schools, you know how our kids get tracked. Our kids, being black kids, get tracked. And so, as educated African-Americans middle-class folk, you spend more time on the decision and you have fewer corrections to make. It's easier for our young men and women to be targeted very early on, as early as age eight or nine, as bad kids and tracked that way. And so, you have just a greater burden than many others do.

Let's just layer onto that, Farai, the fact that about half of all African Americans own their own homes compared to about 75 percent of whites, and home ownership gives you a kind of financial security and access that non-ownership doesn't have, especially to the extent of tapping into credit.

I've been reading a bunch of stuff about delinquent children. Don't ask me why. I don't have any. But it's just something that keeps coming up and how parents are able to bail them out with Medicare medical, health care being so much less available. We have these children who act out; oftentimes very expensive medical interventions are required. If you're an owner, you can borrow on your home to do that. If you're not, your kid is in the system.

CHIDEYA: You're talking about things like drug abuse or even, you know, criminal acts. Some people can afford to hire a good lawyer and get their kids off on a misdemeanor. Other people, their kid ends up being a felon and that affects your ability to earn for the long term.

Dr. MALVEAUX: Farai, even something more benign than that. Increasingly, young black children are being diagnosed as attention deficit, and the process of having them evaluated--I just went through this with a relative--is about a $2,000 process. So they can decide your child is attention deficit and then put them on some drug and that's a challenge, or you won't have your child evaluated. What's going on? Do they just have crazy racist teacher who doesn't know how to act? And--but the evaluation process is a $2,000 process. If you make 40 grand a year and you're a single mom, you don't necessarily have--you think you're middle class. You don't have that $2,000 discretionarily.

CHIDEYA: Well, Lester, let me follow up with you. You know, you did a commentary for our show about home schooling your children or, more specifically, your wife home schooling your children. Was it issues like the one Julianne mentioned that made you think about that option?

Prof. SPENCE: That was it exactly. You know, so I've been thinking about home schooling education as a continuum among black families. And although some people home school strictly for ideological reasons, whites in particular or evangelical Christians, for us it really was, OK, we don't have that much room for error. Not only do we have five children, but our kids are black. The public schools for us weren't really an option and we didn't have the money for private schools, and even if we did, we'd be running into some of the same problems with the private schools that Dr. Malveaux mentioned. So we had to make it, like I said, a tactical decision. Like, OK, this is what the game gives us, and in order for us to make sure that our kids are more powerful than we are, that our kids are going to be able to manage in a 21st-century reality that we didn't necessarily have to deal with, we're just going to have to suck it up and do it ourselves.

CHIDEYA: Mark, let me ask you two related questions. First one--I'll give them one at a time. Is it easy or hard--or easier or harder compared to, say, 50 years ago to make it into the middle class from being poor or working class?

Mr. GRIFFITH: Again, it really depends. My family--my grandmother, my mother were--that is, my father's mother and my mother were immigrants, and so I think that they came into this country with a slightly different set of assumptions that folks who were born here come with. But I was born here and I think that my--again, my parents, my grandparents gave me certain things. I went to college. I went to an Ivy League school. There were certain expectations that I had. And I was able to buy a home, but, ironically, I was only able to buy a home because I got a sweetheart deal from my father who inherited the home from my grandmother who moved into Brooklyn in 1952.

So if you're asking me--I mean, by virtue of education, I'm middle class. But if--am I able to buy a home on my own given my salary and that of my wife's? No, I don't think so. I mean, I wouldn't have been able to do it had I not had what my grandmother left to me. So I think that there's a deep vulnerability within the middle class.

Now we talked about home ownership. There's been an assumption that home ownership gives a certain level of stability, and what you're finding is that there are foreclosures at an extremely high rate throughout the country. There are bankruptcies particularly in the black middle class that is destabilizing families. And people are finding that, you know, once you've made it over that hump it's not a sure thing. It's not something that you can necessarily sort of lay back on and say, `OK. I've made it. Now let's just move forward.'

CHIDEYA: Actually, tomorrow we're tackling the topic of housing, so this is very much on point, and, you know, what about this whole issue of stability and especially in the housing market? The kind of thing that you talk about is in some ways, as much as I've read, more of a pattern in white families. Inherited wealth passed down from generation to generation.

Dr. MALVEAUX: Right.

Mr. GRIFFITH: Right.

CHIDEYA: And black folks just have to run up and catch up with the earnings bus and jump on and hope to save some money.

Mr. GRIFFITH: Exactly.

CHIDEYA: Dr. Malveaux, what about that?

Dr. MALVEAUX: Well, that's a great point. I mean, so much of the black middle class is first-generation middle class. I mean, until 1964 or so, I mean, we did not have access to middle-class jobs, by and large. I mean, you always did have your small black middle classes--our doctors, our teachers. But it was a small group. And about 57 percent of our population was in poverty in 1960. So we are playing catchup and there's little inheritance. Increasingly, there's more of the baby-boom--will be leaving their children more than--hopefully more than our parents left us.

But again, because the social safety net has been fraying, we're paying for more things. I think that Mark mentioned that earlier. We're paying more for education and universities. I think that 28 states out of 50--and their state universities had double-digit tuition increases in 2004. So things that you ordinarily expected that there would be some state support for, there isn't. And there are more pressures on the black middle class.

There is also, Farai, and I'd just like to introduce this--because I think black middle class status has been so fragile and because so many African-Americans have got money, if not class, by being countercultural there's also almost a stigma to being black middle class. I mean, melanin and wearing your pants low is not correlated, but somehow being black with money is correlated with being ghetto fabulous in a lot of people's minds. And so you'll find people whose parents both have PhDs telling you they're not middle class. They come from the 'hood. And they don't. They're from, like, Alpharetta, Georgia, or, you know, suburban Minnesota. But they want to behave as if this is what they think it means to be black. So there is an element of which we have to reclaim the notion of--being middle class is something that's respectable, relevant and righteous.

CHIDEYA: It sounds like what you're saying is that, you know, as much as race and class get mixed up, that race and class truly get mixed up when it comes to identity. That the identify of black America right now is like, `OK, I'm from the streets,' regardless of how much income people do or don't have. What do you think, Lester and Mark? I mean, do we have this cultural ideal of the, you know, black, you know, street-wise mentality regardless of how much money people make?

Prof. SPENCE: Well, there's this tension that Cosby revealed, but it's important to recognize that that tension has always existed. So I live in Baltimore, but I'm really from Detroit. And if you look at accounts of black Detroiters when they first started moving into the city from the late 1800s, you had this really deep--you had this dynamic where professional blacks blamed poor blacks for racism. And when we're talking about the late 1800s, you're talking about massive state terrorism, even in the North. You see that reflected in some of the comments by--of W.E.B. DuBois, and even Martin Luther King about how the black working class wasn't--their hygiene left much to be desired. Kind of sort of implicitly blaming black people for some of the terrorism that was levied against them. So...

CHIDEYA: So what now? Let me just ask...

Dr. MALVEAUX: That's a really fascinating comment, because you know the origins of the National Urban League, for all the great work they do now, was really in training black immigrants from the South in how to act in the North.

Prof. SPENCE: And...

CHIDEYA: I think it's interesting that you used the word, `immigrants.' Because now we're looking at a new diaspora from the South, from Mississippi and from Louisiana because of Katrina and because of Rita. And so will there be the same kind of cultural mixing of the Southern black working class and middle class with the Northern black working class and middle class? What will that do for our idea of the black middle class?

Dr. MALVEAUX: Well, you know, the fact that responsible black people in New Orleans bought into the rumors about violence in New Orleans raises questions about the level of distrust among us from a class perspective. That--I would just simply leave it at that. I mean, that Mayor Ray Nagin and the police chief were willing to repeat rumors about people raping babies and the Pandemonium with no facts at all attached to it. You know, we condemn white people for that. Michael Lewis had a piece in Sunday's New York Times Magazine that alarmed me just because it confirmed to me that many white people are crazy. But if I--as I was saying, though, is there's a whole lot of crazy black people, too, who believed that stuff without even raising a question of: Where are the police reports? Where are the dead bodies?

CHIDEYA: So let me just--we have very little time left. We've talked a little bit about the tenuous economics of the black middle class. But it sounds like where we're ending up is a true class divide, not just income, but the idea that one group of people considers themselves one class, whether it's, you know, you call it poor or from the 'hood. Another group of people considers themselves above that, and that is tearing the black community apart. Is that really what we're talking about there?

Prof. SPENCE: Yeah, we've really moved from a dynamic where class is viewed as wealth, you know, which would basically put all black people as--in a working class, because that given that we don't have any wealth, to class as behavior where you got to act right to--you got to have--class is something that you actually have as in, you know, `I have class,' and I--vs. people who don't have class. And that's going to really, really play itself out in politics and in a number of different ways in black communities.

Dr. MALVEAUX: I wonder if that's really...

Mr. GRIFFITH: I wanted to say this, though...

Dr. MALVEAUX: ...changed, though? I mean, I think I will lay out there that some people have a very idealistic view of the African-American community; that there was some great cohesion somewhere once upon a time in `fairy, fairy land.' Haven't there always been class differences? Haven't there always been issues among us and between us, and hasn't there always been diversity among us?

CHIDEYA: Mark, you get the last word, briefly.

Mr. GRIFFITH: Right. I'm just going to say, of course, there has been those divides, but the O.J. verdict, I think, showed that despite all of these divides, there's still a consciousness that goes across class in which people feel as though--you know, in which people bear this sort of double consciousness. They fell like they're part of the United States and yet feel like they're kept away from the American Dream. And I think that is part of what is binding black people across class together.

CHIDEYA: Part of the United States and part of a black vision of the United States. From our New York bureau, Mark Winston Griffith, founder of the non-profit Central Brooklyn Partnership and a fellow at the Drum Major Institute; economist and author Julianne Malveaux. She joined us from Washington, DC. And at Baltimore's Johns Hopkins University, Lester Spence, a professor of political science. Thank you all for joining us, and we will keep up with this topic. Take care.

Dr. MALVEAUX: Thank you, Farai.

Mr. GRIFFITH: Thanks.

Prof. SPENCE: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: You can hear the roundtable again any time. Simply visit our Web site,, and click on NPR podcast to learn how to have the roundtable delivered to your computer or MP3 player each and every day.

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