Can the Black Middle Class Survive?
On the night of Barack Obama’s election, I was reporting in the crowd of Chicago’s Grant Park, and like many Americans felt hopeful that our country was finally ready to deal with the vexing matters of race. Obama’s election was an incalculable accomplishment, and the arrival of a middle-class black family in the White House seemed to tell the world that the American Dream is alive, that our country’s establishment has successfully absorbed a people it once enslaved, and unapologetically marginalized.
And yet, when the Obamas moved into the White House, the country’s economy was already in free fall, and its fragile black middle class was, to put it simply, vanishing. Between 2005 and 2009, the year the Great Recession officially ended, the average black household’s wealth fell by more than half, to $5,677, even as their white peers held about $113,000 in assets. Nearly one-quarter of African-Americans have no assets besides a car, and roughly the same share have lost their homes, or they’re close. The African-American unemployment rate hovers around 14 percent, and according to a Pew report released in July, nearly 70 percent of blacks raised in families at the middle of the wealth ladder fall to the bottom two rungs as adults. The exodus of blacks from cities like Washington, Atlanta, New Orleans and even Detroit is driving a sense of eroding political power. Perhaps most depressingly, one in three black boys can expect to be incarcerated at some point in his life.
It’s tricky, explaining what it means to be black in America at this peculiar moment, mainly because the narrative’s dominant theme is decline. “You’re airing our dirty laundry,” a black lawyer told me over brunch one recent Sunday, after I explained this story’s theme. In the fall of 2009, shortly after I began a 14-month reporting assignment in Detroit for Time magazine, a black doctor threw a party at her sprawling home in the city’s leafy Palmer Woods neighborhood, one of the last relatively affluent enclaves. Much of the region, particularly African-Americans, were outraged over the opening stories in our coverage, so the hostess, and her friends, wanted a word. The essential message: Inside Time’s pages, pretend the black middle class is doing just fine.
It was delusional. Detroit is the country’s most populous majority-black city. Historically, it’s had one of America’s highest black homeownership rates. But more than one-third of the city’s black borrowers — including some of the martini-sipping doctors, lawyers, politicos and auto execs in the room that October night — have lost their homes, or they’re on the brink. The truth is, many of us are on a cliff, watching this widening gulf of black poverty and dysfunction, fearful that we’re just a heartbeat or two away.
Something is happening in the culture that conflicts with the dreamy image of black progress that Obama’s presidency projects. In this supposedly post-racial moment, we no longer even have the license, or the language, to identify a fundamental source of the problems we see mounting in the offices in Chicago’s Loop, and on the streets of suburban Orlando: the enduring effects of racism. That’s no longer an acceptable explanation for society at large. Hardly anyone, it seems, wants to admit the truth: nearly a half-century of financial, political and social gains are being reversed, perhaps permanently, and the post-civil rights era may come to resemble Reconstruction’s fleeting progress. “The whole premise of the civil rights movement was to give our children a better future than we had. But it’s all going backwards,” said Marian Wright Edelman, a veteran of that movement, adding: “We face the worst crisis since slavery.”
Not so long ago, Robert Johnson, Black Entertainment Television’s founder, warned in a CNBC interview that the economic crisis is a “tsunami threatening African-American families.” He concluded, “We have to do something about the wealth gap, or else we’re going to face a situation where white families are paying for entitlements of millions of African American families.” In many ways, it should be a great time to be black in America. There’s a black man in the Oval Office. More African-Americans are earning college degrees. A handful of blacks are Fortune 500 CEOs. Interracial marriage is hardly unusual. A black minister leads a Baptist denomination that was born defending slavery. Some of America’s biggest cultural exports are black. But the truth is, it’s a frightening moment to be black.
* * *
There’s been some form of a black middle class for decades. In the 1950s, a Howard University sociologist, E. Franklin Frazier, noticed a growing black middle class that was invisible to most Americans, so he set out to examine a key question: How much did blacks share in America’s post-World War II economic boom, which fueled the national exodus from cities to two-story suburban homes with large yards? In his groundbreaking 1957 book, “Black Bourgeoisie,” Frazier observed: “The black bourgeoisie is without cultural roots in either the Negro world with which it refuses to identify, or with the white world which refuses to permit the black bourgeoisie to share its life.” In 1974, Time published a cover story, “America’s Rising Black Middle Class.” The story, written by the magazine’s first black bureau chief, Joseph Boyce, and Jack White, who later became the magazine’s first black columnist, declared: “Many have just arrived in the middle class, some are barely hanging on, some may lose their grip – but by any reasonable measurement, most appear here to stay. They have shown that, reports of its demise to the contrary, upward mobility still operates in America.”
Class can be difficult to define, because it’s amorphous, and elastic, based as much on income and assets as behavior, outlook and sensibility. Algernon Austin, of the Economic Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, is among the sociologists who believe one way to measure the middle class is the share of the population that earns more than twice the federal poverty level. By that standard, a landmark was reached in 1999: For the first time, more than half of black Americans were considered “middle class.” That year, Newsweek columnist Ellis Cose declared: “By a wide array of measures, now is a great time—the best time ever—to be black in America.” Indeed, in 2000, the Census Bureau reported the black poverty rate had fallen to 22.5 percent — the lowest on record. In a Pew survey released last month less than half of all respondents described themselves as “middle class,” slightly less than four years ago. Some 85 percent of those respondents said it’s harder than a decade ago to maintain their standard of living—that is, earning about $70,000 a year. Call it the Great Recession. Or the Lost Decade. But make no mistake: the American middle class is shrinking.
* * *
The first decade of the 2000s was disastrous for blacks. One flashpoint has been housing. The fault lay largely with subprime mortgages. In theory, these mortgages were designed to help lower-income people, including many blacks, buy a home — which, after all, is part of the American Dream. In a way, these loans were intended to help correct decades of lenders excluding blacks. In hindsight, this seems perverse, given how many black homeowners were seduced by teaser rates that made subprime mortgages seem affordable — until the rates reset. Earlier this summer, the U.S. Justice Department reached a $125 million settlement with Wells Fargo, the nation’s largest residential home mortgage lender, after charging the bank with intentionally steering blacks and Latinos into riskier mortgages more frequently than white people. But here’s the real surprise: Nearly 10 percent of affluent blacks have lost their homes (p. 19) to foreclosure. In metropolitan Washington, high-income blacks are 36 percent more likely than whites to lose their home. The reasons for the disparities vary, but include this: even blacks with good credit scores — above 660 – who could’ve qualified for a conventional loan were pushed into riskier subprime mortgages carrying higher interest rates and steep upfront fees.
The story of the Ellis family is instructive. Five years ago, Jacqueline Ellis, a suburban Philadelphia middle school English teacher, searched the Internet for a new home, and mortgage. The 49-year-old had been living with her husband, an engineer, and their elementary school-age son in a house they’d bought on a 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage. But the neighborhood, as she puts it, was “diversity-challenged.” She remembers her old street: “One, two, three, four African-American families,” until one moved out. Another kept to themselves. One day, Ellis brought her son to the neighborhood park to play with the other kids, but, she recalled, “They wouldn’t even talk to him.” After finding a four-bedroom brick house with a large backyard, First Union Bank, which was eventually acquired by Wells Fargo, offered the Ellis family a 30-year, adjustable-rate mortgage. In 2007, they moved in. “We love this neighborhood,” she said. “It’s like the model U.N. — Indians, Asians, Caucasians, and a Dominican family’s across the street.”
The couple easily handled the $2,300 monthly payments. Then, the payment soared above $5,000. Last fall, the bank agreed to lower the Ellis’ monthly payment to $4,600. But the bank, Jacqueline Ellis said, also tacked on additional fees, boosting their mortgage to $625,000 — far more than the home’s estimated value. They’re barely making payments, in part because her husband’s firm cut salaries by 20 percent. She’s ignoring the bank’s foreclosure notices, as well as mailings from lawyers promising to reduce their monthly payments to $100. “Everybody’s on the hunt.”
She’s cut back on expenses, and notes the family drives a Honda, not a Bentley. They might vacation on the Jersey shore, if they go anywhere, and found a way to keep their 11-year-old son in summer camp. “We can’t take this situation — our situation — out on him,” she said. In the meantime, she’s tending to her garden, lined with collard greens — “we are African-American, after all” — and kale, which the groundhog regularly eats. Few know their situation. “This isn’t something to chit-chat about,” she said one recent humid afternoon, looking out onto the garden. “They basically set us up for failure, and are taking away our dream.” The family is even considering bankruptcy.
The Ellises are not an anomaly. If current trends persist, soon, barely 40 percent of African-Americans will be considered “middle class,” and by 2042, the average black family will earn only 61 cents for every dollar earned by whites. “The black middle class is disappearing,” Tavis Smiley told me earlier this year. [Disclosure: he told me this for a column for The Root.]
* * *
I fear Smiley is talking about me. In January, I left my job at Time. The exact reasons are too complicated for a one-sentence explanation, but in short, my contract wasn’t renewed. In nearly five, mostly happy, years at the magazine, I worked first in Chicago, and then Detroit, where I led one of the company’s most complex, successful projects, with access to senior executives, and editors. I then became a Washington correspondent, earning about $75,000 a year. That’s a fraction of what the position would’ve paid a few years ago but more than what new, younger reporters and editors — I’m 34 — happily accept. The Washington posting was the fulfillment of a dream and, to my mind, payoff for years of robotically muting myself – always smiling, keeping things upbeat, letting work and travel come first, so no serious dating — all to fit the magazine’s super-competitive, conservative ideal. Hiring, one superb editor who’d survived a couple rounds of buyouts told me, isn’t exclusively based on talent, especially in this environment; “It’s subjective. The question is, ‘Do you fit?” In other words, do you reflect an editor’s mood? Can you relate to a mass audience?
It was never easy. I’m black, in fact, the magazine’s last black correspondent. My departure might seem a trivial point until you consider that nearly 1,000 African-American journalists have left newsrooms in the last decade. That’s mainly due to the industry’s tumult, but whatever the cause, the bottom line is the same: Just as the country is becoming more diverse, newsrooms, television shows and movies are becoming more racially balkanized.
In many ways, my story tracks the rise of the black middle class. My grandfather left a small town along the Mississippi River for New Orleans, and settled in what became the Lower Ninth Ward. He opened businesses — a grocery store, a bar — and snapped up apartment buildings. My parents — Dad’s basically in real estate, Mom’s a retired X-ray tech — pushed me through public and private schools with two seemingly contradictory messages: never view race as a barrier to success, but never get too comfortable, either, because in the U.S., you’re always just black. Still, I believed that touching all the stations of the cross — good schools, blue-chip firms, cultivating the right relationships, succeeding at high-profile assignments — would seal my place in the middle class. Like so many relatively affluent black kids who grew up in the 1980s watching “The Cosby Show,” I’d never defined myself in strictly racial terms. So I cringed at some of the attention my departure from Time drew. I knew that, as a black man, it’s statistically likely that I’d be unemployed for 10 months, or longer.
Now, eight months after leaving my job, there’s no use pretending everything’s fine. For much of the year, I’ve been among the roughly 8.2 million Americans considered “part-time employed.” My world seemed rich with possibility only a couple of years ago. In August 2009, I was promoted to be bureau chief on a high-profile project. Time Inc., one of the world’s largest publishers, bought a six-bedroom house near downtown Detroit that’d become an office, conference space and living quarters for visiting executives, editors and reporters from the company’s very autonomous magazines – Time, Fortune, Sports Illustrated. The mission was to make money – the auto
industry remains a key advertiser – but also to explore a city’s efforts to rebound. Suddenly, in Detroit, I was more than a journalist. I was a gatekeeper, a conference planner, the guy hiring housekeepers and caterers, the one explaining Time to different audiences. Sometimes I was a security guard. It was like walking on a stretched rubber band. But the project succeeded, and brought me to the attention of John Huey, the company’s editor-in-chief. A Southerner who came of age in the civil rights era, Huey has for years fought to break up Time’s very white, very Ivy League fraternity. As a reward for the Detroit assignment, Huey gave me a one-year contract to report from Washington for Time.
It was complicated. Projects of mine that were quickly green-lit in Chicago and Detroit suddenly weren’t taken seriously – in one case, until a new, white reporter pitched the Washington bureau chief a similar idea. When I felt excluded from covering politics, I didn’t complain – it’s so easy to be labeled a whiner, especially when you’re black. It’s tricky challenging a seemingly omnipotent bureau chief – especially when you’re on a contract. So I kept my head down, hoped to break through a rough patch by writing about topics no one else was covering, including race. Then, I was reminded of an editor’s warning: To succeed at Time, don’t write about race, or what it means to be black.
Part of my issue, surely, was the transition from field to office work. Some of the people who’d promoted my career had left. The last straw came last year, when the magazine announced the team that would cover the 2012 presidential campaign – a reason I’d agreed to take the job. I wasn’t on the list. The team included a 20-something who’d been an unpaid intern the previous summer. Last December, the managing editor, Rick Stengel, hosted a lunch in the Washington Bureau’s glass-walled conference room to discuss plans for covering the campaign. As the former intern stumbled through her idea, I got up, and walked out of the room. An advertising executive who watched part of the episode emailed, “Everything okay?” I wrote back that it was like a “country club.” Maybe it’s no surprise that Time’s culture rejected me.
Is something wrong with me? Is this all in my head? That’s what I’ve been asking, trying to come to terms with my situation, to figure out if it’s extraordinary – it isn’t – or part of some larger, structural shift. It helps to remember that African-Americans are often among an institution’s youngest, and newest, workers, and so are among the first to be laid off. People with barely a high school diploma know this well – so do those with college degrees who’ve never made it beyond past the entry-level. The economic crisis has landed like a sledgehammer on industries in which blacks had been concentrated, often in jobs that paid middle-income salaries. Between 2007 and 2009, for instance, nearly 1 million black workers were laid off in healthcare, transportation, construction and manufacturing. In fact, the implosion of the U.S. manufacturing and auto industries explains much of Detroit’s black middle class’ decline. Nearly one in five blacks work in government, historically a reliable entrée into the middle class. But thousands of teachers, police officers and postal workers (my maternal grandfather was one) are being cut. “The result is that blacks are losing the foothold they had in the middle class,” says James Parrott, chief economist of the Fiscal Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research center in New York City.
It’s tempting to believe we’re in a long, rough patch in a recurring theme – that as the economy rebounds, blacks will, too. Before 2000, Parrott told me, blacks did well when manufacturing rebounded, and when government expanded. (Blacks never penetrated New York City’s financial services sector.) But it’s not in this nascent recovery. In fact, the black unemployment rate has stagnated around 14 percent, even as it’s gone down for the population at large. Restaurants and home healthcare are two growing sectors of New York City’s economy, but many of those jobs are being filled by immigrants – not well-educated blacks displaced from middle-income positions and, Parrott correctly observes, “are not ready to take low-end jobs.” It’s also true that blacks, especially baby boomers, are doing whatever it takes to bring in money: working part-time at call centers, or cleaning offices at night. None of this, of course, explains certain nagging disparities, like, why is the unemployment rate among blacks with a college degree twice that of similarly educated whites?
Devah Pager, a Princeton sociologist, is on the forefront of research on the roughly 18 million blacks in the labor market. In one study, she found that black applicants for entry-level jobs were half as likely to receive a call back or a job offer as equally qualified whites. Part of this may be attributable to employers’ previous experiences with African-Americans, or known characteristics about them — say, high incarceration rates — that shapes perceptions about productivity, even intelligence. But even after employers have repeatedly positive experiences with black workers, particularly men, they are still characterized with broad negative stereotypes. Her new research examines whether blacks avoid applying for jobs in certain sectors because they’re afraid of discrimination – or because there isn’t a deep history of blacks in those fields. I’m reminded of an editor who warned me not to bother pursuing a job at a Washington Web magazine, saying – “consider the environment.” Pager told me the evidence shows that in fact, blacks cast a significantly wider net in the job search. “Given how difficult it is to identify and avoid discriminatory employers, this may be the best strategy for finding a decent opportunity,” she said.
But what happens when we get into offices? It’s tricky to generalize, but it’s safe to say black men in mostly white professional environments are keenly aware of the delicate dance. The slightest inflection in our voice, or raise of an eyebrow, can be fodder for dissection. Show too much confidence and we’re called arrogant. If we show too little, we’re dismissed as a pushover. Never, of course, show a flash of anger. That’s one of the lessons from Obama’s presidency. Ashleigh Shelby Rosette, a professor at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, found that black men who show “warmth” and “communality” are evaluated more positively than those who show decisiveness and aggression – the key attributes we associate with successful executives. “That explicitly tells us that black men are burdened with having to manage this perception of anger that white men don’t have to worry about,” Rosette told me. [Disclosure: she told me this for an interview for The Root.] Algernon Austin, the sociologist, says all of this points to a key takeaway: “There are significant obstacles for blacks in the labor market – and it’s not at all a level playing field.”
I’d love to pretend I’m just another American who happened to have lost a job. But when I see the handful of people getting or keeping meaningful jobs at general-interest magazines, or in political journalism, they rarely, if ever, look like me. That world is shockingly young, and white. Looking at the data, it’s hard not to conclude race isn’t a factor. We’re not that post-racial. But there’s an element of class, and temperament. There are plenty of low-paying entry-level jobs in journalism. Reviewing a resume a few months ago, an editor for a place that thrives on bite-size news said: “You wouldn’t be happy here.” She was probably right.
It’ll be hard to get back on a traditional corporate track – which I’m unsure I even want to do. And not everyone can tolerate the risk of entrepreneurship – psychological, financial—and blacks’ access to capital is slim. There wasn’t much room to save in Washington, one of the country’s most expensive cities. So I’ve had to be creative to raise money. For the first time since college, I’m regularly borrowing money from my parents. I’m subletting my apartment, bouncing between relatives’ sofas. I briefly considered moving back to New Orleans. For a while, the idea was to stay in Washington with my partner, who has a stable World Bank posting but little appreciation for why I couldn’t land a full-time job despite having an enviable Rolodex and several interviews. “Try being a white American male these days,” he told me once. A few weeks ago, I told a black friend I wanted to take a year off, maybe be a waiter. It was a joke, but he stiffened his back, put his drink down on a table, and said, “What about your status?” Americans – black folks, especially – are so consumed with status. But status doesn’t pay the bills. Or guarantee happiness. It’s an illusion, and frankly, I’m tired of trying to fit everyone else’s expectations of what a perfect black guy should be.
It’s hard to say what all of this means, where any of it will lead. We’re adrift – culturally, financially. There’s no one reason, no single person to blame. So much of what we were told to be true – by our parents, our books, our country – turns out to be an illusion. It’s a scary thing. At some point, we’ll all have to admit, the dream may stay just that.
Steven Gray is the editorial director for news and social justice at TakePart, Participant Media’s digital magazine. His print and digital work has appeared in The Washington Post, Time, Fortune, The Wall Street Journal, Le Monde, Ebony, and on Chicago Public Radio.
Co-published with Salon.