The Deepening Social Split Between Low-Income and Middle-Class Blacks

Assessing Attitudes

By Ronald Roach

Typically, the period between the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday in mid-January and the end of Black History Month in February sees serious and sober public discussions about the state of Black America. Those discussions have heated up earlier than expected due to the November release of a national survey on Black social progress by the influential Washington-based Pew Research Center entitled “Blacks See Growing Values Gap Between Poor and Middle Class: Optimism About Black Progress Declines.” The survey highlights Black perceptions of a deepening social split between poor and middle-class African-Americans.

To many observers, the survey confirms unsurprisingly that Black optimism about racial progress in the United States is at the lowest level it’s been in more than two decades. It revealed that one in five African- Americans, or 20 percent, said Blacks fare better now than compared with five years ago; that is the lowest percentage since 1983, when the Pew Research Center found that only 20 percent also claimed improvement in their lives. In 1999, 32 percent of Black respondents reported they believed Blacks were better off compared to five years prior, according to the Pew Research Center.

In a comparison between Black and White respondents, only 44 percent of Blacks said they believe life for Blacks will improve in the future, down from the 57 percent who thought so in a 1986 Pew survey. Whites, however, were nearly twice as likely as Blacks to have seen African-American improvements in the past five years. In addition, 56 percent of Whites said life for U.S. Blacks will improve in the future.

The Pew Research Center survey has proven irresistible to the national media, especially to the reporters covering the Democratic presidential primaries. Given the historic nature of the Democratic race, which is pitting New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, a highly viable female candidate, against Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, a highly viable African- American candidate, reporters have used the Pew survey to flesh out how class distinctions among Black voters might play out in the Democratic race.

Mr. Obama’s candidacy comes amid an intensifying argument in the Black community about what it means to be Black in America and how Blacks succeed. A survey this past fall by Pew Research found that 60 percent of Blacks say the values of poor and middle-class Blacks have grown more dissimilar over the past decade — with ‘values’ defined as ‘things that people view as important or their general way of thinking.’ Almost 40 percent of Blacks say that the values of poor and middle-class Blacks have diverged so much that Blacks can no longer be thought of as a single race,” according to “Obama’s Bid Turns Focus on Class Split Among Blacks” by Jonathan Kaufman in the Wall Street Journal last month.

Among a number of African-American scholars who study Black Americans and Black American society, the recent Pew survey has offered valuable yet flawed research about Black social and political conditions. Scholars agree that factors, such as the uncertain state of the U.S. economy and the home foreclosure epidemic, and crises, such as the poor handling of the Hurricane Katrina flood disaster in New Orleans by the U.S. government, would lead fewer African- Americans to conclude that Blacks were faring better this decade than in the 1990s when the economy was stronger and the Democratic presidential administration was seen as more responsive to minorities than the current Republican administration.

“We’ve seen over the past 20 years now a rolling back of many of the advances and gains of the civil rights movement, plain and simple. Attacks on affirmative action, attacks on welfare programs and not only welfare programs, but programs designed to benefit individuals who are among the working poor. And, add to this, the deteriorating economic structure in America,” says Dr. Earl Wright, the chair of the sociology department at Texas Southern University in Houston.

My reading of that is that they probably are worse off. The economy has tanked. Look at the news right now; the housing market, the financial markets, the Iraq war has siphoned off resources away from the infrastructure and the domestic economy. I think that’s a reflection of what people are really feeling,” says Dr. Darnell Hunt, a professor of sociology and director of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African-American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.

CLASS AND RACE

Despite some reservations about specific questions, Black scholars say the Pew survey’s focus on class issues in the Black community represents an enduring research concern, which spans across sociology, economics, political science and other disciplines. Darnell says class distinctions among African-Americans date back several generations to the slavery era and they continue to resonate.

The key issue here is whether there is a Black community — or are we talking about communities. Is the Black experience this unified, uniform thing, or are we talking about many different experiences that we’ve lumped together and called Black?” asks Hunt, who adds that in recent years he’s taught a course that deals squarely with the Black class issue.

“I haven’t taught the class in a while. But it’s a class called the ‘Social Organization of Black Communities.’ I’m sure I’ll be using this survey as an example the next time I teach the course,” Hunt notes.

Scholars, including Hunt, say that while they’ve been studying class issues among African-Americans for years, some of the current interest from Pew, the national news media and other organizations has been generated in part by statements from and debates among well-known public figures, such as entertainer Bill Cosby and journalist Juan Williams. What has emerged among Black public figures is a debate that pits social traditionalists, such as Cosby and Williams, against pubic intellectuals, such as Dr. Cornel West and Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, who cite structural barriers in society and the economy for placing significant obstacles to Black mobility. On the other hand, traditionalists have tended to blame negative individual behavior, such as poor parenting or willful neglect of academic study, as the most significant barrier to Black success.

Hunt, who places himself closer to the structuralists, contends that the national discourse around race has diminished because Americans have grown increasingly conservative since the 1970s. In the 1960s and 1970s, race was taken seriously given “the Kerner Commission, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, talked about two Americas, one Black, one White, and there were huge differences that the nation had to deal with if it was going to heal itself. And pretty much, most people agreed with that,” Hunt explains.

Then you get to 1980 and the Reagan Revolution … and then suddenly the civil rights legislation is to blame for the problems the nation is facing. … It’s all about the content of your character, not the color of your skin. And our nation’s laws are colorblind. That was the official line,” he says.

And today “we do have lots of examples of very accomplished African-Americans who’ve done well, who’ve worked hard and have applied their talents. There are probably more of them now than there ever have been, but that doesn’t diminish the fact that at a structural level there’s still barriers in place. Even if you look at median income and you compare African-Americans to Whites, and, particularly, if you look at wealth, there are incredible disparities. A lot of that is still in place,” Hunt explains.

RACIALIZING CLASS DIFFERENCES

A number of African-American scholars have taken issue with the question about Black racial identity, contending that Pew officials confusingly conflate class and race. The question asks, “Which of these statements comes closer to your view — even if neither is exactly right: Blacks today can no longer be thought of as a single race because the Black community is so diverse or Blacks can still be thought of as a single race because they have so much in common?” Black respondents answered with 37 percent saying Blacks can no longer be thought of as a single race and 53 percent declaring that it remains correct to think of Blacks as a single race.

Dr. Kathie Stromile Golden, a political scientist who is director of international programs at Mississippi Valley State University, objected to the racial identity question because it failed to let respondents define what constitutes race. She found certain other survey questions to be misleading, while others proved vague to the extent “that responses could be used to support a range of ideological positions,” according to Golden.

The way in which the (racial identity) question is phrased is problematic on a number of levels. As far as I know, there is diversity in all racial, ethnic, and nationalist groupings … Forced choice questions often do not really get at respondents’ true beliefs and perceptions,” she contends.

Dr. Juan Battle, a professor of sociology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and Hunter College, doesn’t see the racial identity question as problematic.

I think people read it and understood it. And they thought of their own experience and answered accordingly. … And I would argue that the survey clearly speaks to issues of class,” he says.

Battle says he believes that overall the Pew survey sought out complexity in the Black community at a sufficient level.

I like the fact that they were willing to look at diversity within the Black community. All too often when we talk about the Black community, we speak of it in very monolithic terms — one group, one experience. The fact that they were willing to recognize that there maybe some variance going on here is actually a good thing,” he says.

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