AFRICAN AMERICAN PMW ARE VIEWED AS HAVING A REJUVENATING AND stabilizing effect on urban communities. Their absence is, conversely, credited with hastening urban decay. One way in which their presence is believed to benefit the larger population in urban black communities is through the vaguely conceived process of role modeling (Anderson 1990). In emphasizing the significance of the current “revitalization process, ” Horowitz also reports that Harlem lost its positive role models when black PMW left the area in droves during the 1970s (1997). This writer portrays the “black middle class” as the cornerstone of both the community’s economic vitality and its psyche.
This perspective is common but it falls short on a number of grounds. This idea is problematic because it assigns a normative behavioral status to PMW. This implies that black professionals are more responsible and morally accountable than African Americans from low-income households. A number of project participants echoed this privileging of black professionals and talked about the need to recreate communities of the past where middle and upper strata blacks set the example for the low-income blacks living in their same communities. My literature review lists the historical and contemporary studies that have explored resistance and respectability in black working class life and suggest alternative theoretical approaches (Dunier 1992; Kelly 1995).
Conceptualizing PMW in this way negates the contributions of lowerincome working class women and men in the areas of wage work, community activism and moral guidance. This process of erasure also reduces Harlem’s non-professionals to an indistinguishable group composed of “the working poor, the welfare-dependent, and a constituency of brewing dysfunction” (Horowitz 1997). Census data and my field observations contradict this view of Harlem residents and the “middle class as role model”