The Hopes and Fears of the Black Middle Class

By Banner-Haley, Charles Pete | The World and I, February 1999 | Go to article overview

The Hopes and Fears of the Black Middle Class


Banner-Haley, Charles Pete, The World and I


The African-American middle class at the end of the twentieth century distinguishes itself from previous generations by its visibility and influence.

Jesse Jackson stands before a gymnasium full of young black students and leads them in the exhortation "i am somebody." Oprah Winfrey, through her nationally syndicated television show, has revived an interest in reading good books, especially works by African-American women authors such as Toni Morrison.

C. Delores Tucker, chair of the National Political Congress of Black Women, pressures the recording industry to be responsible in its promotion of rap, which has been accused of glamorizing violence and grotesquely representing women. Rev. Eugene Rivers III walks the toughest streets of inner-city Boston, dispensing a tough love designed to show alienated youth and young people at risk that there is hope and opportunity for a good life.

All these African Americans belong to and enunciate the values of the middle class. These individuals are sterling examples of African-American history's largest black middle class to date.

That black middle class is composed of the beneficiaries of the struggles for civil rights and inclusion that began in earnest after World War II. The greatest achievements of the civil rights movement include Brown v. Board of Education, which in 1954 declared school segregation unconstitutional; the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and '65, which in effect outlawed Jim Crow segregation and opened the voting franchise to millions of African Americans; and the War on Poverty, with its programs in education and affirmative action.

An increasing visibility

There are more African Americans than ever in professions ranging from the traditional doctors, lawyers, and schoolteachers to business managers, small business owners, and entertainment industry executives. At the end of the twentieth century, the African-American middle class distinguishes itself from previous generations of the black middle class by its visibility. It is tempting to say that the black middle class is also characterized by its influence. But that is a more complicated matter.

The visibility of the black middle class is in itself historic. Traditionally, the African-American middle class was a small but determined group. Its members struggled to carve out a life in a nation that rendered black people invisible when they were not treated violently.

Those in the small black middle class who were conscious of the viciousness of Jim Crow segregation fought quietly or vociferously against this cruel and ultimately demeaning system. At the same time, the black bourgeoisie worked earnestly to uplift the masses of African Americans as a means of ensuring that negative stereotypes of black people would not be reinforced. This uplift ideology was also a means for gaining solidarity in the push for inclusion into American society.

Without a doubt, the early black middle class was unabashedly integrationist. Its members sought the rights and opportunities that most white Americans enjoyed: the "American dream" of a good job, a good home, and a decent education for their children. The early black bourgeoisie did not want skin color to be a barrier or a ticket to that American dream. As black Americans, when faced with denial of opportunities, they intently strove to prove their equality.

There can be no question, however, that for many middle-class African Americans, the effects of racist ideology and covert discrimination left deep scars. Some of that was manifested in a disdain for those in the black masses whose social behavior was cited by racists as proof that African Americans in general were lazy, bestial, sex-crazed creatures who needed to be segregated for their own (and America's) good.

Even brilliant black intellectuals such as W.E.B. Du Bois and social activists including Nannie Burroughs, despite their love and sympathy for their people, were harshly critical of the masses's cultural behavior. …

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