The Black Middle Class Straddles the Fence

By Palmer, Trudy C. | The Christian Science Monitor, November 4, 1999 | Go to article overview

The Black Middle Class Straddles the Fence


Palmer, Trudy C., The Christian Science Monitor


Some books are exciting, some are important, some are both. "Black Picket Fences: Privilege and Peril among the Black Middle Class" fits in the middle category. Author Mary Pattillo-McCoy, an assistant professor at Northwestern University, pays close attention to an understudied group: the black middle class. As she points out, however, that's a bit of a misnomer. By socioeconomic standards, what passes for the middle class in the African-American community is actually the lower middle class, or, as one teenager in the study put it, the "upper poor" class.

"Fences" explodes myths and confirms truths. Among the myths is the notion that the black middle class has fled the black community. Not so. Racial discrimination, plain and simple, has prevented many of those blacks who could afford to live in predominantly white areas from buying into them. Pattillo-McCoy explains, "The black middle class has always attempted to leave poor [black] neighborhoods, but has never been able to get very far."

In these attempted flights, the middle class gains a little distance from the city's poorest blacks, but the distance is never great enough to cut off interaction between the two. Instead, the black middle class winds up acting as "a kind of buffer between core black poverty areas and whites."

Inevitably, the poorer neighborhoods expand into the black middle- class ones, but the latter do not cross over into the neighboring white enclaves. What results, then, is a black neighborhood in which the more solidly middle class live alongside those of much lesser means - and alongside the unemployment and criminal employment that often accompany such meager means. …

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