Long before he ascended to the Oval Office, former President Barack Obama addressed the 2004 Democratic National Convention and spoke of the ridicule Black students can receive from their peers because of educational attainment.
His wife, Michelle, years later addressed the derogatory nature of relating Black academic achievement to “acting White” in her 2013 commencement address at Boise State University. She called it “slander” in bringing to the forefront an ugly but not-so-secret byproduct of slavery: Intrarracial prejudice, loosely defined as “classism” and/or “colorism.”
Noted author and scholar Dr. Michael Eric Dyson has often opined on the African-American experience, particularly in discussing a “level of Blackness” often in a series of spirited debates with Harvard Prof. Cornell West. They made headlines years ago in leveling criticisms of Obama and his “expected” focus on Black uplift. Did the nation’s first Black president have a singular responsibility to rescue more African-Americans from poverty and usher them into the middle class?
A “level of Blackness”
In 2011, comedian and television personality Steve Harvey found agreement with Dyson in his criticism of West—and that of television anchor Tavis Smiley—as the discussion focused on ‘how Black” is Obama based on his middle-class upbringing? Championship boxer Bernard Hopkins took this age-old trope a bit further after referring to former Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb as a “guy in the house, while others are on the field” allegedly because the retired football star hails from a two-parent family and has never been arrested.
Practically all African-Americans are familiar with derogatory racial terms and phrases such as “House Negro,” “Uncle Tom” or “oreo” in reference to others within the subgroup. Generations of Black sociologists have studied this intraracial discrimination as the remnants of “color codes” going back hundreds of years. This classification originally served as a basis for a hierarchy on slave plantations in which mulattoes and lighter-skinned Blacks found themselves in more “favorable” and privileged positions as opposed to darker-hued captives.
These distinctions exist today in regard to intraracial divisions, not only in skin tone but in education and family structure sometimes referred to as “borderism.” And it can bend both ways. Often, upper-middle-class and upper-class African-Americans may “look down” upon their peers who may come from a different side of town or who are not attuned to certain “social graces” nor had a more stimulating secondary or collegiate education.
The “East-West” cultural divide
In Los Angeles, this dichotomy can be as banal as growing up or residing east or west of Crenshaw Boulevard. Following World War II, the vast majority of Black transplants to the City of Angels resided on the east side of town. It wasn’t by choice. It was a lawful application of segregation de facto. Over the past 75 years, many of those families who opted to move across town became engrossed in maintaining their newly-found middle-class status. Often, some of these households have neglected to “reach back” to whence they came and practice a mode of socioeconomic uplift aimed at their less-advantaged brethren.
A misguided perception of their peers may correspond with this social advancement. Research has demonstrated that African-Americans often hold more favorable views of their peers who may speak Standard English as opposed to “Black English,” sometimes referred to as Ebonics. This misconception, some Black academicians attest, could serve as an achievement barrier in high school and college settings brought on primarily by colorism and borderism from irrelevant labels based on skin tone, hair type, physical features, socioeconomic status, and school achievement.
Early in the 20th Century, Dr. W.E.B. DuBois advocated for a “Talented Tenth” of African-Americans who would become social leaders and, over time, would be in positions to lift up the Black community toward more productive and enriching endeavors. He also lamented the growing class divide within Black America and how the consequences of that chasm might affect the task of “lifting as we climb”–itself the motto of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs.
Successful African-Americans—at least for the past 120 years—have recognized in large part that their place in life has been a matter of opportunity. “If such opportunities were extended and broadened, a thousand times as many Negroes could join the ranks of the educated and able, instead of sinking into poverty, disease and crime,” DuBois stated in the famous publication “The Crisis” in 1919.
Black ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’
Over the past half-century, African-Americans have made remarkable gains in income. For instance, when adjusted for inflation to 2021 dollars, the percentage of African-Americans making at least $75,000 or more yearly has more than doubled since the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This is an increase from 9 percent to about 21 percent. The number of those making $100,000 or more (notwithstanding celebrities and professional athletes) has almost quadrupled.
These marked gains, however, are tempered by the percentage of Black Americans with incomes of $15,000 or less annually. Well below the modern poverty line, this income level has declined by only four percentage points during that 50-year period.
Dr. William Julius Wilson, a famed Harvard University sociologist, concluded years ago that the problem of income inequality is not necessarily between Black America and White America but, rather, between Black “haves” and “have-nots.”
“The class divide is one of the most important and often overlooked factors in the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement,” suggests Harvard University Prof. Henry Louis Gates Jr. He said he often hears from his students about a certain “pressure to rise” yet maintaining an obligation to look back to lift others.
“There is a sense of responsibility among my students to the Black communities who do not have access to universities like Harvard or Princeton,” Gates explained. “The college campus can be a microcosm of practices at work in the larger society, something of a laboratory in which America’s racial experiment might be altered.”
“Departure” and “arrival”
There’s an uncomfortable anomaly within the Black community that often plagues those within the professional ranks. While the Black middle- to upper-middle-class may find comfort in the cultural notions of “Black achievement”–escaping the surroundings that many others could not—Black “arrival” doesn’t always consider the gulf between those who have “made it,” and those who haven’t.
“Changes are made by people who put in the work every day. That whole ‘Black upper-class vs. Black lower-class’ thing doesn’t mean much to me,” said Nelson George, an author and culture critic most famous for his deep dive in the roots of Black music. “It’s a false discussion. It presupposes that Black Americans have a particular responsibility to poor people that White people don’t. No one asks if [Sylvester] Stallone has a particular responsibility to working-class Italians to get help. Probably not.”
George may speak to the advance of the Black middle-class. Yet, as its trajectory reaches new heights, more young Black men and women in struggling communities may no longer see themselves or their dreams through the eyes of their more successful peers. Black achievement may not be enough to make a difference for the African-American men and women who comprise about 60 percent of the prison population, or the one-in-three Black boys who are predicted to have a run-in with the law in their lifetime.
Two Black Americas
“Black America is only 1.5 generations removed from Black poverty,” said author Brittany Cooper. While her 2018 book “Eloquent Rage” provided a gritty look at modern-day feminism among Black women, she offered insight into a so-called “striking silence,” she said, of the Black middle class when it comes to social uplift.
Shortly before his death, King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference sought to tackle inequality with an Economic Bill of Rights that they envisioned would lift low-income Blacks at an equitable rate in taking advantage of newly-acquired civil rights laws (e.g. affirmative action). It was a moral vision of a “more just” America where all citizens—specifically poor African-Americans—had educational opportunities, a home, “access to land,” “a meaningful living wage” and a “secure and adequate income.”
To achieve that, King wrote, the U.S. government should create an initiative to “abolish unemployment” by developing incentives to increase the number of jobs for Black Americans. He also recommended “another program to supplement those whose earnings are below the poverty level.”
While idealistic, those suggested policies may have helped to prevent the widening income gap between some Black families and the corresponding communities where they may reside.
“A Black middle class that cares about civility and less about speaking out about structural racism and inequality is one that is difficult to understand,” Cooper said. “It makes them unwitting partners in White supremacy, patriarchy and socioeconomic inequality.”
There is considerable evidence of two Black Americas: The privileged and the underprivileged. Dyson put it this way in his 1996 book “Between God and Gangsta Rap”:
“Class tensions continue to brew between middle income and poor Blacks. As more Blacks become upwardly mobile and fan out into suburbia, the pattern of social life among Blacks has dramatically changed. These features have driven wedges into Black life at odd angles.”