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Leland Ware and Theodore J. Davis

Permission Pending: Leland Ware and Theodore J. Davis, Ordinary People in an Extraordinary Time: the Black Middle-class in the Age of Obama, 55 Howard Law Journal 533 (Winter 2012) (380 footnotes omitted).


Conditions for African Americans are different and immeasurably better than they were before the enactment of the Civil Rights laws of the 1960s. At the present, it is almost difficult to imagine the extreme oppression African Americans endured under Jim Crow. In the southern states, schools, restaurants, hotels, theaters, and public transportation were segregated. The separation included elevators, parks, public restrooms, hospitals, drinking fountains, prisons, and places of worship. Whites and blacks were born in separate hospitals, educated in segregated schools, and buried in separate graveyards. Blacks were not allowed to vote in elections. There were, in effect, two criminal justice systems: one for whites and another for blacks. The system was codified in state and local laws and enforced by intimidation and violence. When the color line was breached, violence was unleashed against offenders by the Ku Klux Klan and local whites, often in concert with local law enforcement officials. Lynching and other forms of violence and intimidation were routine. In the North and South, blacks lived in segregated neighborhoods and were relegated to the lowest paying, least desirable occupations.

During the segregation era, however, a small black-middle-class managed to prosper. The roots of this group can be traced back to the antebellum period. Prior to the Civil War, there were house and field slaves in the South and free blacks in the North. The house slaves occupied a higher status and, in many cases, were the mixed-race offspring of slave owners. During the Reconstruction Era and into the early decades of the twentieth century, this mixed-race aristocracy occupied the top rungs of the social hierarchy. After World War I, as southern blacks migrated to urban industrial centers, a new middle-class emerged. This group consisted of small entrepreneurs, educated professionals, and clerical sales workers. Black businesses consisted of barber shops and beauty parlors, dry cleaners, restaurants, grocery stores, and the like. Physicians and dentists occupied a high social status as did other blacks with college degrees. After World War II, the middle-class expanded slowly as blacks in the North found work in unionized occupations that paid better than what they could otherwise have earned.

In the decades that followed the enactment of the Civil Rights laws, the black middle-class has grown rapidly. Levels of educational attainment are higher. Employment opportunities are greater. Family incomes are higher. Over the last twenty years, more African American families have moved to suburban communities than those who headed north during the great migration. The election of Barack Obama as President in 2008 signaled an unprecedented advance in race relations in America. Some heralded it as the beginning of a post-racial era.

As we enter the second decade of the 21st Century, an examination of the status of African American families reveals a mixed picture; the best of times for some, the worst of times for others. For those in a position to take advantage of the opportunities created by the Civil Rights revolution, the gains over the last generation have been remarkable. For those left behind in America's impoverished communities, the obstacles to advancement are more daunting today than they were a generation ago. They continue to be plagued by the many issues arising from poverty and residential segregation.

Conditions are only marginally better for lower-middle-class African Americans. For this group, wealth building has been difficult, and the current recession halted many of the gains that had previously been made. Middle-class blacks earn less than their white counterparts. Their average net worth is much lower than middle-class whites. African Americans have moved to suburban communities, but many reside in areas that are less affluent than white middle-class communities. All homeowners have been hammered by housing crisis, but black homeowners have fared far worse than whites.

This Article will evaluate the progress and current conditions of middle-class African American families, a group that has received far less academic attention than low-income families. Part I discusses the diversity in attitudes among African Americans along class lines explaining that they are not a homogenous group. Blacks are increasingly becoming geographically dispersed with different interests, competing claims, and little reason to identify with one another. Part II shows the substantial gains in educational attainment levels among blacks that have occurred since 1970. The next section delineates the advancement in occupational attainment levels over the last forty years. Part III shows that black family incomes have risen steadily since 1970. Part IV shows that the gains have not been evenly distributed; there are significant income disparities among blacks.

The next section examines the history and continuing problems caused by residential segregation. Until the late 1960s, the real estate industry, backed by the federal government, did everything it could to keep blacks out of suburban communities leaving a legacy that continues to haunt us. Parts VI and VII show that while integration has increased, levels of residential segregation remain high, especially in the ghetto belt located in Northeast and Midwest. Parts VIII and IX examine the movement of black families to suburban communities and, in some cases, electing to reside in all-black, upscale suburban neighborhoods. The final section shows how the housing crisis and the economic recession have had a devastating effect on the black middle-class.