Intro to Afro-American Studies


The Black Middle Class

Toward a Paradigm of Unity in Afro-American Studies

LOGIC OF CHANGE Social Cohesion Traditional Africa - Slavery - Rural Life - Urban Life
Social Disruption - Slave Trade - Emancipation - Migrations -
UNITS OF ANALYSIS Ideology A1 B1 C1 D1 E1 F1 G1
Nationality A2 B2 C2 D2 E2 F2 G2
Class A3 B3 C3 D3 E3 F3 G3
Race A4 B4 C4 D4 E4 F4 G4


   Matt said, "Let ins break it down for you. White folks invented these debitramp balls so that their darling little heifers could git a good shot at the prize bull in the pasture..."
   He chuckled, "But colored folks just do these things cause they see white folks doing them. It ain't no investment like it is with white folks. All the money ends up in Whitey's hands again. To the dance teacher, to the beauty peoples, to Mr. Waldorf. It's just some more white folks' foolishness that don't git Black folks nowheres except in debt. Like Santa Claus and Easter bonnets, it all ends up in Charlie's pockets."

 John Oliver Killens, The Cotillion, 1971


The Black middle class is a small part of the Black community, but it has more and lives with less hardship than the majority of Black people. Middle-class people have smaller family units, higher incomes, more homeownership, more education, jobs with more authority and independence, more and higher quality consumption of necessity items and luxury items, etc. The fact is that some Black people have always lived better than most. But it is also true that the Black middle class has been very insecure at every stage of Black history. Middle-class privilege has been rooted more in the shifting character of status than in the firmer base of economic ownership. 


The overwhelming reality of the slave system was that all Black people had the same basic class position, that of being a slave. This class did not own anything; most importantly, they did not own themselves. Therefore, in strict terms, most Blacks were in the same class during slavery. However, the objective differentiation that did matter was in the technical division of labor.


The basic distinction between house slaves and field slaves was
the difference between service work in the house and production work in the field.  Some specialized production by skilled craft workers took place near the slavemaster's house (e.g., the blacksmith) but the main production was done as field work. Field slaves worked collectively (though not with a high level of interdependence, as later developed in assembly line factory-production) and had more limited contact with whites. House slaves were fewer in number and often developed very close ties with their white masters. This close association became the first basis for status distinctions among Blacks in the United States: an aristocracy based on color and style. The more "white blood" (the lighter in skin color), the higher the status; the more one was able to "mimic white behavior" (through hand-me-down clothes, speech, etc.), the more status one had.

House slaves were conditioned to have commitment and loyalty to the slavemaster. This point is dramatically made by Malcolm X in a 1963 interview on the radio in Philadelphia: 

  The house Negro was the one who lived in, the master's house, ate the master's food, at the master's table usually - after the master had finished with it. He dressed like the master, which means he wore the same type of clothing that the master did, but usually it was clothing handed down to him by the master. He identified the master's house as his own. If the master said, "We have a fine house here," the house Negro would say, "Yes, our house is a fine house."  Whenever the master said, "We," he said, "We."  If the master said, "We have good food on our table," the house Negro would chime in and say, "Yes, we have plenty of food, boss, on our table."  The house Negro would also identify himself so closely with his master that when the master was sick the house Negro would say, "What's the matter, boss, we's sick?"  When the master was sick he was sick.  If the master's house caught on fire the house Negro would fight harder to put the flames out or keep the flames from enveloping the master's house than the master would himself.

The other group of privileged Blacks within the slave system was called "freedmen." Some free Blacks owned land, but as E. Franklin Frazier pointed out in the The Negro in the United States, most were only subsistence farmers: 

In 1830  the free Negroes owned about 32,000 acres of land valued at $184,184, and by 1860 both the acreage and the value of the farms owned by free Negroes had doubled. Since nearly half (43%) of the farms owned by the 1,200 free Negro farm owners contained 25 acres or less, it may be assumed that these farms were used for subsistence rather than for commercial enterprises.



  Ira Berlin notes the slave system was so threatening to free Blacks that they were often uncooperative and decidedly conservative with respect to the well-being of their fellow Blacks who were in slavery:

Standing a step above the slave, free Negroes simply had too much to lose to take the lead in breaking the bonds of servitude. They too suffered the pains of white oppression, but free Negroes could look down to slavery as well as up to complete freedom. They could see how their status might degenerate, and they knew that whites needed only the flimsiest excuse to take their liberty. Having learned to squeeze a few precious benefits from their caste status, they were not about to surrender them without a guarantee of something better. Freedom within the context of slavery gave free Negroes something to protect and transformed them into a conservative caste. The general insecurity of free Negro life, the sure knowledge that free Negroes suffered whenever whites felt threatened, and their growing material prosperity reinforced that conservatism. 

Berlin goes on to point out that the conflict between free Blacks and Black slaves was caused by slavemasters who were interested in preventing Black unity against the slave system:

'Whites promoted these differences between free Negroes and slaves, just as they tried to divide field hands and house servants, unskilled bondsmen and slave artisans. They gladly rewarded free Negroes who informed on slaves, just as they almost always freed slaves who revealed impending insurrections.

Some free Blacks were slaveowners themselves. Much of this can be explained by the fact that they often purchased their family members and friends. However, like white slaveowners, some Blacks did own slaves for their own economic advantage. Berlin provides further insight into how an economic system based on slavery functioned to divide Blacks:

Economic success in the South depended largely on the ownership of slaves, and free Negroes were no more exempt from this than whites. Although most free Negro slaveholders were truly benevolent despots, owning only their families and friends to prevent their enslavement or forcible deportation, a small minority of wealthy freemen exploited slaves for commercial purposes. This small group of free Negroes were generally the wealthiest and best-connected members of their caste...

Slaveholding free Negro planters identified...closely with the Southern ideal. Andrew Durnford, who owned a Louisiana plantation which he worked with some seventy-five slaves, was finely attuned to the planter ideology and considered himself a patriarchal master in the best tradition. Although he raided endlessly against the seeming incompetence and indolence of his "rascally negroes" he took pride in his role as their protector as well as their owner. When Norbert Rillieux, a French-trained free Negro engineer who had invented a new method of refining sugar, offered Durnford $50,000 for use of his plantation to test the vacuum process, the planter turned him down, noting that he could not "give up control of his people."  Durnford's people of course were slaves and he treated them as such despite their similar complexion.  With the exception of his personal body servant, he never showed any interest in releasing them from bondage.  In 1835, Durnford traveled north to Virginia to purchase additional hands for himself and his white mentor, John McDonogh.  During his trip, he confronted, perhaps for the first time, the Southern distaste for slave traders, as opposed to those who bought and used slaves, and he consciously manipulated that idea to obtain lower prices.  Yet, throughout his lengthy discussion with McDonogh on what he called "Negro traders," he showed not the slightest understanding that the term when applied to him might have two additional meanings, for Durnford literally was a Negro trader and some blacks might consider his actions treasonable.  These possibilities were lost on Durnford because he fully identified with the white slaveowning elite.  Many wealthy freemen, like Durnford, considered themselves more white than black, no matter what their precise racial heritage.  They showed little sympathy for the slave and had few qualms about the morality of slavery.  Durnford's Northern-educated son, who urged amelioration of slave conditions - not emancipation - had no greater sense of identification with blacks than his father.  He supported African colonization for slaves - but not for himself - spoke of colonization as reparation, and lauded the plan to return blacks to "the land of their fathers."


These few Black slaveowners wanted to retain their class privilege.

An additional group with special standing was the skilled craft workers (or artisans).  Slaves were the dominant skilled craft workers in many areas of the South, and as such they were accorded certain privileges.  Some free Blacks were skilled craft workers in both the North and the South.  Marcus Christian provides an example of the artisans in his study of Black ironworkers in Louisiana:

Working alongside the slave ironworkers, though not allowed to associate with them socially, were the free Negro and the f.m.c. - free man of color.  For almost the entire life of the colony, slaves, free Negroes, and free people of color had practically monopolized the labor situation.  The free men of the race naturally had the better part of the situation since they worked for themselves.  For generations they had apprenticed their sons to expert mechanics in the building trades.  In fact, a thorough knowledge of a particular trade had been the means by which many of them had gained their freedom.

While slaves were sometimes able to use their status as artisans to help them gain their freedom, some free Blacks were able to use their position as craft workers as a stepping stone to other businesses and professions.  Most self-employed artisans were eventually absorbed into large-scale industrial production.  Those who work in the building trades or who do specialty work in wood, glass, metal, and cloth can trace their heritage back to the artisans of the slave period.

In general, privilege under slavery existed mainly in the form of status. There were status distinctions between house slaves and field slaves and between those who were skilled craft workers and those who weren't. The main class distinction was between slaves and free Blacks, and secondarily between those few Blacks who owned land and slaves and those who did not.


The Civil War and Reconstruction transformed the class relations in the United States, especially (but not exclusively) in the South. For Blacks, the main thing was the end of slave class relations. After some experimentation, wage labor (paid by the hour) was rejected due to the mass resistance and independence of the newly freed slave workers. What developed in conjunction with the Black Codes, however, was a semi-slave, semi-free system of tenant production (see Chapters 5 and 13). The tenant system had within it different class positions in which Blacks were able to maintain some level of privilege.

The main basis of class privilege was ownership of farm land. Black people did manage to buy 15 million acres by 1915. Black people knew that the economic basis of independence was the ownership of land and there were tremendous efforts to acquire and maintain ownership, even though success was slow in coming. In The Negro in the United States, Frazier described what happened during the rural period:
The number of Negro farm owners in the South gradually increased until 1910 when they owned 24.5 per cent of the farms operated by Negroes.  But during the following 20 years tenancy among Negroes as among whites steadily decreased until by 1930 only one out of five Negro farmers in the South was an owner.  In 1929 Negro owners of farms produced only 3.8 per cent of the cotton in the South, whereas 28.6 per cent of the entire cotton crop was produced by Negro tenants.  During the decade, 1930 to 1940, there were important changes in the rural Negro population both in respect to numbers and land tenure.  The number of owners continued to decline; but there was also a decline of almost 200,000 in the number of tenants...As a result there was a small increase in the proportions of owners among Negro farm operators as compared with a much higher increase in this class among whites.  In 1940 there was about the same number of Negro land owners as in 1900; and they represented the same proportion among farm operators in 1940 as in 1900.  On the other hand, while the number of Negro tenants and croppers had decreased through migrations, the proportion of tenants among farm operators had remained the same.  However, it should be noted that the portion of croppers among these tenants had increased during the four decades. 

Since World War II, there has been an increasing decline in the number of people engaged in agricultural production, especially among Blacks. The pattern of ownership has increased within the general pattern of decline - there are fewer Black  farm operators and owners, but a relatively higher proportion of farms are owned, as indicated in Table 17.

Lester Salamon demonstrates that the Black-owned farms are concentrated in the Black Belt:

Much of this black-controlled land is concentrated in a relative handful of states. As of 1969, for example, Mississippi alone accounted for almost one quarter of the black farm landowners in the region. Four states - Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, and South Carolina - account for almost 60 percent of all black farm landowners and 52 percent of all black-controlled land...

Black-owned land is not only concentrated among a handful of states, but also is concentrated (within) them...[O]nly 492 of the more than 1,000 counties in the South contain as much as 2,000 acres of black-owned land. And of these counties, 92 contain in excess of 20,000 acres each.

Although blacks constitute only slightly over 6 percent of all farm landowners in the South as a whole, therefore, they comprise a much more substantial proportion of all landowners in these several states. In Mississippi and South Carolina, for example, over 20 percent of all farm landowners are black. In Alabama,. Louisiana, and North Carolina, about 10 percent are black. In none of these states, however, is the acreage held by blacks proportional to the number of black landowners. This pattern points to one of the central characteristics of black-owned farms in the South: their relatively small size. Only in Missouri, where there are few black-owned farms, does the average size of the farms of black full owners reach even 60 percent of the average size of the farms of all full owners. Else where, black fully-owned and part-owned farms are typically only about half as large as all full-or part-owned farms. As a consequence, in every state black landowners account for a significantly smaller share of the land owned by all landowners than they do of the number of landowners...


Table 17

  Total Full Owner Part Owner % Owners (Full & Part)
1950 559 141 52 34.5
1964 185 71 31 55.2
1978 61 36 15 83.7

Source: U.S. Bureau of the Census, Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1981, p. 662.


The vicious system of racial/national oppression (called "Jim Crow") that was set up during the rural period was met by increased desires and appeals for Black unity.  Robert Higgs explains how the Black middle class reacted:

Perceiving that such an appeal to racial solidarity might be turned into private profits, increasing numbers of blacks established business enterprises. DuBois estimated that about 5,000 blacks operated businesses in 1890. The National Negro Business league, an organization founded by Booker T. Washington, estimated that the number reached 20,000 in 1900 and 40,000 in 1914, but these figures are probably overstatements. Most of these enterprises were small - so small that they could be operated with little or no hired help - and most involved retailing or personal services. Grocery stores, restaurants, saloons, pool rooms, barber shops, undertakers, real estate agencies, and boarding houses were common. Of the 1,906 black businesses surveyed in 1899, only 12 represented investments of $50,000 or more; and 79 percent of them involved capital sums of less than $2,500. The largest enterprises included insurance companies, banks, newspapers, and real estate agencies, but even they were small by the standards of the white world

The older mechanism of status continued to operate, especially in this period of freedom within the rigid limitations of segregation. The main additional criteria were homeownership and living by the moral codes set by the church. The minister and church leaders regulated status as an institutional resource to mold the Black community into a cohesive whole, albeit one controlled by those "anointed with the blessing of status." (See Chapter 10.)


It was primarily in the city that the Black middle class developed, beginning as far back as antebellum slavery but taking full shape during the 20th century. The economic bases of the Black middle class in the city were the professions and ownership of business and real estate. Over the years, the professions have replaced business as the main avenue of upward mobility. Moreover, professionals now are more likely to be employed by large corporations than to be self-employed as they were in the past.


Educational attainment has emerged as an important status mechanism. The old-line status mechanisms were transformed in importance. While proximity to whites (especially color and
speech) was still positive source of status, distance from whites was no longer as negatively regarded as it had been.  In fact the old adage "if you're Black get back!" was replaced in the 1960s by another old adage "the blacker the berry the sweeter the juice." One of the important indicators of how Black social protest is good for the mental health of Black people is that during the 1960s Black people began to change their value orientation toward skin color. The slogan was "Black is beautiful," and styles changed to an African-inspired aesthetic.

The socioeconomic characteristics of the Black middle class since the 1960s have approximated those of the white middle class.  This has led to the debate over how best to analyze the Black community - on the basis of race, class, or both. Milton Gordon uses the term "ethclass" to suggest that an understanding of white ethnics might best be based on ethnicity and class, and James Geschwender borrows from this and coins the expression "race-class" to suggest that the Black experience might best be understood in terms of race and class. William Wilson, in his book The Declining Significance of Race, makes the argument that the Black middle class in many ways has virtually achieved parity with whites, especially in educational achievement and job entry of the upwardly mobile. The masses of poor Blacks, however, are trapped in the working class and a structural underclass with little if any hope for a life of gainful employment. He argues that while some Blacks are moving up, most are locked into a life of poverty. He cites the following occupational description:

The most dramatic changes in black mobility occurred during the decades of the 1950s and 1960s. Whereas 16.4 percent of black males were employed in middle-class occupations in 1950, 24 percent held such jobs in 1960 and 35.3 percent in 1970. Whereas 21.3 percent of black males were in essentially working-class jobs in 1950, 26.6 percent were so employed in 1960 and 29.4 percent in 1970. Finally, whereas 62.1 percent of all black employed males were in basically lower-class jobs in 1950, 50.7 percent held such jobs in 1960 and only 36.4 percent in 1970. 

However, given the austerity of the 1970s, the economic insecurity of the Black middle class has proven itself as it is now "catching hell" in this economic downturn of the 1980s. In order to capture the essence of the Black middle class in the city, we will review briefly the experience of Blacks in business and the professions.




Black people have engaged in commercial enterprises (mostly small businesses) for some time in the city environment. The owner of a small business is self-employed, with few if any paid employees other than family members. Black small businesses have been mostly in retail trade (e.g., a grocery or clothing store) or in the services (e.g., hair care and catering). This has been the main basis for what has been called "Black Capitalism" 

The growth of Black businesses between 1863 and 1913,can be seen in Table 18. Black businesses continued to grow, although their character was transformed along with the overall development of the Black community.  E. Franklin Frazier points this out in Black Bourgeoisie with a discussion of Black business development in Chicago:

One may get a notion of the nature of Negro business in the North by considering first the situation in Chicago. During the fifteen years prior to the mass migrations from the South, the number of Negro businesses reached 500. The majority of these enterprises were in the service field, with barber shops and moving and storage establishments forming the majority of the enterprises. It was the mass migrations from the South during and following World War I that created the Negro market in Chicago which Negro businesses sprang up to serve. Conspicuous among the Negro businesses were the two banks and four insurance companies. During the Depression the two Negro, banks failed and many of the larger business establishments were wiped out. At the same time the smaller businesses increased in number because unemployed Negroes with small savings opened small stores as a means of securing a living. In 1938 there were about 2,600 Negro businesses in Chicago. Of the ten most numerous establishments there were 287 beauty parlors, 257 groceries, 207 barber shops, 163 tailors, cleaners, and pressers, and 145 restaurants. The remaining five most numerous types of business - coal and wood dealers ,taverns, undertakers, shoe repairing and dress making - were represented by less than 100 establishments

Table 18 

Year Total Number of Businesses
1863 2,000
1873 4,000
1883 10,000
1893 17,000
1903 25,000
1913 40,000

Source: U.S. Bureau of the Census, The Social and Economic Status of the Black Population in the United States, p. 78.



Since the 1960s there has been a dramatic growth of Black businesses. From 1969 to 1982, there was a 119% increase in the number of businesses and a 278% increase in the gross sales (see Table 19). Of the 357,000 Black businesses in 1982, the top 100 included companies in manufacturing (13), industrial supply (14), energy distribution and sale (9), construction and contracting (13), automotive sales and service (29), publishing and entertainment (9), and other consumer sales (14).  It is interesting that only 24 of the largest 100 have headquarters in the South, while Chicago has 8 and New York 13.

Blacks are also involved in financial institutions. As of 1981, there were 46 Black banks, employing 1,943 people and with assets of $1.3 billion. The top 10 Black banks had 52.2% of these assets. There were 38 Black insurance companies, employing 7,240 people and with assets of over $725.8 million. The top 10 Black insurance companies held 87.4% of the assets. Overall, although Black businesses are growing, most are quite small and marginal.  Lenneal Henderson sums up the general picture in nine points:

(1) Almost 95% of black-owned firms operated as sole proprietorships rather than as partnerships or corporations;

(2) Most black-owned businesses operated with no full-time, paid employees, other than the owner...;

(3) Less than 1% (0.3%) of all black-owned firms had gross receipts of more than $1 million with an average of $37,392 in gross receipts;

(4) In 1977, the 231,203 black-owned firms accounted for over $8 billion in gross receipts, less than 2% of the more than $4 trillion generated by American business in the same year;

(5) ...the largest increase in the number of black-owned firms between 1972 and 1977 occurred in the finance, insurance and real estate category (28%). The 54% increase in black bank ownership largely accounts for this increase;

(6) Another perspective on black business enterprise is demonstrated by the Black Enterprise annual survey of the 100 leading black firms in America. These 100 firms reported total sales which increased from $473 million in 1972 to $1.9 billion in 1981, or nearly 25% of the total sales of all black-owned firms. Compared to 1972, manufacturers and three strongly consumer-oriented categories, automobile dealerships, entertainment and publishing firms, gave way to increases in the representation of energy distribution and sales companies, and computer and information processing firms. However, median sales among the top one-hundred black firms rose 582%, from $2.35 million in 1972 to $13.7 million in 1981. Subtracting inflation from this precipitous increase, these firms experienced about a 300% increase in sales volume in ten years;

(7) The geographical distribution of black-owned enterprises indicates that the South Atlantic states host the largest number of firms and that the states of California, Illinois, Texas, New York and Ohio account for more than 30% of all black-owned firms in America. Like the black population, black-owned firms continue to urbanize. Twenty-six cities had more than 1,000 black-owned enterprises in their jurisdictions in 1977...;

(8) The top 100 black industrial firms accounted for some $1.5 billion in sales and employed 17,827 persons. When related to aggregate employment of black-owned firms in 1977, black-owned firms are labor-intensive without being employment-intensive; that is, black-owned firms employ a tiny proportion of the total number of blacks in the work force but their industries tend to require more labor than automated processes;

(9) As Robert Hill indicates: 

A major reason why black businesses have been lagging behind the U.S. businesses over the past decade is because they have been disproportionately impacted by periodic recessions and soaring interest rates...the devastating effect of the 1974-75 recession on black businesses is reflected in the sharp declines in the following businesses between 1972 and 1977:

a. The number of auto dealerships and service stations fell by 24% - from 6,597 to 5,002.
b. The number of hotel and other lodging facilities declined by 21% - from 2,196 to 1,733.
c. The number of food and eating establishments fell by 10% - from 26,000 to 24,000.
d. The number of intercity transporting firms fell by 9% - from 8,881 to 8,008.


Table I 9 



Gross Sales (millions)










1982 357,000 16,900

Source: Derived from National Urban League, The State of Black America, 1983, pp. 158 and 383; U.S. Bureau of the Census, The Social and Economic Status of the Black Population in the United States, p. 78; and Black Enterprise, June 1983.


The Professions

The professional sector of the middle class is highly skilled, enjoys work conditions that allow for relative independence on the job, and receives material rewards reflected in relative comfort  and the consumption of luxuries. Black professionals developed in two waves, paralleling the general development of the middle class, though very few professionals existed before the Civil War. First to develop were the traditional professions of teaching and the ministry.  Then came the more bureaucratic and technical professions in medicine and law.

Table 20 indicates that the main category is teaching. The historical dominance of the clergy is rapidly being matched by doctors, lawyers, and judges. These professions, however, are not equal for Black women. Black women are 78.9% of the 1980 teachers, but only 5.9% of the Black clergy, 23.8% of the Black doctors, and 31.4% of the Black lawyers and judges.

At the technical level of the professions, special attention has to go to the Ph.D. level of education. Many professions (especially in scientific research, technical fields, and higher education) require the Ph.D. degree. Blacks, however, are not getting Ph.D.'s in every field. They are mainly in education. From 1973-1976, of 2,253 Ph.D.'s awarded to Black men over 58% were in education; out of 1,177 Ph.D.'s awarded to Black women 66% were in education. Both Black men and Black women had about 23% of their respective number of Ph.D.'s in psychology, social sciences, and the humanities.

 Table 20 

Year Teachers 
(except college)
Clergy Physicians and Surgeons Lawyers and Judges
1890 15,100 12,159 909 431
1910 29,432 17,495 3,077 798
1940 63,697 17,102 3,524 1,052
1960 122,163 13,955 4,706 2,180
1970 235,436 12,850 6,106 3,728
1980 362,937 16,045 13,243 15,133

Source: U.S. Bureau of the Census, The Social and Economic Status of the Black Population in the United States, p. 76 and Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1981, p. 402



The overall structure of the Black middle class is reflected in its occupational composition. As indicated in the census of individuals in Table 22, the percentage of Black males in the middle class has remained relatively constant. However, within the Black middle class, there has been a shift from farmers to professionals, with a slight decline in the percentage of individual shopkeepers (self-employed individuals in retail trade). The pattern for Black women is somewhat different. Women were 43% of the employed middle class in 1973. Further, in 1979, of all employed Black women 0.1% were farmers, 0.4% were in business, but 14.2% were professionals. Thus, while 14.7% of Black women were in these main middle-class occupations, only 11.8% of employed men were. The main difference is the tendency of women to be more often, in the professions and men to dominate in farming and business.


Table 21

Year Number
1866-1919 23
1930-1939 179
1950-1959 1,197
1970-1976 6,226

Source: Derived from John P. Davis, ed., The American Negro Reference Book, p. 564 and National Urban league, The State of Black America, 1980, p. 89.

 Table 22 

  Total (000s) Farmers Shopkeepers Professionals Total
1958 3,821 5.8 1.0 3.2 10.0
1963 4,229 3.4 .9 4.9 9.2
1968 4,702 2.0 .8 6.6 9.4
1973 5,13 1.1 .8 8.2 10.1
1979 5,779 .6 .7 10.5 11.8

Source: Based on employment data in U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Handbook of Labor Statistics (December 1980), pp. 46-48, and earlier editions.


Government and the Black Middle Class 

Another critical aspect of the Black middle class is the role played by the government. In general, the state has been the major agent in the development of middle-class  Blacks and their ideological orientation. Not only does this reflect the general trend of U.S. state monopoly capitalism, but it is central to understanding the particular history of Blacks since the Civil War, from the Freedmen's Bureau to affirmative action programs.  The role of the government has been two-fold: 

1. The government as a source of jobs:  This is key for the Black professional, as well as all employed Blacks, in that over 15% of Black workers were classified by the 1980 census as government workers. A major turning point was the passage of the Fair Employment Practice Commission bill that opened new opportunities during and after World War II. Hence, the government - both directly (as employer) and indirectly (through legislation regarding employment in general) - has been a source of jobs.

Statistics in a 1976 study for the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education by Harvard University economist Richard Freeman reveal the importance of government employment:

Over all, about 51% of all male Black college graduates are employed by governments - either federal, state, or local - compared to about 25% of college-educated white males. 
   Although the largest number are teachers, there are high proportions of Blacks employed by governments in other fields as well - about 28% of Black lawyers, compared to 14% of lawyers overall. 47.5% of personnel and labor relations professions, compared to 25% overall, and 24% of all Black men who are managers, which is about double the overall proportion. 

Freeman also reports that 72% of Black women college graduates work for some branch of government.

2. The government as a source of capital: Again the history of Black business activity can be seen in relation to government action. The great fiasco of the Freedmen's Bank during Reconstruction is an example, but the government has really been involved since the Nixon administration (1968-1974) with special legislation and executive guidelines to channel both public and private funds into the hands of Black entrepreneurs. While the majority of businesses started by Blacks may be independent of direct government intervention, it appears that a majority of those that are successful are helped with funds (grants, loans, etc.) and/ or technical assistance.


A critical factor is investment capital for Black businesses. In 1983 the U.S. Government Small Business Administration made $29.2 million in loans to minority businesses, and $205 million in loan guarantees. However, this is quite small when one considers the support by the federal government for large corporations. Black Enterprise sums up the problem in the early 1980s:

The fundamental problem of minority business is the lack of access to capital - and proper funding when capital is available. The Reagan Administration has declared its intention of getting out of the direct lending process and limiting its support to loan guarantees. This avoids the basic issue of capital formation in a black community where a middle class capable of accumulating wealth for investment is still in its formative stages. 

   The lack of Administration support for minority business can be attributed to a general conservative mistrust of race-sensitive programs and a macro-economic view of free enterprise that has not been particularly sensitive to small business. The federal government could improve the chances of survival of many small businesses - both white and minority - by demonstrating the same level of concern for them that it has shown to large multinational corporations.  That requires a willing ear and a look back at history. 


There is now a definite consolidation of the Black middle class on the basis of economic resources.  However, most of the economic activity is marginal and directly linked to a segregated Black community as the consumer market.  This is particularly true for smaller businesses.  Otherwise, governmental policies (affirmative action and policies to support minority contracts) have served as a foundation and source of capital and jobs.  The future of the Black middle class is based on answers to several questions: Will the segregated market of the Black community continue to exist?  Can Black businesses and professionals sell their products and services to whites?  Will the government remain a source of jobs and capital?

The other side of the story returns us to the issue of status.  In the urban experience, the Black middle class more than ever has developed a social process of creating illusion to maintain high status privilege.  Frazier is at his best on this subject.  The second half of Black Bourgeoisie is entitled "The World of Make Believe."  He states:

This world of make-believe, to be sure, is a reflection of the values of American society, but it lacks the economic basis that would give it roots in the world of reality. In escaping into a world of make-believe, middle-class Negroes have rejected both identification with the Negro and his traditional culture. Through delusions of wealth and power they have sought identification with the white America which continues to reject them. But these delusions leave them frustrated because they are unable to escape from the emptiness and futility of their existence. 


There is no doubt that the Black middle class tries to mimic the ruling class in this society. This is the meaning of various Black colleges claiming to be the "Black Harvard," or the way social and fraternal organizations consume luxuries in order to achieve status when they don't have the material equality rooted in class terms. This pattern of delusion seems to be increasing rather than decreasing due to the changing demand for Black labor. When Black colleges were founded, there was the need for skilled labor and managers to rule over the Black community. Now that the supply of such people has started to exceed demand, particularly in this period of an economic downturn and political crisis, the Black middle class continues its antics of conspicuous consumption and desperately seeks status to maintain privilege.

The Black middle class has been a dynamic sector of the Black community, but this dynamism must be understood as having a dual character. Given the relative advantage of having more education, economic resources, and the status resources to make dealing with white people easier, the Black middle class acted as Black leadership whenever the Black community was threatened by white people. During the rural period and early city life, this remained true. In fact, because it too was oppressed by racism, this Black middle class had its own reasons for providing militant leadership. This will be demonstrated in Chapters 14, 15, and 16.

During the slave and rural period, the Black middle class was potentially a revolutionary class because its own class interests were consistent with the overall desire by Blacks to destroy the system of racism and oppression. Further, it was the Black middle who provided the professional services and retail shopping within the Black community. There were also psychological benefits to the Black community in that one Black person doing well was shared by all - middle class advancement of a few was good for "race pride."

However, as the few Black businesses grew, they often became the same as other large businesses paying their workers low wages. Further, the recent transformation of the Black professional has meant, that the government has a large number of Blacks managing the apparatus of welfare and social control. In this way the Black middle class has become an instrument for government and business to control the Black community.



This is the main political tension that currently exists for the Black middle class: to lead the Black struggle against racism or to serve the corporate/government interests by controlling the masses of Black people. It seems obvious that part of the answer rests with the objective economic basis of the Black middle class. "Whoever pays the piper calls the tune!" On the other hand, the very survival of the Black middle class depends upon its willingness to include the entire Black community when it prepares to fight (either to win more gains or in defense from racist attacks) because only with Black unity can a fight against racism be won. The study of this dynamic process is an important part of Black Studies. 


Black capitalism/  Middle class
     Monopoly capitalism  Professions 
Class/Power  Sole proprietorship vs. 
Farm ownership     corporations 
Free Blacks (freedmen) Status/Prestige
Higher education  Upward vs. downward mobility 


1. Discuss the origins and historical development of the Black middle class over the three main periods of the Afro-American experience (slave, rural, and urban).

2. What is "Black capitalism"? How is it differentiated from monopoly capitalism in the United States today?

3. What are similarities and differences between the Black middle class and the masses of working-class Black people?

4. What historical role has the Black middle class played in the Black liberation struggle, and what contribution can it make today? 




1. Stephen Birmingham, Certain People: America's Black Elite., Boston: Little, Brown and Company 1977.

2. Black Enterprise Editors, "The Top 100 Black Businesses: Annual Report." Black Enterprise [Every June].

3. James E. Blackwell, Mainstreaming Outsiders: The Production of Black Professionals. Bayside: General Hall, 1981.

4. George Davis and Glegg Watson, Black Life in Corporate America. Garden City: Anchor Press, 1982.

5. Richard B. Freeman, Black Elite: The New Market for Higher Educated Black Americans. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976.


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