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|
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.
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.
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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.
THE RURAL PERIOD
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.
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:
Source: U.S. Bureau of the Census, Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1981, p. 662.
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.)
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.
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
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"
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:
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:
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.
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
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.
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
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.
Derived from John P. Davis, ed., The American Negro Reference Book,
p. 564 and National Urban league, The State of Black America, 1980,
|Government and the Black
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:
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.
a 1976 study for the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education by Harvard
University economist Richard Freeman reveal the importance of government
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.
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
THE FUTURE OF THE BLACK MIDDLE CLASS
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:
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.
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."
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
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.
Discuss the origins and historical development of the Black middle class
over the three main periods of the Afro-American experience (slave, rural,
What is "Black capitalism"? How is it differentiated from
monopoly capitalism in the United States today?
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.
Black Enterprise Editors, "The Top 100 Black Businesses:
Annual Report." Black Enterprise [Every June].
James E. Blackwell, Mainstreaming Outsiders: The Production of Black
Professionals. Bayside: General Hall, 1981.
George Davis and Glegg Watson, Black Life in Corporate America.
Garden City: Anchor Press, 1982.
Richard B. Freeman, Black Elite: The New Market for Higher Educated
Black Americans. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976.