The Bourgie Blues

How to live the American dream without losing your soul.


Alana and Craig Wilson live in a predominately white, middle-class subdivision in Virginia's Fairfax County, just outside of Washington, D.C. Across the Potomac River, Terry and Rodney Jefferson reside in majority-black Prince George's County, Maryland.

The Wilsons and Jeffersons are black and middle-class. Both families, deeply concerned about the world their children will inherit, do all they can to prepare their kids for the continuing struggle of being black in race-conscious nation.

That's all these two families have in common.

The pseudonymous Wilsons and Jeffersons are real-life characters in Karyn Lacy's provocative book "Blue Chip Black: Race, Class and Status in the New Black Middle Class." (University of California Press, 2007). Lacy, a sociologist at the University of Michigan, argues that these parents are among the growing numbers of black middle class helping their children navigate the turbulent waters of racial identity as they wade through a mainstream culture that continues to see all-things-white as the norm.

Even among educated, upwardly mobile and suburban African-American parents, there is no uniformity of opinion about how best to raise a black child in 21st Century.

I didn't have to read Lacy's book to know this. Though my days of heavy lifting as a parent are drawing to a well-earned conclusion (my daughter is a third-year college student and almost emancipated), I have always been fascinated by discussions of how black parents raise their children. Personal experience and pained conversation with other parents assures me that this issue occupies an enormous volume of middle-class black parents' waking hours.

When my wife and I moved to Atlanta with an infant daughter more than 20 years ago, we made a conscious and deliberate decision to live around other middle-class black people in Dekalb County. We did the same a few years later when we moved to Washington, D.C., choosing to relocate in the same Prince George's County community that Lacy studied. (A note of disclosure: Lacy and I are friends and I assisted her in locating neighbors in our subdivision for her research.)

My wife and I thought it would be best – and easier – to raise a healthy and happy black daughter, if she was constantly exposed to other middle-class black families.

A decade later, we wanted to do the same when we moved to northeast Ohio, but were shocked to discover that Greater Cleveland lacks an upwardly mobile, predominately black middle-class community. So we settled in a largely white suburb with highly regarded schools. It turned out all right, I suppose, but still I wish I'd had another, predominately black and middle-class option.

This is an educated guess: Poorer black folks don't worry about such matters. Often confined to hyper-segregated communities and limited mostly to official or servile dealings with white people, they aren't fixated over fitting in with white folks or remaining true to their blackness. Could this be a source of the frisson making intelligent conversation about class-based distinctions among black folks so awkward and uncomfortable?

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