Maybe Lou Dobbs is Right

Some insist that the black middle class is still growing, but it sure is hard to tell these days.

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It's easy to ignore the ho-hum routines in a city like Washington, D.C.—a town that hosts conferences and conventions of some sort every single day, four or five times a day, it seems. But a town-hall meeting at this week's 30th Annual Conference and Exposition of the National Black MBA Association offered timely insight into the anxieties of black professionals.

Hosted by CNN contributor Roland Martin, the meeting focused on the tenuous stability of the black middle class.

I thought I was going to hear that the middle class in America is, in fact, disappearing. That's certainly the message that Lou Dobbs conveys to me—or, rather, yells at me—from my television screen five evenings a week. In fact, the questions and concerns voiced by most participants in the audience suggested that they believed Dobbs' take to be true, especially when it comes to blacks.

In an attempt to define who is included in this supposedly fading group, panelists spent the opening minutes of the meeting trying to get people to define their perceptions of just who exactly makes up the black middle class. The already murky definition was made even fuzzier by John McCain's recent gaffe that a person earning just under $5 million a year could fall into this category.

By the end of the conversation, panelists and audience members agreed that being middle class may be largely a position of perception. "Today everybody thinks they're in the middle class. Nobody wants to be rich, and nobody wants to be broke," said Michael Eric Dyson, one of five panelists, a noted author and a professor at Georgetown University.

Michael Fletcher, national economics correspondent for The Washington Post, reiterated the sentiment saying, "Income really doesn't have anything to do with it. Being middle class is a state of mind. It's about people trying to move up and who are buying into the system. It's more of an aspirational thing."

So what do many blacks think of as the requirements for middle-class status? According to those in attendance, a bachelor's degree (at a minimum), a salary over $75,000, a retirement-savings plan and home ownership.

Hmmm…sounded like the audience described themselves (I know because the entire audience was asked to provide their own demographics, which were displayed on two large movie screens for all to see). I would have guessed that the people sitting inside the ballroom at the Renaissance Hotel D.C. would be considered more affluent, educated and professional than the people I saw while growing up in my "middle class neighborhood" in Atlanta. Those folks worked at the U.S. Post Office or General Motors and didn't have the advanced degrees or the Mercedes Benz parked in front of 2,000-square-foot houses. But like the panelists said earlier, it's all a state of mind.

Statistics paint a mixed picture. While blacks as a group still have lower incomes than white Americans, a report released last year by the Pew Charitable Trusts shows that median incomes have risen over the past 30 years for black Americans, from $27,100 annually between 1967 and 1971 to $35,010 today.

Whites earn $60,000 today versus $50,262 in the early 1970s, the report shows. Incomes for blacks haven't kept quite pace, the report states, largely due to declining income and employment of black men and depressed marriage rates among black Americans.

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