Are Poor Black Americans Screwed?
Straight Up: African Americans' concerns about a third of the community shouldn't be ignored.
Many factors contribute to what I regard as the creeping air of hopelessness voiced in "the worry." The intensification of the global integration of the economy and the premium for workers of high skill and training are one part of it. Immigration and the changing makeup of the American workforce are another element. The steady assault on affirmative action from the right and a conservative-dominated U.S. Supreme Court is a factor, too. And a political context in which it has been easy to focus on and invest in social policy geared at sanctioning and incarcerating the poor rather than on assuring pathways to economic mobility and real self-sufficiency contributes to this sense as well.
But what really worries the black middle class is that the poor and near-poor segment of the black population is a large fraction of the entire community, and their disadvantage seems more intractable than ever. This anxiety is only aggravated by the fact that even middle-class blacks have far greater difficulty passing along their class advantages or success to their children than comparable whites. And perhaps most of all, the angst behind the worry is a product of the failure of our leaders to put forward a compelling strategy, message or agenda on how we should deal with these challenges.
On these first two points, a major Pew Center report showed, for example, that nearly "two thirds of blacks (65 percent) were raised at the bottom of the family income ladder as compared with only 11 percent of whites. The same pattern exists for family wealth: 57 percent of blacks were raised at the bottom, but only 14 percent of whites were." Moreover, the same report showed much higher rates of downward mobility for middle-class blacks than for middle-class whites, and far lower rates of upward mobility for poor blacks as compared with poor whites.
Black America wants to hear a sensible analysis and an agenda from its leaders. Neither bashing nor slavishly praising Barack Obama is the answer. Neither restaging the March on Washington nor lurching from one rear-guard action (e.g., defending affirmative action) to the next (e.g., defending voting rights) and the next (e.g., fighting stop-and-frisk) -- as plainly necessary as each of these fights remains -- is the answer to the nightmare we have all witnessed crystallizing around us.
It is time for black leadership to speak to "the worry." To come together and to plan for a real multipronged attack on "the worry." That edge of concern embedded in the rhetorical question from much of the black middle class -- "We're screwed, aren't we?" -- is real. It is time for leadership to focus on providing some real answers, not merely contending for the next 30-second sound bite on the evening news.
Lawrence D. Bobo is the W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University.