Are Poor Black Americans Screwed?

People wait for free Thanksgiving groceries at a community center in Harlem. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
People wait for free Thanksgiving groceries at a community center in Harlem. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

(The Root) — Everywhere I go I hear middle-class African Americans voice what I now call "the worry." One successful woman said to me, "We're screwed, aren't we?" A public intellectual commented to me, "I fear that a third of our people are toast!" A concerned black minister remarked, "We cannot settle for leaving so many of our people in a situation of no hope." All of these comments and more referred not to blacks as a whole but to the poor, those who might once have been called "the underclass."


The urgency of these comments from middle-class blacks underscores how we now live a tale that is pointedly a mix of the best of times and the worst of times. As the black middle class has grown, especially a black elite, the black poor have stagnated. According to the Integrated Public Use Microdata Series current population survey data, the percentage of blacks living far below the poverty line (50 percent or less) has essentially remained constant since 1968, at 15 percent, even though the overall black poverty rate fell from 40 percent in 1968 to 30 percent in 2012. At the other extreme, the percentage of blacks among the comfortably middle class (incomes at least five times the poverty level) quadrupled, rising from a negligible 3 percent in 1968 to 13 percent in 2012.

Yes, the black middle class has grown. Roughly 1 in 4 blacks in 1968 (27 percent) could be classified as middle class (income two to four times the poverty level). That figure in 2012 was up to almost half, or 47 percent. About half of this growth in the size of the middle class occurred between 1968 and 1978. The remainder is spread more evenly across the next three decades. Despite these changes, blacks today are more than twice as likely as whites to be in extreme poverty, at the low end, and half as likely as whites to be in the comfortable middle class at the high end (having reached the level of representation in this category in 2012 that whites had attained more than four decades earlier!).

Scholars like the eminent black sociologist St. Clair Drake worried about just this sort of circumstance taking root back in the 1960s. In 1965 Drake, in the prestigious journal Daedalus, argued that a significant segment of the black population was on its way to becoming a "lumpen proletariat," alienated from regular work and the mainstream economy.

But it is today's nexus of high unemployment, persistent poverty, lagging educational achievement and incarceration that has so many middle-class blacks talking in acutely worried terms about many of our people — about many of their own family members. This is a big, ugly problem. It has many otherwise comfortable blacks looking at their brethren and saying, "I don't see the way out."

Anyone who sees the high percentage of blacks among the panhandlers, the homeless and the desperate; the dropouts and the locked up — from San Francisco's Tenderloin and Los Angeles' Skid Row to the hardest parts of south Chicago or north Philly, or Bankhead and Westside, Atlanta — knows exactly what I mean.

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.

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