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.
The nuanced reality was reflected in the discussion. Many argued that the black middle class was still expanding. But the cheery talk about continued growth was tempered throughout with questions about the challenges that continue to plague the African-American population at large as well as the differences that separate those in the black middle class from their white counterparts.
There is a list of pressing problems that seem to threaten black Americans' collective middle-class footing. Among them, African Americans possess little-to-no financial literacy, there is a well-documented dearth of black men on university campuses, and black children still suffer disproportionately from lack of access to quality education in inner cities.
The perilously shaky economy creates numerous extra pressures. Food and gas cost more than they used to. In tough times, black middle-class families—who are more likely than their white counterparts to be financially responsible for extended family members—bear an even greater burden. The broadly felt stress of that greater interdependence was a common theme among the group of well-heeled professionals.
"Many times our parents chose to pay for our education rather than save for their own retirement," said Lisa Toppin, a vice president with Charles Schwab's human resources department and the leader of talent programs and inclusion for the company.
The result of that early sacrifice is, of course, that the responsibility of caring for parents post-retirement falls to their children, who often bear an even greater burden than their white "sandwich generation" peers. "It's a splitting of resources that we see more of in our communities," Toppin added.
CNN's Martin took on the sobering statistic that only half of all African-American and Hispanic students graduate from high school. He gave the issue a surprisingly trivial spin by noting that soon there may not be enough young black men on college campuses to populate and grow black fraternities. Even more surprising: There was an audible gasp from some in the audience. How odd that anyone needed more shock value than hard statistics about more young black men trending toward prison than college.
The two-hour discussion moved back and forth between a number of daunting realities, from declining incomes and fewer black-owned businesses in black communities to higher black unemployment rates and disappointing levels of personal capital.
Even with such a laundry list of challenges, the Post's Fletcher insisted that the black middle class is actually growing, not disappearing. "It's just under extraordinary pressure," he said. As anecdotal evidence, Fletcher pointed to black Americans' ability to buy bigger homes, state-of-the-art home theater systems and high-end cell phones. Sadly, these are the same kinds of things that help keep blacks from saving more of their money and accruing more real wealth.
As people filed out of the meeting, it was clear that upbeat messages about growth and black economic potential were losing out to the depressing avalanche of news about tanking markets, failing institutions and dwindling personal savings. I couldn't help but think as I left the ballroom that Lou Dobbs might just be right. And I suspect other folks in attendance—folks who feel their own grasp on hard-fought, middle-class status slipping these days—felt the same way.
Tracie Powell is a journalist who lives in Washington, D.C.