The Rage of the Black Middle Class : The Children of the Civil Rights Revolution Grew Up Expecting Entry Into a Colorblind Society. Today They Are Finding That All the Trappings of Success Can’t Shelter Blacks From the Realities of Racism.
RACE AWARENESS DISPLACED MY blissful childhood in 1969.
I was then in the sixth grade at Oaklawn Elementary, a 3-year-old school built on the edge of my neighborhood in Charlotte, N.C. Everybody knew that one day little white boys and girls would attend classes there, but at the time, the sparkling new rooms contained only black students and teachers.
Some gossips believed that the school was built less to accommodate the affluent black families in the poorly served northwest neighborhood than to anticipate the demands of white parents who never would have allowed their precious little ones to sit in our old ramshackle schoolhouse.
None of this mattered to me. I was simply proud of the school and confident that nothing would detour my short walk to and from its library and lunchroom, my two favorite places in the building. My contentment was coldly jolted on one beautiful spring day, when Principal Gwen Cunningham’s voice crackled over the intercom, summoning me to her office for a chat about my future.
Mrs. Cunningham, a proper and proud black woman, knew that my father was a Presbyterian minister and my mother was an elementary school teacher, the perfect pair of parents for unchallenged credentials into black society’s elite. She was convinced, on the advice of my teachers, that I should be among the first students from her elementary school to attend the nearest white junior high school the following year. This was an honor, she declared. Mrs. Cunningham countered any arguments I attempted about staying at the neighborhood school. As if I needed additional persuading, she stated: “I am absolutely certain that you can hold your own with the best (white students) at Ranson Junior High.”
Suddenly, I was different from my friends and classmates, slightly better prepared to “hold my own.” Moreover, it was my duty to my race to blaze a path for other blacks to follow. Mrs. Cunningham didn’t know it, but she had set my life on a new course. I had been tapped, in the words of Yale law professor Stephen L. Carter, into the fraternity of “best blacks,” an unofficial grouping of people selected to lead the way toward improved racial understanding and uplift.
I evolved that day into a race-child, one who believed that he would illuminate the magnificent social changes wrought by racial progress. Overt racial barriers were falling, and I, among the favored in Charlotte’s black middle class, thought my future would be free of racism, free of oppression. I believed I was standing on the portico of the Promised Land.
Now, as the 20th Century seeps away, I am waking from my blind belief in the American Dream. I feel betrayed and isolated. I am angrier than I’ve ever been.
LEST ANYONE MISUNDERSTAND, THIS IS a new and troubling sensation. I was born to cheerfully embrace integration of the races, not to sulk back into a segregated world in despair. I was among that virgin group of black men and women for whom legal segregation was less a cruel reality and more historical (some say forgotten) fact. Nobody ever called me a nigger.
But now, for the first time, I am no longer running away from the questions that I’ve spent a lifetime denying would ever be posed: Is American society the race-blind haven that black people of my parents’ generation had hoped it would be for their children? If not, what alternative do we have? I have no answers.
Although racial tensions continue to escalate, few blacks or whites seem willing to spend the resources--both fiscal and human--to ease the strain of living separate lives. Rather, a form of Balkanization is occurring, with race and class separating us. My generation--called the “new black middle class” by one sociologist--is so disillusioned by the persistent racism that continues to define and limit us that we are abandoning efforts to assimilate into the mainstream of society. I see no end to this trend.
In 1967, as the civil-rights movement gathered steam, about 266,000 black American households earned an inflation-adjusted $50,000 or more, the government definition of affluence. In 1989, the number of such households had grown to more than 1 million. Prosperity for middle-class blacks soared so fast and so high during the past three decades that some of us no longer remember the way things used to be.
My parents used to bristle with anger whenever I teased them about being “richer” than other black families we knew. Their displeasure stemmed from a closer identification with poor black people than with neighbors and friends who in their nicer houses and fancier cars appeared “too big for their britches.” In my parents’ generation, poverty and black were synonymous. When my father and now-deceased mother were married in the early 1950s, about 55% of black Americans were living below the official poverty line. Although my father knows that only a third of the nation’s blacks remain poor--with less than 10% confined to an “underclass” of persistent poor--he still associates himself with the underdog.
That attitude was evident during the recent Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation battle. Much of Thomas’ support among blacks stems from his up-by-the-bootstraps background. In contrast, Oklahoma law professor Anita Hill’s polished demeanor was perceived by many working-class blacks as elitist, something they couldn’t identify with.
But those views seem to be fading relics of the civil-rights generation. Younger, wealthier, better-educated black Americans associate less--and, therefore, identify less--with their poor cousins. We zoom past crack houses in bright, shiny cars with our windows and doors locked tight. We live in the suburbs and send our children to private academies. The world of a black middle-class achiever is a self-protective cocoon, separate from poor blacks and all whites.
I don’t know what to tell my 4-year-old daughter, Amanda, who is developing an awareness of her own racial and class identity, when difficult questions arise about her place in society. Recently she shocked her mother and me by declaring that when she grows up, she intends to “be white” like one of her classmates.
For the moment, the issue is dormant because simple answers will satisfy her. Clearly, the time is coming when I will need a better answer. And, I am sure, I will not repeat the blind beliefs of my youth. I don’t want my daughter to be a second-generation “best black,” her childhood twisted by the mistaken belief that race will one day be unimportant in her life.
MY PARENTS, BORN IN RURAL North Carolina in the first quarter of this century, never questioned the inequities of the segregated South, but they demanded that life for my brother and me would be different. By an act of Protestant willpower, they sheltered us from the lingering traces of Jim Crow and imbued in us a belief that the evils of the outside world--I never heard the word racism in our household--could be made to disappear. If I worked hard, nothing was impossible.
A telling incident occurred in the early ‘60s--I don’t really remember it, but the family has recalled the tale so often that it has become part of our history--when my younger brother, George, and I were turned away from a donkey ride outside Clarks’ department store.
George noticed the bright red, blue and green neon lights in the store’s parking lot. That’s where the donkeys, tethered to a pole in the asphalt, slowly paced in a hay-filled circle. Other kids were riding the animals; we begged our parents to let us ride, too.
Exactly what was said by the teen-age white attendant, my parents never repeated. The upshot was clear, however: He wasn’t going to let us ride. As decent and law-abiding Negroes, my parents accepted the snub without argument or question. As the four of us walked back to our car with George and me in full-throated retreat, my parents’ embarrassment remained veiled--until George (I am sure it was George) asked my father why they wouldn’t let us ride.
“The people who own the animals don’t want colored people riding them,” he said in a statement-of-fact voice. “Only whites.”
“Well, we can come back tomorrow,” George demanded in the imperious voice that only a child can summon. “We can wear false faces. Maybe then they’ll let us ride.”
As the family version of this story goes, Momma lost it right then at the mere thought of her little ones hiding behind plastic masks for a ride on a funky donkey. The sight of her tears reignited our crying and provoked Daddy into a rare flash of anger. “You’re not wearing any false faces, and you’re not riding the damn donkeys,” he said. “So forget it. This never happened.”
Were it not for the dramatic social changes that transpired during my childhood, I doubt that, decades later, my family would have been able to joke about the episode. I carried their laughter over the retelling of that story into adulthood as a lesson in the inevitability of the changes occurring around me. I was certain that by the time I turned 35, no one would care what color I was. All that mattered would be whether I carried a green, gold or platinum American Express card.
I WAS BORN IN 1956 AND CAME of age as the Great Society of the late 1960s closed. Author and scholar David Bradley defined that period as the “Years of the Black” in a seminal essay in the May, 1982, issue of Esquire. Bradley called it a “fascinating epoch” during which benevolent, wealthy and white liberals, driven by the guilt of their forefathers’ sins and the rantings of Afro’d, heat-packing, shades-wearing militants, persuaded politicians and activists to swallow an expensive set of social programs meant “to conceal evidence of a scandalous past or present.”
I have kept a clipping of Bradley’s autobiographical essay--titled “Black and American, 1982" and subtitled “There are no good times to be black in America, but some times are worse than others"--since it was published. At that time, I was embarking on my career as a reporter at my hometown newspaper with the naive notion that my ambition and ability would carry me to unlimited vistas. I was convinced that someday I would respond to Bradley, challenging his pessimism and extolling my triumph. I would declare that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Great Black American Dream had been fulfilled in my generation. Mine would be the first in this nation’s history to be judged “by the content of their character, not the color of their skin.”
Sadly, almost a decade later, I must admit that Bradley, a professor of English at Temple University, was right to say that it is impossible “to give a socially meaningful description of who I am and what I’ve done without using the word black.” This is painful, because it means I must accept his corollary: “Nothing I shall ever accomplish or discover or earn or inherit or buy or sell or give away--nothing I can ever do--will outweigh the fact of my race in determining my destiny.”
As a child of the post-civil rights black bourgeoisie, I was a primary beneficiary of the protest generation and, therefore, among its most hopeful supporters. Today, we sons and daughters of those who faced the dogs, water hoses and brutal cops are turning away from our parents’ great expectations of an integrated America. Many middle-class black executives are moving out of their corporate roles to create fulfilling jobs that serve black customers. Black colleges are experiencing a renaissance. Black organizations--churches, fraternities, sororities and professional groups--are attracting legions of new members. And, most surprising to me, upscale blacks are moving to neighborhoods that insulate them from the slings and arrows of the larger society.
Two years ago, I lived in the conspicuously affluent, middle-class black suburban neighborhood of BrookGlen, about 15 miles from downtown Atlanta. My neighbors were proud of their large homes and loved to entertain. One warm, summer evening, a backyard gathering fell suddenly silent as a car, marked with a local realtor’s logo and containing a white couple, cruised slowly through the subdivision. Finally, one of my neighbors spoke up. “What are they looking for?” he asked bitterly. “I hope they don’t find anything they like. Otherwise, there goes the neighborhood.” The message was clear: Even affluent whites would ruin the sanctuary of our community.
Many of the black men and women who have come to accept this reality appear to fit neatly within the system among their white peers. They own the symbols of success. But deep inside, they are unhappy, knowing they are not accepted as equals by their white colleagues or acquaintances.
“This will be an ethnic party,” says my friend Marian Holmes, inviting me to a dinner at her home in one of the few predominantly white neighborhoods in Washington. “It will be just us, no white people.”
Holmes is no racist. Quite the contrary, she worries that her world is not black enough. Nearly all of her colleagues at the Smithsonian magazine, where she works as an editor, are white. She is comfortable with them, frequently entertaining co-workers at her home and being entertained in theirs. Even so, she seemed perplexed by her urge to host a dinner party of only black guests. It was something she couldn’t remember ever having done, and now it seemed imperative. For the first time in her 42 years, Holmes was taking stock of the fact that being black was an inescapable fact of her life.
Perhaps, like me, it hit her when Jennifer, her 5-year-old daughter, began asking the tough questions: “Mommy, why aren’t there more black people in the world?”
“That’s an odd question for a black child living in Washington to ask,” Holmes says. “But then, you know, it made sense that she would ask me something like that. There aren’t very many black people in her world, which includes home, neighborhood and school.”
Pam Harris, a 41-year-old accountant with an Atlanta real estate management firm and one of my Atlanta neighbors, says the folks who live in her BrookGlen subdivision are proud that their community is composed of black doctors, attorneys, executives and college professors.
“All of us have been made to feel that we have to be validated by whites to be good people and good at what we do,” Harris says. “But we don’t want to be validated. By living in an all-black, middle-class community, it lets us know that we’re good, and there are not any of them around staring us in the face to prove it so.
“So much goes on at the job that (black professionals) have to endure, the slights and negative comments and feelings that we’re unwanted,” she continues. “When we have to work around them all day, by the time I come home I don’t want to have to deal with white people any more.”
It’s a form of self-segregation, a defense against the pain of being rejected or misunderstood. One friend has coined the term “white folks overload” to explain the fits of frustration that she says black people experience from prolonged exposure to white people. With that in mind, she and her husband consciously sought out a predominantly black neighborhood in Los Angeles--View Park--as a place to begin a family. “I can’t see (whites) everyday,” she explained. “It’s not that I dislike them or anything, but there’s a membrane of coping that you have to wear to be around them.”
I know what she means. Whites rarely seem at ease in my company, unless they are in control of the environment. By outnumbering and outmanning me at virtually every turn, they compel me to adapt my view of the world, even my own sense of self, to their majoritarian biases. Trying to explain my life to white people, who just don’t care to understand, is taxing and, ultimately, not worth the trouble. Sort of like singing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” en francais. Why bother? Once translated, it’s just not the same song.
After cultivating an image, a personality and a set of career trophies that I assumed would be eagerly embraced by the larger society, I am maddened to learn that the color black is the foremost thing that whites see in me. I am reminded of the words of the black sergeant in Charles Fuller’s “A Soldier’s Play”: “You got to be like them! And I was! I was--but the rules are fixed. . . . It doesn’t make any difference. They still hate you!”
This revelation first appeared to me while on assignment in the dusty South African township of Duduza, about 30 miles west of Johannesburg. My guide, Alexander Monteodi, pointed out that every fifth house or so on one street had been torched, apparently by black activists opposed to the apartheid government. Monteodi, who was the founder of the Duduza Civic Assn., a community self-improvement group, explained that the charred remains “were the houses of the briefcase toters,” those middle-class blacks set up by authorities to serve as examples for disgruntled blacks to emulate.
“The government wants to create a black middle class for us to look up to,” Monteodi said. “Here in all this despair, they believe that those misguided blacks working for them in those city offices will serve as role models for the rest of us stuck here. It’s crazy. All of us can’t be middle class.”
This pinprick of a comment burst my balloon. I am black and middle class in America. Have I been set up, framed like a pretty picture of upward mobility for other blacks--in America, across the globe--to replicate? Monteodi shrugged. “You live there, I don’t,” he said softly.
I wanted to scream. In South Africa, I first challenged the status quo of my soul. I no longer wanted to play the game. Being “middle class” suddenly was an epithet, another way of saying I wanted to be white, a rejection of being black and American.
MORE THAN A generation ago, a black sociologist named E. Franklin Frazier ignited a blaze of Angst that still burns within black America by publishing “The Black Bourgeoisie,” a scathing denunciation of black American pseudo-aristocracy. The 1955 book touched raw nerves among old-line, fair-skinned black families who affected the manners, dress and behavior of whites. These blacks, Frazier contended, lived “largely in a world of make-believe; the masks which they wear to play their sorry roles conceal the feelings of inferiority and of insecurity and the frustrations that haunt their inner lives.”
After two world wars and the migration of large numbers of blacks from the rural South to the industrial centers in northern cities, the complexion of the black middle class grew darker as “pure Negroes” displaced the mulatto elites, Frazier explained. In fact, skin pigmentation declined as the mark of rank among middle-class blacks, giving way to white collars and salaried jobs as the assumed price of acceptance among whites. Frazier observed that black professionals--"doctors, dentists and lawyers, and even teachers"--set the standards for what it takes “to achieve status and recognition in American society.”
But Thomas L. Johnson, a 34-year-old urologist in Los Angeles, told me that advanced education and professional achievement provide no vaccination against an outbreak of racist behavior from whites. “All through high school, college and medical school, I was around liberal (white students),” he said one evening at his home. “As I spent more time around them and we all got older, I really discovered they were pseudo-liberals from the ‘60s, who would hang around black people, smoke dope with some of us, maybe even date black women. But when it’s time to settle down and raise their families, they revert to their roots of racism.”
An example: “I was playing in a team tennis tournament here in Los Angeles last year at a white country club,” he says. “My team is all black, and the team we were playing was all white, and we were winning when one of the white guys became frustrated. The scene deteriorated as he lost more and more points and started an argument with a black guy on my team.
“As they argued over a point, the white guy shouted: ‘Well, what if I call you a nigger?’ ” Johnson says, rolling his eyes in disgust at the memory. “I didn’t expect that kind of behavior from these so-called ‘upper-class’ whites. But what shocked me even more was that other whites heard him use the ‘N word,’ and their attitude was like ‘That’s no big deal, let’s play some tennis.’ They didn’t seem the least bit shocked and failed to react. White people refuse to understand how much that hurt and how insulted we were by the racist remark and their acceptance of it.
“On one level, I guess I always thought this would happen,” he says. “But I’m taken aback now that I’m experiencing it first hand. I know racism exists, but I never expected it to happen to me.”
In his 1988 book, “The New Black Middle Class,” Bart Landry argues that a “chance simultaneous occurrence” of civil-rights activism and national prosperity between 1960 and 1970 generated “the most radical changes in black social structure” in the nation’s history.
Moreover, Landry, a sociologist at the University of Maryland, suggests that the civil-rights movement was “at first a movement with middle-class goals--desegregation of public accommodations.” This shouldn’t come as a surprise because the sit-ins and nonviolent protests that swept through the South and, later, the nation, were led by middle-class blacks, who wanted to move closer to a white standard of living. Many were college students who expected one day to earn big salaries working in large, white-owned corporations and to spend their newfound wealth on the luxuries traditionally reserved for white people.
As they assimilated, black folks lost their soul and rhythm, their willingness to laugh out loud in public, even their outrage at oppression--both real and imagined. Recently, for example, a luncheon companion scolded me for ordering fried chicken. “I can’t believe you did that,” she said, sputtering with embarrassment and contempt. “That’s the sort of thing I would expect an ignorant person who’s never been in a restaurant before to do. How would you feel if your (white) co-workers saw you getting all greasy eating that?” This black woman, who owns both undergraduate and law-school degrees, has become so well-educated that she now knows better than to appear ignorant before white people by eating chicken in public.
So what does all this mean?
I am reluctant to predict the future. Despite what my heart wants to believe, I can’t escape thinking that white America, which stopped short of embracing middle-class blacks at the moment we most wanted inclusion, may have already lost its opportunity. The refusal of the larger society to embrace us, combined with our unwillingness to return to the ghetto, is likely to result in even more isolation, frustration and desperation. And, worst of all, more anger. As one who once wanted to live and work and play snuggled within the American Dream, I am putting a fresh coat of pain on my cocoon.
There, in the safety of that betwixt-and-between state, I stand wobbly, unaccepted by whites who do not regard me as their equal and hovering aloof from poorer blacks, separated from them by a flimsy wrapper of social status. I straddle two worlds and consider neither home.