Is the Recession Killing Off the Black Middle Class?

The dominant white racial framing downplays social realities that contradict its notions, including that of a “postracial America” where black Americans are doing as well as whites in regard to jobs, education, health care. (For data, see Chapter 1 here.) Contradicting such foolish notions with data, Barbara Ehrenreich and Dedrick Muhammad have analyzed how this super-recession is now badly hurting the black middle class. They note that most are not like those black Americans (Henry L. Gates, Oprah Winfrey, Bill Cosby) who get so much mainstream media attention these days:

According to a study by Demos and the Institute for Assets and Social Policy, 33 percent of the black middle class was already in danger of falling out of the middle class at the start of the recession. . . . Millions of the black equivalents of Officer Crowley — from factory workers to bank tellers and white collar managers — are sliding down toward destitution. For African Americans — and to a large extent, Latinos — the recession is over. It occurred between 2000 and 2007, as black employment decreased by 2.4 percent and incomes declined by 2.9 percent. During the seven-year long black recession, one third of black children lived in poverty and black unemployment — even among college graduates — consistently ran at about twice the level of white unemployment.

They mean that blacks and Latinos are now in an economic depression:

Black unemployment is now at 14.7 percent, compared to 8.7 for whites. … the Economic Policy Institute estimates that 40 percent of African Americans will have experienced unemployment or underemployment by 2010, and this will increase child poverty from one-third of African-American children to slightly over half.

They note several explanations for this economic crisis and its job decline. These include the export of manufacturing and other blue collar jobs overseas and the reality that past discrimination has put many black workers in least-seniority positions in workplaces. There is also the export of jobs out of cities into suburban areas where African Americans (and Latinos) do not live. All these and other societal processes that operate differentially across racial lines have been proceeding aggressively in recent decades.

There is no fallback position for most African Americans, because of the society’s massive racialized wealth gap. Recent Federal Reserve studies show huge differentials in household wealth between white and black families. White families’ net worth is ten times that of black families’ net worth, with much of that in housing equities built up over 9-15 generations of slavery, Jim Crow, and contemporary discrimination severely limiting black access to housing equities and other family wealth-building resources. Social inheritance mechanisms are imbedded in society and disguised to make intertemporal inheritance appear fair. For example, almost all the federally assisted home mortgages provided on a large-scale to soldiers returning after World War II went to white soldiers and their families. Large-scale mortgage and other housing discrimination was commonplace and overt until the late 1960s. Much housing discrimination has continued, if more subtly, since then.

Most significantly, the white wealth built up in these housing equities fostered by discriminatory federal programs has often been passed along to children and grandchildren. Each new generation of whites has inherited an array of racial privileges and substantial socioeconomic resources. A central societal process producing this reality can be called the societal reproduction of wealth, a concept that is linked fundamentally to the societal reproduction of racial oppression and in my view needs to be central to theories of race and racism.