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White Denial and Black Middle-Class Realities (Part 1)

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The denial of racism is an obsession of white America. In what has become a holy trinity of sorts - accusing others of playing the "race card;" noting the election of Barack Obama; and citing the success of the black middle class and/or the black elite - the denial of racism and the demonization of those who demand that America fulfill its creed of equality plagues contemporary racial discussions. It is a rarity to witness a conversation about race, whereupon this holy trinity isn't deployed, derailing the conversation before it even begins. Whether highlighting segregation or inequality in access to education, health care, or countless institutions, whether noting the realities of stop-and-frisk or daily confrontations with American racism, the response is often the same: denial, denial, denial.

In an effort to have an honest conversation and to push the conversation beyond this myopic fantasy, I thought I would give the denial crowd some facts. This is for those who like to cite the black middle class as evidence of a post-racial America; this is for those who cite the black middle class (likely never having a meaningful conversation with a person of color of any class status) as evidence that poverty rates, incarceration rates, educational inequality or health disparities is the result of faulty values or a poor work ethic. This is my response to those who dismiss the injustice and inequality endured by poor communities of color - the working poor - by noting the purported American Dream experienced by the black middle-class. For all of them, here is a little dose of reality.

Wealth

Despite the continued invoking of the black middle-class, the realities of inequality and persistent wealth disparities within the middle-class reveal a different reality. In other words, the wealth on the ground reveals a reality rather entirely different from this white fantasy. According to a 2011 study from Pew Research Center, whites possess 20 times more wealth than African Americans and 18 times that of Latinos. More succinctly, whereas the average white family had $113,149 dollars of wealth, "the typical black household had just $5,677 in wealth (assets minus debts) in 2009, and the typical Hispanic household had $6,325 in wealth." As of 1999, whites and blacks similarly situated within the "educational middle class" live in distinct wealth words. Whereas whites possessed $111,000 in median net worth, black families had only $33,5000 dollars; in terms of assets the disparity with $56,000 to $15,000 (Shapiro, 2004, p. 90-91). If we look at "the occupational middle-class" an equally pronounced gap is visible: whites had only $123,000 in median net worth and $60,000 in median net financial assets compare to $26,500 and $11,200 for African Americans. Across the various categories that comprise the middle class, white families possess "between three and five times as much wealth as equally achieving black middle class families." (Shapiro 2004, p. 90-91)

While persistent wealth disparities stratified along racial lines are nothing new, the Great Recession has worsened this divide. According to Algernon Austin, director of the Economic Policy Institute's Program on Race, Ethnicity and the Economy, "In 2009, for every dollar of wealth the average white household had, black households only had two cents." Wealth is not only transferable from generation to generation, but wealth is what allows people to generate more wealth, to invest, to borrow money for education, to pay for gymnastics or swimming lessons at some elite school, or to otherwise invest in the future. And the ongoing history of discrimination is systematically destroying the black middle-class. "History is going to say that the black middle class was decimated" during the first half of the twenty-first century, notes Maya Wiley, director of the Center for Social Inclusion. "But we're not done writing history." One reason we are not done writing this history is because for too many Americans, this history and this reality is both denied and obscured.

According to Melvin Oliver and Thomas Shapiro, "Blacks' claim to middle-class status is based on income not assets. . . . "Without wealth reserves, especially liquid assets, the black middle class depends on income for its standard of living" (p. 97). A job loss, a health crisis, depleting housing values, a desire to go back to school or worse a global recession undermine the value in this position, since there are few/no wealth assets or wealth reserves to "fall back on."

Employment

While monthly newscasts spotlight the nation's unemployment rate, the gross disparities across racial lines are often obscured from national conversation. In June 2012, black unemployment reached 14.6%; only 62% of African Americans have a job or actively searching for paid work. When we look at specific cities, we see a dire situation: in 2010, black unemployment in Los Angeles (19.7%), in Las Vegas was 21.4%, and in Detroit 24.7%. The situation for the often- cited black middle-class is equally dire. Whereas whites possessing a college degree face unemployment rates in the 4% range, African Americans graduates face 7% unemployment. Attributable to segregation, the practice of locking African Americans out of networks, a diploma isn't a pathway to the middle-class, challenging the adage that education is the great equalizer.

In 2003, Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan, both professors of economics at the MIT, found that applicants with "white sounding names" were 50% more likely to receive a callback after submitting a resume than were those with "black sounding names." In stark terms, whiteness was worth 8 years of work experience, revealing how it is determinant of one's job future; race impacts the prospect of being unemployed, a member of the "working class" or the "middle-class." In their study, "Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination," the authors argue: "While one may have expected that improved credentials may alleviate employers' fear that African-American applicants are deficient in some unobservable skills, this is not the case in our data. Discrimination therefore appears to bite twice, making it harder not only for African-Americans to find a job but also to improve their employability" ("Employers' Replies to Racial Names" 2003). In "Names Make a Difference," researchers at the Discrimination Research Center identified racial discrimination as a significant obstacle within the contemporary labor force. Researchers sent out 6,200 resumes to temporary employment agencies throughout California. Each applicant possessed similar qualifications. Applicants with Latino and white "sounding names" received callbacks more frequently than those presumed to be African American or South Asian/Arab American, who were called back the least frequently (Miller 2004). I guess it is difficult to build a middle-class when its prospective members are not employable; when middle-class status doesn't preclude discrimination in employment. The same applies when searching for housing (as I will discuss below). I guess qualifications and experiences mean something different when as revealed by Devah Praeger whites with felony convictions are more likely to be hired than African Americans without any criminal background. You can wish away these facts, and erase these experiences, but denial and silence will not lead to change. In part 2, I will return to this discussion in looking at housing and segregation.