Denial is a fixture of contemporary racial discourse. Reflecting segregation and the entrenched nature of white privilege, the efforts to deny through citing a mythical black middle-class, as if the black middle-class reveals some post-racial reality, defies the facts on the ground. It defies the realities of America's housing situation.
A 2012 study entitled, Price Discrimination in the Housing Market, found that like the poor paying more for various goods and services, the black middle class pays more for a home:
No matter what the ultimate reason for the price premium, our results imply that systematic, robust racial differences in the price paid to buy a home - on the order of 3 percent on average in multiple major US markets - persist to the present day, long after many of the most overt forms of institutional discrimination have been eliminated. Considering the average purchase price paid by a black homebuyer in our sample is $177,000, this translates to an average premium of about $5,000 per transaction, a substantial amount given the average income of black households in these cities.
The costs of racism on the black middle-class are evident in the difficulty in securing home loans. For African American joining and remaining part of the middle-class is a precarious and difficult task because of racism. According to a report in the New York Times, black homeowners otherwise eligible for traditional fixed rate 30-year mortgages often had subprime loans. In NYC, it "found that black households making more than $68,000 a year were nearly five times as likely to hold high-interest subprime mortgages as whites of similar or even lower incomes. (The disparity was greater for Wells Fargo borrowers, as 2 percent of whites in that income group hold subprime loans and 16.1 percent of blacks)."
Additionally, Joe Weisenthal, with Did Racist Subprime Lending Cause The New York Foreclosure Crisis? notes that according Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shawn Donovan, "Roughly 33 percent of the subprime mortgages given out in New York City in 2007, Mr. Donovan said, went to borrowers with credit scores that should have qualified them for conventional prevailing-rate loans." Differential access to different types of loans has huge financial cost. "These practices took a great toll on customers, Weisenthal notes. "For a homeowner taking out a $165,000 mortgage, a difference of three percentage points in the loan rate -- a typical spread between conventional and subprime loans -- adds more than $100,000 in interest payments." As noted in the article, the prospect of paying an extra 700 dollars a month over 27 years highlights the financial cost and burden resulting from subprime loans.
Housing discrimination in all its forms demonstrates the precluded benefits of middle-class status to many African American families, but the ways in which racism is shrinking the size of the black middle-class. Evident in foreclosures, the resulting lost wealth, and the overall financial burden of racism, a Black middle class is bound to be fundamentally different from a white middle class.
The consequences of these historic and ongoing practices of discrimination are clear. "Segregation of neighborhoods and communities often means, for African Americans, less access to schools with excellent resources, key job networks, quality public services such as hospital care and quality housing," writes Joe Feagin and Kathryn McKinney in The Many Costs of Racism. "The later factors, less access to quality housing, also limits the ability of African American families to build upon substantial housing equity, a major source for the wealth passed along by families for several generations." These are the costs of racism for all African Americans.
According to Carmen R. Lugo-Lugo, professor of Critical Culture, Gender, and Race Studies at Washington State, "The bottom line is [that] there is such a thing as a Black middle class, but not all middle classes are created, valued, or treated equally."
In fact, a whopping 45 percent and 48 percent of black children who grow up as part of a middle-class family (in the 2nd and 3rd lowest incomes, out of 5 categories) will experience downward mobility while the same can be said for only 20 percent and 16 percent of whites who grow up in the same income categories. So spare me the "race" does not matter: just take a look at the numbers. Look at the middle-class as it stands today. Just look at the experiences of the middle class and you can see how racism operates in and through it. And just to give you a few more things to think about: look at stop and frisk and racial profiling, look at the fact that black women take home 62 cents for every dollar pocketed by white men (Latinas earn 53 cents; black college graduates earn 69 cents), look at the fact that blacks in Wisconsin and Maryland paid on average 800 dollars more for car loans from Nissan. According to NYT, "Among the largest states, the study also showed that on average blacks paid $245 more in Connecticut, $339 more in New Jersey and $405 more in New York. In Texas, the black-white gap was put at $364; in Florida, it was $533."
What should be clear from the above information (and the countless research) is that because of racism, because of a history of racism, because of persistent racism, and because of individual prejudices and systemic racism, it is hard to achieve black middle-class status. It should also be clear that because of racism, because of a history of racism, because of persistent racism, and because of individual prejudices and systemic racism, when it is achieved, it is precarious -- since it is based on income and not assets (wealth); since the mechanism to achieve and maintain this position are threatened daily. For those who take the black middle class as evidence for "no problems," would the prospects of living under these conditions and facing this level of discrimination elicit hope and optimism from you.
Denial: The Biggest game in town
In listening to cable news, in reading comment sections, and in the public discourse at large, a common theme emerges as it relates to issues of race. Dismissing claims of racism by describing them as a "crutch," accusing others of playing the race card, and denying the realities on the ground with claims about whining and hyper-sensitivity the parameters of conversation about racism are constrained by its deniers (for a thorough discussion of the language, frames, and narratives of deflection and denial, please read, Bonilla-Silva 2003). We are told over and over again that the injustices of racial profiling, housing discrimination, prison disparities, segregation, educational inequality, and countless other issues are not about race but something else. That something else often takes the form of "cultural arguments" and others that blame communities of color for inequality and inequity. In other words, the racism deniers push the conversation away from racism, white privilege and systemic failures toward one of pathologies, values, personal failures (all wrapped up in stereotypes) and other ideas that focus on the purported cultural deficiencies of people of color.
This is where celebrities, the black elite, and even the black middle-class come into focus. These racism deniers cite a black middle-class as evidence that race doesn't matter. While denying the discrimination and systemic racism as it constrains the opportunities afforded to working class and poor communities, these arguments rely on a fantasied reality of the black middle-class to substantiate right-wing arguments blaming the poor - and its work ethic, values, culture - all in the name of celebrating American exceptionalism. "The clock has been turned back on racial progress in American, though scarcely anyone seems to notice, " argues Michelle Alexander in New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Era of Colorblindness, adding, "All eyes are fixed on people like Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey, who have defied the odds and risen to power, fame, and fortune" (2010, p. 175). While writing about the "black elite" as sources of evidence Alexander argument works with discussions of the black middle-class. While clearly Obama, Oprah and Michael Jordan are widely deployed as evidence of not only American exceptionalism but the availability of the American dream to every American, it has become increasingly evident that the racial denial crowd is equally comfortable citing the black middle class as their "it's all good" narrative. "Socioeconomic mobility says nothing whatsoever about the existence of racial oppression," notes Paul Heideman, a lecturer at Rutgers University. "There were slaves who saved up and bought their freedom, and there were plenty of black folks who started businesses and thrived under Jim Crow. This does not constitute evidence that these were racially egalitarian social orders." In the end, you can deny these realities until you are blue in the face, your denial of these realities will not make them go away.