Dr. David J. Leonard: White Denial and Black Middle-Class Realities (Part 1)

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

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.


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.

Continue reading @  Dr. David J. Leonard: White Denial and Black Middle-Class Realities (Part 1).