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.
Yet, meaning of this year transcends these numbers. We have seen ample intrusions of blatant racism into the public square. I recently wrote about this, arguing:
In Two-Faced Racism, Leslie Picca and Joe Feagin explore the ways in which racial performances are carried in both the frontstage (integrated and multiracial public spaces) and the backstage (those private/semi-private all-white spaces where race talk and racist ideas reveal themselves in profound ways). Their research found that the backstage offers whites a place to “perform, practice, learn, reinforce, and maintain racist views of and inclinations toward people of color. These views and inclinations play a central role in generating and maintaining the overt and covert racial discrimination that is still commonplace in major institutions of this society” (27-28).
Increasingly, however, the frontstage is replacing the backstage whereupon whites are publicly performing, learning, reinforcing and maintaining their racist views toward people of color. Evident in college students donning blackface and then putting pictures online, evident in Gene Marks, Newt Ginrich, Donald Trump and their reactionary pals lamenting the laziness of black youth, evident in the usage of the N-word, evident in white-only movie screenings and white-only swimming pools, the lines between the frontstage and the backstage are blurring before our eyes. In other words, the frontstage is now the backstage, leaving me to wonder what sorts of ideologies, stereotypes and racial talk is transpiring in backstage. Or maybe, in a “post-racial America,” widespread racism has returned (did it ever leave?) to the frontstage thereby illustrating the importance of challenging and resisting in each and every location.
Not surprisingly, Rush Limbaugh (calling President Obama a “oreo cookie” and Michelle Obama as “uppity”), Ann Coulter (“our blacks are better than theirs”), Pat Buchannan (“Blacks bought a lot of propaganda of the liberal plantation”), amongst others, all illustrate the ways in which racist language and ideologies define the nature of political discourse during 2011. Beyond the ample instances of racism, it is important to see beyond the starling ease that racism operates within the public square to look at the ways race plays out within the deployed narratives and ideologies. Take Pat Buchannan, who reminisced for Jim Crow during 2011: “Back then, black and white lived apart, went to different schools and churches, played on different playgrounds, and went to different restaurants, bars, theaters, and soda fountains. But we shared a country and a culture. We were one nation. We were Americans.” In language and the vision for America, race defined the past year (and the years before).
The last year has also seen quite a bit of recycling. From the Moynihan Report and culture of poverty, to bootstraps ideology and efforts to blame the poor, 2011 has seen a comeback (not that these racist narratives ever went away) of these troubling ideas. Two of the most illustrative examples were Newt Gingrich and Gene Marks. Gingrich, who has made a career of race baiting (calling President Obama a “food stamp president” and one defined by a “‘Kenyan, anti-colonial worldview’”), recently offered policy prescriptions to deal with black unemployment: teach black youth the value of work. He stated:
Really poor children in really poor neighborhoods have no habits of working. And have nobody around them who works. They have no habit of ‘I do this and you give me cash’-unless it’s illegal. What if you paid them part time in the afternoon, to sit at the clerical office and greet people when they came in? What if you paid them to work as the assistant librarian. What if they were the assistant janitor, and carried a mop?
Deploying longstanding stereotypes about black laziness and criminality, all while crafting economic policy based on bootstrapism, Ginrich shows how 2011 has been so much about sampling and redeploying the racist ideologies of yesteryear. Gene Marks, whose article prompted widespread condemnation because of its paternalistic tone and acceptance of widespread stereotypes, is equally reflective of this trend.
I am not a poor black kid. I am a middle aged white guy who comes from a middle class white background. So life was easier for me. But that doesn’t mean that the prospects are impossible for those kids from the inner city. It doesn’t mean that there are no opportunities for them. I believe that everyone in this country has a chance to succeed. Still. In 2011. Even a poor black kid in West Philadelphia.
The prosecution and sentencing of, and the struggle for justice for, Kelly Williams-Bolar is emblematic of many issues surrounding race in 2011. From the criminalization of people of color and the demonization of women of color, to educational inequalities and the generation of kids behind left behind, her case teaches us much about the continued struggle for civil rights in 2nd decade of the twenty-first century. Jamilah King described the case in the following way:
Just in case you haven’t seen this story blow up on your social network this week: Kelley Williams-Bolar is headed to an Ohio jail. The mother of two was sentenced this week to 10 days in jail, three years of probation, and 80 hours of community service. Her crime? Sending her two daughters to an out-of-district school. . . .It’s an infuriating case, especially for anyone who’s even remotely familiar with educational inequity in this country. America still hasn’t made good on its half-century promise to desegregate its public schools, and academic achievement can almost always be measured by zip code.
The demonization of women of color extended into the realm of popular culture as well.
2011 was also the year of The Help, a film that recycled the hegemonic Hollywood trope of “white love” (h/t Elon James White) and racial redemption all while sanitizing the black freedom struggle. Yet, it was also a year defined by the many powerful responses to this film; these effort resisted and challenged the film’s (mis)representation of black women’s work, segregation, social justice, and countless other issues. From the Association of Black Woman Historians’ powerful statement to the many articles from black scholars – Dutchess Harris, Rebecca Wanzo, Mecca Jamilah Sullivan, Martha Southgate, Mark Anthony Neal, Aishah Shahidah Simmons, Melissa Harris-Perry, and Honorée Fanonne Jeffers – many voices have challenged the narrative and representations offered by The Help, refusing to accept the cultural politics of the mainstream. Yet, 2011 has also seen the release of Pariah, a film that explores the experience of a young black lesbian struggling for acceptance within her family and society at large. Whereas The Help represents blackness as accessory, as the help, Pariah reminds audiences of the power and beauty of black identity, highlighting heterogeneity, diversity, and humanity.
2011 has seen ample moments of resistance, a refusal to accept and tolerate racism, sexism, and homophobia. It has been a year of “speaking truth to power” and refusing the dominant narrative. Following the airing of ABC’s 20/20 special entitled “Children of the Plains,” a group of Native American students from South Dakota produced their own video that refused the images and messages offered in the show: “I know what you probably think of us…we saw the special too. Maybe you saw a picture, or read an article. But we want you to know, we’re more than that…we have so much more than poverty.” Then there were the students from Ohio University, who launched the “We are a culture not a costume” campaign to protest the racist stereotypes and racist images so prominent during Halloween. Youth in California and Alabama fought vigorously to change the tide against anti-immigrant racism. Hotel workers in New York protested Dominique Strauss-Kahn and the victimization of Nafissatou Diallo. And so much more.
Beyond graduation rates and the compromised quality of the education provided in exchange for athletic participation, it is crucial to think about the overall value of an education and degree in the twenty-first century. Remember, this is the unit of exchange. The national unemployment rate for college graduates is roughly 5%. While significantly lower than those without a college degree (or a high school diploma), the increased unemployment amongst college graduates along with underemployment illustrates the increasingly shrinking value of a scholarship. Worse yet, the 5% unemployment rate includes all college graduates, a figure of limited value when reflecting on compensation levels of current and future student-athletes. In “Jobless College Graduates Struggle Under Ongoing Recession” Amanda Fairbanks and Andrew Lenoir elucidate the profound issues facing today’s college graduates:
College graduates still fare better than their peers with only a high school diploma, but even their job prospects show signs of fatigue. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Current Population Survey, the unemployment rate for college graduates between the ages of 20 to 24-year-olds soared five percentage points in the past month — from 7.1 percent in May to 12.1 percent in June, compared with a three percent jump during the same period last year.
The rates of unemployment, the limited opportunities in career-track jobs, and heightened underemployment are all evident in the number of college graduates moving back home upon graduation. Since the recession began in 2007, there has been a 25% increase in students moving back home after college. As the value of college education has declined, the profits within collegiate sports have grown dramatically, illustrating the growing gap between revenue generated and the level of compensation provided to “student-athletes.” It points to the heightened level of exploitation, so much so that it might be time to renamed the NCAA: NEAA – National Exploitation Athletic Association.
Sports, particularly basketball and football, and its athletes generate millions for the NCAA, its representative schools, coaches, and a number of corporate partners. It is a billion dollar industry. Yet, the wages paid are dubious at best and the value of that compensation is in steady decline. This becomes even more striking as we focus our attention on the disproportionate number of African American student-athletes within revenue sports. The level of exploitation is certainly aggravated by the amounts of money generated by these athletes within these sports. Worse, yet given the continued significance of race, the level of compensation provided to black “student-athletes” is that much worse. The unemployment rate for black college graduates over 25 is almost twice the national average for blacks compared to whites (8.4 versus 4.4)
Michael Luo, with “In Job Hunt, College Degree Can’t Close Racial Gap,” highlights the grim economic prospects facing black graduates.
But there is ample evidence that racial inequities remain when it comes to employment. Black joblessness has long far outstripped that of whites. And strikingly, the disparity for the first 10 months of this year, as the recession has dragged on, has been even more pronounced for those with college degrees, compared with those without. Education, it seems, does not level the playing field — in fact, it appears to have made it more uneven.
Presumably worse for those recent college graduates, the value of scholarship for a black “student-athlete” remains in steady decline even as coaches salaries and television contracts have skyrocketed. Attributable to persistent discrimination, denied access to social networks, and other issues, black college graduates face a bleak future upon the conclusion of school.
Shaq is rich; the white man that signs his check is wealthy. Here you go Shaq, go buy yourself a bouncing car. Bling-Bling . . . . I ain’t talking bout Oprah, I’m talking about Bill Gates. OK!. If Bill Gates woke up tomorrow with Oprah’s money, he would jump out a …window. I’m not talking about rich, I’m talking about wealthy—Chris Rock
They Ain’t Wealthy, They Are Rich: Economic Lessons from the NBA Lockout
by David J. Leonard | NewBlackMan
In headline after headline, in commentary after commentary, the NBA lockout has been described as a battle between “millionaires” and “billionaires.” Reductionist in many ways, the effort to construct the lockout as a struggle between two different yet similar parties (the owners are not part 99% although some of the players surely are) reflects a problematic conflation of two distinct groups. In “Why We Can’t Dismiss The NBA Labor Dispute As ‘Millionaires Versus Billionaires,’” Scott Keyes warns against the tendency to link and otherwise obliterate substantive differences between players and owners: “Conflating the two groups as similarly-placed economic royalists, neither of whom deserve sympathy from an American public grappling with a depressed economy, is understandable. But to create an equivalency between millionaire players and billionaire owners obscures a scarier picture regarding the players’ long-term economic prospects.” Discussing the very different long term economic prospects between owners and players, Keyes points to several larger issues at work: the differences between workers and owners, the differences between a salary and an investment, and the very different economic futures of each group.
Yet, one of the more striking aspects of the media coverage and public discussions of the NBA lockout is a continued inability to distinguish between income and wealth. This isn’t surprising given shows Cribs and media focus on player salaries. The danger, however, is quite evident. In a society where, according to a recent study from Brandeis University, black and white wealth inequality has dramatically increased in the 23 years from 1984 to 2007, the failures to distinguish between the wealth of players and owners has a larger context. Accordingly,
The gap between Black and white households ballooned during the 23-year study period, as white families went from a median of about $22,000 in wealth to $100,000 – a gain of $78,000. In the same period, Black household wealth inched up from a base of $2,000 per family to only $5,000. The sweat and toil of an entire generation had netted Black families only $3,000 additional dollars, while white families emerged from the period with a net worth of 100 grand that can be used to send a couple of kids to college, make investments, help out other family members, or contribute to the larger (white) community.
In other words, despite the accumulated income (some wealth) by a handful of African American athletes and entertainers, and a growing black middle-class, black-white wealth disparities have increased and that was before the economic downturn. The NBA lockout offers a window into the larger issues of wealth disparity and power differentials and the ways in which race-based wealth disparities operate in myriad of American institutions. The efforts by the owners to further the disparity in income and wealth, while very different given the salaries of scale, illustrates the level of disparity that defines class and racial inequality in the twenty-first century.
Want to Boost Minority Achievement? End School Bullying
It’s no secret that victims of school bullying have a tough time keeping up their grades. After all, thanks to all that taunting and name-calling, almost 160,000 children stay home from school every day because they’re afraid to show up. Now, a study released Tuesday concludes that bullying has an even greater negative impact on the GPAs of black and Latino students than those of their white peers.
Lisa Williams, a doctoral student in sociology at The Ohio State University, and Anthony Peguero, a sociology professor at Virginia Tech, used national bullying data as well as survey results from 9,590 students attending 580 schools nationwide for their study, which they presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association. They found that black high school freshmen earning 3.5 grade point averages saw their grades drop to a 3.2 average by senior year as a result of bullying.
The effect of bullying was even worse for Latino students. Freshman with 3.5 GPAs who were bullied as sophomores ended high school with a 3.0 average. In comparison, high-achieving white freshman who experienced bullying only saw their GPAs decrease from 3.5 to 3.47.
Why does bullying effect high achieving black and Latino students so disproportionately? “Stereotypes about black and Latino youth suggest that they perform poorly in school,” Williams says. When students from those backgrounds “do not conform to these stereotypes,” they end up being “especially vulnerable to the effect bullying has on grades.”