Black middle class moves up US economic ladder

John E. Jacob is the epitome of the black urban professional. He wears neatly creased suits, with appropriate accessories, often including a bright touch like red suspenders. When he speaks as the president of the National Urban League, corporate executives listen.

The Jacob that local blacks saw at the recent Urban League convention here is far removed from the poor boy with a college education who left Houston 30 years ago to seek his fortune. He represents a growing class of successful blacks who are gradually pulling away from their roots because they earn middle-class salaries; they work in America's corporate mainstream; and they live in suburbia or in conclaves in the black community.

``Oh, baby, don't they look good,'' squeaked a black cab driver here as he drove some of the more than 10,000 blacks attending the 77th National Urban League convention here last week. ``I love this scene!''

One local daily, the Houston Post, devoted a full page in its fashion section to the ``high style'' attire worn by conventioneers. These are the blacks that cities want to retain as residents. Former Mayor Kenneth Gibson of Newark, N.J., has often said: ``It's not the white flight I fear; it's the black flight. We are losing our affluent blacks. We need them!''

Many Houston blacks and conventioneers met only on the closing day, when exhibits were opened to the public, and local residents streamed in. They were not visible at the conference's job center, although black unemployment in Houston, at more than 14 percent, has been running 2.5 times the white rate, according to US Labor Department. Most visitors were black mothers and their children, symbolic of a growing gap between black haves and have-nots.

A new study, ``Beyond the Margin: Toward Economic Well-Being for Black Americans,'' by Billy J. Tidwell, the Urban League's director of research, cites figures that show two-parent black families are faring much better than the oft-cited single female-headed families, which include 70 percent of the nation's black poor. ``There is, indeed, a black middle class and that black middle class has expanded over the years and continues to grow,'' said sociologist Andrew Billingsley in the league's annual ``State of the Black Nation 1987,'' issued last January.

The black middle class has increased from 26 percent of all blacks in the 1940 US Census to 59 percent in the 1980 census. Figures for 1985 show that a third of America's blacks are upper middle class or higher in annual income. But it also shows that blacks are becoming two distinct societies, one a growing more-affluent middle class that is increasingly more isolated from the mass community, and the other a jobless or working-poor society hardly able to pull itself out of poverty without help or welfare.

``In spite of the depressing figures concerning a growing black underclass, a strong element of achieving black families is making it in America,'' says Mr. Billingsley, a sociology professor of family and community development at the University of Maryland at College Park.

``The gap between black and white working married couples families is closing,'' he says. ``In 1969 black working couples had a median income [equal to] 75 percent of similar white couples. In 1982, black couples' median income had increased to 80 percent of the white couples. A majority of blacks still live within the nuclear [married couple] family structure. They earn well above the poverty level.''

Black who have high incomes only occasionally has personal contact with the inner-city dwellers they have left behind.

They live in integrated luxury-apartment or condominium complexes or in distant suburban communities away from the black mainstream. They visit the old community only to get their hair done, to go to church, enjoy soul entertainment, or to visit relatives or old childhood friends.

Their ties to other blacks are usually limited to business meetings or civic occasions. They may socialize at invitational affairs or at each other's homes. They may have some white friends. Some may marry a nonblack.

Some rising young black junior executives find themselves having to decide whether or not to move away from family and friends to live in the style required of an upwardly mobile achiever.

Traditional black leaders such as the Rev. Leon Sullivan (the Philadelphia minister who devised the Sullivan Principles for US businesses dealing with South Africa) urge these people to remember their roots and help those they are leaving behind. Mr. Sullivan lauded their achievements, but he admonished them, when he spoke at the Urban League convention.

``The black bourgeoisie has failed the black masses,'' he said. ``Look back, and give of your time to the people you have left behind. No black person is free until every black is free!''

Urban League chief Jacob often speaks of the contrast between life among the grass-roots people and life in the ``fast lane.'' He recalls his early years in Houston:

``I grew up so poor! Two rooms and a kitchen for seven people. No gas. No electricity. We did our homework by the light of a kerosene lamp and bathed in a washtub in the kitchen. We had one asset as kids, the love and care of both our parents.''

Houston and other cities do not offer a much better life for poor blacks today, according to updated US Census statistics and research studies. Life on the other track, however, is much more palatable and much further removed today from grass-roots blacks than it was when Jacob grew up in Texas.

Although major black organizations such as the Urban League advocate economic equity for blacks, figures compiled in studies such as ``Beyond the Margin'' verify what black people as a whole have achieved economically. In his introduction to the study Mr. Tidwell wrote: ``Individually and collectively, black Americans throughout their tortured history, have exercised tremendous ingenuity, resourcefulness, and adaptability in coping with economic deprivations.

The historical record is replete with accounts of black advancement against the odds, and the record is by no means complete.''

The challenge to blacks is to find more effective ways to cope with economic adversities, he concludes. Both Jacob and Benjamin Hooks, who heads the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, are interacting with corporate executives more than either has in the past. At the same time their reliance on big labor for support, backing that helped both groups in crises of the past, has slowly diminished.

Nevertheless, the Tidwell study and others emphasize that civil rights groups should stick with basic weapons and policies to achieve economic equity for blacks. These seek quality education; jobs and skills training for the poor and hard-core unemployed; enforcement of affirmative action and antidiscrimination laws; advocacy of housing and economic opportunity; and continued pursuit of political clout through voting and registration activity, as well as campaigns by blacks for political office.

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