Black middle-class comes into view

Since Obama's candidacy, African-American professionals once invisible in mainstream America, are moving from prime-time fiction to everyday fact.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

These tidy streets of well-manicured lawns and hedges gracing modest, but well-appointed California-style bungalow homes are Richard Nixon country, home to his alma mater and next door to his birth and burial place, Yorba Linda.

This has long been a bastion of conservative, white American Republicanism, says resident Lonnie Jordan, an African-American musician who lives in the Friendly Hills district of town. Married to a mixed-race wife whose mother was white and father black, Mr. Jordan says this was not always a comfortable place for a mixed-race couple. But, that has begun to change, he adds. The reason? The presidential aspirations of candidate Barack Obama.

"He's put the image of black families on the national dialogue," says Jordan. "Now I walk around and I don't feel odd or out of place. It's come out of the shadows and into the everyday light."

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Middle-class, African-American life has been invisible to mainstream America for most of the 20th century, says American University professor Leonard Steinhorn, coauthor of "By the Color of Our Skin: The Illusion of Integration and the Reality of Race." This derives largely from what he calls the sin of decades of segregation in the suburbs, the traditional home of the middle class.

This began to change in earnest when "The Cosby Show" introduced the nation to the Huxtables, a charming, upper-middle-class family of seven who just happened to be black.

African-American professionals and middle-income characters have continued to appear more regularly across prime-time television over the past two decades, says Mr. Steinhorn. But the process has accelerated as the Obama candidacy has progressed.

"Americans are auditioning their next president," he says, adding that this is what he calls a very intimate process. "They are trying to determine who will be in their living rooms for the next four years. As a result, they are engaging in a deeply personal way with Obama's biography. This is normalizing the middle-class African-American story, one that may be unfamiliar to many white Americans."

Coverage of the Obama narrative has steadily moved the media embrace of black middle-class life from prime-time fiction to the everyday world of fact, says entertainment lawyer Darrell Miller. There have been numerous what he calls "aha!" moments along the way. He points to such consciousness-raising moments as the 2005 surprise box office success of Tyler Perry's "Diary of a Mad Black Woman," revealing to Hollywood studios the presence of a large, underserved middle-class black audience.

The appearance of such athletes as Tiger Woods and Serena and Venus Williams in traditionally white sports such as golf and tennis were more such moments, agrees Smokey Fontaine, chief content officer for the social-networking site, Black Planet. The biggest is of course Oprah, who represents not just affluent but powerful black America, he adds.

This is an important shift in awareness of black middle-class life as well as the roughly 10 percent of the 40 million black Americans whose income exceeds $75,000, says Len Burnett, editor of Uptown, the nation's only glossy magazine targeting affluent blacks.

"Sitcoms and movies are not really all that representative of actual black life," says Mr. Burnett, even though they certainly raised the profile of African-Americans in the prime-time media. We are definitely seeing more now of the real African-American middle class – the educated and affluent – "but not so much from the popular culture as from the news," he explains. This is happening naturally, he says, as news outlets across the spectrum, from CNN to MSNBC and countless local affiliates, engage everyone from black churchgoers to potential voters and Obama family members to discuss the candidate.

Suddenly, he says, "we are very naturally seeing a much broader cross section of daily black life coming into the national discussion."

This is an important adjustment in the conventional media portrait of blacks, which – say many African-American pundits – tends to be the gritty, urban street experience glorified by countless hip-hop and rap artists.

"Everyone knows the 'crack to glory' story of the rappers," says Sakiya Sandifer, a black entrepreneur who co-wrote "Thank You and You're Welcome," an inspirational book, with musician Kanye West. "But Obama offers a different story," he adds, "and now the rest of the world is seeing that more is possible for blacks than they had seen before."

Despite this trend, historical invisibility can still cause serious problems, says Sheryl Salomon, managing editor of BlackVoices .com. She points to the recent YouTube video created by a Missouri schoolteacher. In it, a group of young black men, all dressed alike, do a call-and-response routine extolling Obama's virtues with a "Yes, we can" refrain.

The video ignited a furor, the teacher was suspended, and online, conservative groups called it an example of Obama-style, Nazi youth indoctrination.

Ms. Salomon calls it a deep cultural divide, pointing out that the drill team and step show routines that this video draws upon are deeply rooted in black, middle-class traditions.

"This is a celebration of something very routine in middle-class black life, not something scary," she says.

At the same time, she says she has seen a marked increase in traffic from nonblacks to the Black Voices site from people "looking for more information about who we are."

Signage along the neat streets of Whittier also show increased awareness of Obama, says one white resident, who declines to give his name. As his two golden retrievers play through the pile of leaves he is raking in his yard, he says, "There are a lot more Obama signs on front lawns." As he looks up and down the block, he adds, "A lot more people are aware of him."

This can't come a moment too soon, suggests Salomon, who notes that ignorance of white culture was never an option for blacks. "Most whites can go cradle to grave with no awareness or understanding of black life," she says.

"For us that cradle-to-grave journey is not possible," she says. "We have to be fluent in all the perspectives of white culture, from speech inflection to corporate culture."

"Unfortunately," adds Steinhorn, cultural blindness in the US extends beyond the black/white divide. "I'm Jewish," he says, "and I still have people ask me in great surprise, 'You don't celebrate Christmas?' "

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