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.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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"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?' "