The Trials of Middle-Class Blacks

`THE Rage of a Privileged Class'' is a probing scholarly portrayal of the vulnerability and victimization of many middle-class blacks, a condition shared by African-Americans in general. The book contains a roster of the astonishing number and types of insults to accomplished blacks, and a fine rationale for its writing.

Ellis Cose confronts many issues that cause blacks unease: workplace inequalities; affirmative action; black crime; racism; and the quality of justice in America. The author discusses the consequences of each of these as they descend on middle-class blacks. One gets engrossed in the book because it is so polished in its presentation.

Nowhere is Cose more convincing than when he explores the double standards of a color-struck America. This is vividly illustrated when he contrasts the pejorative connotation of affirmative action, as applied to blacks, with the absence of insult when whites benefit from special programs or special consideration.

Another penetrating chapter is the one on crime. In it, Cose takes issue with the positions of men like Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D) of New York, criminologist James Q. Wilson, and former New York Mayor Edward Koch, who imply that the black middle class should feel responsible for reducing the black crime rate. Cose states that none of these thinkers would suggest that white executives should make prevention of crime by whites their special mission.

The person who stands out most clearly in the book for fair play and intelligent analysis is Sen. Bill Bradley (D) of New Jersey. Senator Bradley notes the irony of white fear of black violence when, for so many years, no one worried about white violence against blacks.

Cose argues that Americans should be concerned that justice does not exist for many lawabiding, well-educated blacks. He suggests that if young blacks see the insults heaped on achieving blacks, then they may turn away from the proposition that America rewards merit.

The book is a compendium of injustices frequently mirrored in the media: the scorn heaped on black policemen; the high-achieving black athletes who are denied managerial and front-office jobs; the blacks who throw in the towel by resorting to crime; the blacks who are more frequently stopped by police; and the comments by broadcasters who have joked about a return to the days of slavery.

Cose's book may depress blacks and many whites as well, for it shows the persistence of countless nefarious practices against privileged blacks. Yet we all need to face the unpleasant reality that many highly trained blacks who believe in the great American ideals, who value education, work, and success, still face denial of opportunity because of their race.

Because of the phenomenon sociologists call relative deprivation, blacks are likely to compare themselves with whites of comparable training, so that when they fail, they are more despondent than those who did not aspire to such goals or persevere as much. These blacks, Cose states, hide their sadness and anger because they seldom have a sympathetic audience for it.

Almost 100 years ago, W.E.B. DuBois wrote ``Souls of Black Folk,'' a book documenting blacks' aspirations, hopes, and yearnings for themselves and their children. He chronicled their strivings after slavery's end, their humanity, and their failures, too. Most of all, he showed the artistry, the poetry, the beauty of their and the nation's successes, and the American tragedy inherent in their continued oppression.

Cose's book is very similar to DuBois's in its tragic sketch of the country's failures in its long embrace with blacks. This similarity underscores the special pain felt by privileged blacks and the affront to the ``American Dream'' so revered by many including DuBois.

Another parallel between DuBois and Cose is that both seem to be writing primarily for whites. Both books may be seen as primers for whites who need to be educated. (By contrast, the 1993 book ``Race Matters,'' by Cornel West, appears to target black as well as white audiences in its attention to both sides of divisive issues.)

DuBois, suggests Harvard psychiatrist Alvin Pouissant in the preface to a recent edition of ``Souls of Black Folk,'' wished to show that blacks demonstrated their Americanism through their loyalty, their dedication to learning and hard work, and their courage and commitment to American ideals.

All he wanted was for America to give blacks an equal chance. Cose, too, is asking - 130 years after slavery - that America give blacks equal opportunity. Like DuBois, he may find that he too is not heard: How can you hear those you cannot see? Or see those you cannot hear?

This book's strength is in the attention it pays to the frustrations blacks experience in the Byzantine corporate world and in the multiple victimization they experience from society.

If the book has a shortcoming, it lies in the too-brief mention of some issues. Cose barely touches on sports or the military. In the latter instance, he could have noted that blacks have fought valiantly in all United States wars, underscoring the courage of black men - contrary to portraits of them as failures and criminals.

He could have emphasized also that the military fairly shone with equal opportunity. The reason black military men like Gen. Chappie James and Gen. Colin Powell have been accorded their due is that they were seen to work toward a very simple but profound goal: the survival of the nation. Similarly, Senator Bradley suggests, the nation will have to stop wasting valuable black manpower in industry, business, and other fields, and see diversity as strength.

Finally, it is clear from the contents of Cose's book that its title is a subtle misnomer, for it is not really about a ``privileged class,'' and in the contradictions he delineates lies the rage.

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