African-American middle class

The black middle class consists of black Americans who have middle-class status within the American class structure. It is a societal level within the African-American community that primarily began to develop in the early 1960s,[1][2] when the ongoing Civil Rights Movement[3] led to the outlawing of de jure racial segregation. The gains accrued by the Civil Rights Era are strongly correlated with the emergence of a new black middle class.

Definition of middle class

While the vast majority of whites are centrally middle-class, the majority of African Americans are considered working-class. In terms of income, the narrowest view of a household with a middle-class income is considered $39,100 to $62,000, while a more generous view is $20,291 to $100,000. In 2009, the mean household income for white Americans was $54,461. On the other hand, the mean African-American household income was $32,584, which is viewed as a working-class income.[4]

As of the 2010 Census, black households had a median income of $32,068,[5] which placed the median black household within the second income quintile.[5] 27.3% of black households earned an income between $25,000 and $50,000, 15.2% earned between $50,000 and $75,000, 7.6% earned between $75,000 and $100,000, and 9.4% earned more than $100,000.[5]

Although the composition of the black middle class varies by definition, the black middle class is typically divided into a lower-middle class, core middle class, and an upper-middle class.[6][7][8] The black lower-middle class is concentrated in sales, clerical positions, and blue-collar occupations,[6] while the black upper-middle class (sometimes combined into the black upper class)[9] is characterized by highly educated professionals in white-collar occupations, such as health care professionals, lawyers, professors, and engineers.[10][11]

History of black middle class in the United States

Many African-Americans had limited opportunities for advancement to middle class status prior to 1961 because of racial discrimination, segregation, and the fact that most lived in the rural South. In 1960, forty-three percent of the white population completed high school, while only twenty percent of the black population did the same. African-Americans had little to no access to higher education, and only three percent graduated from college. Those blacks who were professionals were mainly confined to serving the African-American population. Outside of the black community, they often worked in unskilled industrial jobs. Black women who worked were frequently domestic servants. However, black women in the post-slavery emerging middle class also worked as teachers, nurses, businesswomen, journalists and other professionals. [12]

Economic growth, public policy, black skill development, and the civil rights movement all contributed to the surfacing of a larger black middle class. The civil rights movement helped to remove barriers to higher education. As opportunities for African-Americans expanded, blacks began to take advantage of the new possibilities. Homeownership has been crucial in the rise of the black middle class, including the movement of African-Americans to the suburbs, which has also translated into better educational opportunities. By 1980, over 50% of the African-American population had graduated from high school and eight percent graduated from college. In 2006, 86% of blacks between age 25 and 29 had graduated from high school and 19% had completed a bachelor's degrees.[13] As of 2003, the percentage of black householders is 48%, compared to 43% in 1990.[14]

Rise and decline of middle-class blacks

The rise to the middle class for African-Americans throughout the 1960s, however, leveled off and began to decline in the following decades due to multiple recessions that struck America throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Blacks and other lower-class groups suffered the brunt of those recessions.[15] In addition, with beliefs in "reverse racism" prevailing, aiding programs that were enacted during the Civil Rights Movement to improve the state of the black community began being heavily opposed and overturned by the late 1970s and into the 1980s. There is also evidence to suggest the wealth gap has been exacerbated by the housing market bubble in 2006 and the recession that followed from late 2007 to mid-2009, which took a far greater toll on depleting minority wealth.[16] According to,[17] "the median black family is actually only worth $1,700 when you deduct these durables. In contrast, the median white family holds $116,800 of wealth using the same accounting methods. Some historical context: In South Africa during apartheid, the median black family held about 7 percent of typical white South African family net worth. Today, using New York University Professor Edward Wolff’s analysis, the median African-American family holds a mere 1.5 percent of median white American family wealth. As shown on,[18] of the 14 million black households in the U.S. in 2015, only 5% had more than $350,000 in net worth, and less than 1% of black families had over $1 million in net assets.

Racial wealth gap

According to a 2011 study from Pew Research Center, whites possess 20 times more wealth than African-Americans and 18 times that of Latinos.[16] Whereas white families have accumulated $113,149 of wealth on average, black households have only accumulated $5,677 in wealth on average.[16]

As of 1999, whites and blacks similarly situated within the "educational middle class" live in distinct wealth worlds. Whereas educationally middle-class whites possessed $111,000 in median net worth, educationally middle-class black families had only $33,500; in terms of assets, the disparity was $56,000 to $15,000. Looking at only "the occupational middle-class", an equally pronounced gap is visible: middle-class whites had $123,000 in median net worth and $60,000 in median net financial assets compared to $26,500 and $11,200 for middle-class African-Americans.[19] 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." For each dollar of income a family earns, white families earn $3.25 in net worth and black families accumulate just under $2 of net worth for each dollar earned.[20]

The Huffington Post article "America's Financial Divide" added context to racial wealth inequality stating "Relying on data from Credit Suisse and Brandeis University's Institute on Assets and Social Policy, the Harvard Business Review in the article "How America's Wealthiest Black Families Invest Money" recently took the analysis above a step further. In the piece, the author stated "If you're white and have a net worth of about $356,000, that's good enough to put you in the 72nd percentile of white families. If you're black, it's good enough to catapult you into the 95th percentile." This means 28 percent of the total 83 million white homes, or over 23 million white households, have more than $356,000 in net assets. While only 700,000 of the 14 million black homes have more than $356,000 in total net worth...According to the article "The Wealth Gap Between Blacks and Whites is Even More Enormous Than You Think", the median net worth of white families is $116,000. This indicates 41 million white households across the nation have over $116,000 in net worth. In comparison, nearly 40 percent or 5.6 million African-American homes in the U.S. have zero or negative net worth. In addition, when you deduct the family car as an asset, the median net worth of black families in America is only $1,700."

A recent piece on "Black Wealth Hardly Exists, Even When You Include NBA, NFL and Rap Stars" stated this about the difference between black middle class families, and white middle class families. "Going even further into the data, a recent study by the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) and the Corporation For Economic Development (CFED) found that it would take 228 years for the average black family to amass the same level of wealth the average white family holds today in 2016. All while white families create even more wealth over those same two hundred years. In fact, this is a gap that will never close if America stays on its current economic path. According to the Institute on Assets and Social Policy, for each dollar of increase in average income an African-American household saw from 1984 to 2009 just $0.69 in additional wealth was generated, compared with the same dollar in increased income creating an additional $5.19 in wealth for a similarly situated white household."

Author Lilian Singh wrote on why the perceptions about black life created by media are misleading in the American Prospect piece "Black Wealth On TV: Realities Don’t Match Perceptions". "Black programming features TV shows that collectively create false perceptions of wealth for African-American families. The images displayed are in stark contrast to the economic conditions the average black family is battling each day."

Importance of wealth

Most contemporary wealth is built on the concept of home equity. Present-day income is thus an insufficient measure of household socioeconomic status.[21] Looking at disparities between wealth accumulation among African-Americans and whites paints a far more accurate picture of racial socioeconomic differences. The estimated median wealth of black households is $35,000, while white households estimated their parent's median wealth at $150,000 [20] Thus, a middle-income African-American who makes an impressive salary may still be disadvantaged in light of asset poverty and deprivation.

For African-Americans who were historically denied access to housing wealth, they face a substantial wealth disparity compared to whites. Asset poverty affects an African-American's ability to procure other forms of middle class lifestyle and other forms of wealth. Asset poverty is built on an intergenerational nature of wealth, in which fewer assets are bequeathed to future generations, crippling the aggregate amount of wealth accumulated in a given family.[22] Wealth is transferable from generation to generation, allowing people to generate more wealth, borrow money for investments, and to invest in education, housing, and future wealth. The history and legacy of discrimination still has ripple effects crippling the black middle class. One policy that can potentially enable African-Americans to rise out of asset poverty is the implementation of Individual Development Account (IDA) programs that specifically target people of color and help them use matched savings to acquire assets like their first home, a post-secondary education and small businesses.[23]

Housing discrimination

In a project conducted by the University of Washington's Civil Rights and Labor History Program in 2010, it was found that more than 400 properties in Seattle suburbs alone contained now illegal discriminatory language that formerly excluded several ethnic groups.[24]

Another barrier is discriminatory mortgage lending patterns and redlining. In applying for a home mortgage, African-American and Hispanic customers are 82% more likely to be turned down for a loan than were white customers.[25] Black renters also favored a 10.7 percent chance of being totally excluded from housing made available to comparable white renters and a 23.3 percent chance of learning about fewer apartments.[26]

Discrimination in housing practices and residential segregation leads to substantial wealth gaps across races. Home ownership is typically a source of insurance against poverty. However, for blacks and Hispanics, home ownership rates have never made it past 50%.[27]

Residential segregation

Another problem facing lower middle-class African-Americans is their close proximity and ties to poor African-Americans. Most of the lower middle-class black neighborhoods in the U.S. are adjacent to poor, struggling, urban areas and neighborhoods. For the most part, lower middle-class African-Americans and poor African-Americans share the same communities and environments. This is in part due to African-Americans being much more likely to have poor family members, as much of today's middle-aged and elderly African-Americans are very likely to have grown up in poverty. In fact, due to previous generations of racial discrimination, the African-American rise to the lower middle-class is a development that largely only took off by the 1960s during the height of the Civil Rights Movement.

Because of the close living quarters between lower middle-class African-Americans and poor African Americans, there is high potential for lower middle-class African-Americans to develop friendships, relationships, and ties to poor African-Americans and find themselves sharing the same urban environments. As a result, sociologists have found that the African-American community's middle class has a greater potential than do middle-class whites of being involved with crime and falling victim to crimes. As for centrally middle-class African-Americans, they not only make up a racial class that is relatively scant in number, but they make up a racial class that is left with the unenviable options of either living in working-class black neighborhoods adjacent to struggling, urban environments or living in suburban areas where they are vastly outnumbered by whites.

Segregated housing patterns also keep African-Americans far from suburbanizing jobs and associated job information networks.[28] This mismatch between residential locations and employment reduce the employment options for middle- and lower-class African-Americans.[29] These segregated housing patterns are supported by discriminatory mortgage lending practices and overt attempts to keep suburban neighborhoods racially exclusive. Although most African-Americans are not living below the poverty line, what is middle-class for most white Americans is vastly different to what is middle-class for most African-Americans. The few black professionals in all-white neighborhoods are not representative of the African-American middle class by any stretch. Rather, most African-Americans are lower middle-class living from paycheck to paycheck, employed in such jobs as retail, and facing many problems and circumstances worse off even than poor whites. Hence, what is vastly missing from the African-American community is a cohesive, central middle class.

Racial suburbanization lag

There is a significant black suburbanization lag, in which African-Americans are less likely than others to adopt suburban residential patterns.[30] Because of institutional housing discrimination and discriminatory lending practices, the black middle class is more likely to reside in neighborhoods composed mainly of African-Americans. These neighborhoods tend to be close to inner-city neighborhoods and replicate the problems of the inner city.

Hispanics and Asians, on the other hand, are likely to be suburbanized at far higher rates than African-Americans. Even when African-Americans do reside in contemporary suburbs, they are less likely to gain access to the same range of benefits and amenities as their white peers.

Black suburbs tend to be areas of low socioeconomic status and population density. Many are former manufacturing suburbs with weak tax bases, poor municipal services, and high levels of debt, compromising the secure middle-class lifestyle of its African-American inhabitants.[31] These black middle-class neighborhoods also tend to have inflated house values and lower home equity because racial segmentation of suburban housing markets restricts demand for housing in black suburbs. The low socioeconomic character of these black middle-class neighborhoods, in turn, undermines the ability of the black middle class to build wealth on depreciated and undervalued black suburbs.


Structural and institutional explanations for achievement gap

One reason for the racial achievement gap is lack of quality schools in black middle-class neighborhoods. Minority children tend to be concentrated in low-achieving, highly segregated schools. Quality of public education in residential areas across the United States is linked to neighborhood socioeconomic status. Because middle-class African-Americans tend to reside in segregated neighborhoods of lower socioeconomic character, they often attend struggling public schools which cannot provide the same academic resources as quality suburban schools.

Historically, programs designed for black school systems to succeed were all dropped by the early 1980s. Monetary funds were instead put into suburban schools, bolstering white flight, and causing black schools to deteriorate in quality. The disparity in expenditures on education between inner cities and affluent suburbs exist almost entirely due to the system of property taxes which most school systems rely on for funding.[32] By attending spatially segregated school systems, children of the black middle class are locked out of the same educational and employment opportunities as their white counterparts. In general, minority students are more likely to reside in lower or middle class inner city neighborhoods, meaning minority students are more likely to attend poorly funded schools based on the districting patterns within the school system. Schools in lower-income districts tend to employ less qualified teachers and have fewer educational resources.[33] Research shows that teacher effectiveness is the most important in-school factor affecting student learning. Good teachers can actually close or eliminate the gaps in achievement on the standardized tests that separate white and minority students.[34]

Cultural explanations for achievement gap

The culture and environment in which children are raised may play a role in the achievement gap. For example, many black middle-class households are headed by a single parent who may not have the time to devote to a child's education. Another explanation that has been suggested for racial and ethnic differences in standardized test performance is that standardized IQ tests and testing procedures are culturally biased toward European-American middle class knowledge and experiences.[35] Social psychologist Claude Steele suggests that minority children and adolescents may also experience stereotype threat—the fear that they will be judged to have traits associated with negative appraisals and/or stereotypes of their race or ethnic group which produces test anxiety and keeps them from doing as well as they could on tests. According to Steele, minority test takers experience anxiety, believing that if they do poorly on their test they will confirm the stereotypes about inferior intellectual performance of their minority group. As a result, a self-fulfilling prophecy begins, and the child performs at a level beneath his or her inherent abilities. Some researchers[36] also hypothesize that in some cases, minorities, especially African American students, may stop trying in school because they do not want to be accused of "acting white" by their peers.[37] It has also been suggested that some minority students simply stop trying because they do not believe they will ever see the true benefits of their hard work. As some researchers point out, minority students may feel little motivation to do well in school because they do not believe it will pay off in the form of a better job or upward social mobility.[37] By not trying to do well in school, such students engage in a rejection of the achievement ideology—that is, the idea that working hard and studying long hours will pay off for students in the form of higher wages or upward social mobility.


Achieving higher education is strongly correlated with the affluence of African-Americans and their access to professional jobs. Recently, there has been a growth of historically black colleges to serve the black middle class in terms of higher education prospects. Historically black colleges and universities were formed because people classified as black were not allowed to attend existing colleges and universities for the most part. Despite systematic inequalities and discrimination, HBCUs were able to provide a culturally affirming, psychologically supportive academic environment for ambitious black middle-class students. Research shows historically black colleges and universities contribute significantly to the black middle class and the nation's economy. In spite of fewer resources and lower endowment funds, historically black colleges and universities produce an impressive number of graduates in education and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields. However, debates linger on the effectiveness of historically black colleges and universities. Specific concerns are whether historically black colleges and universities provide equivalent quality of education and whether they foster racial exclusivity.[citation needed]

African immigrants and the black middle class

Sub-Saharan African immigrants to the United States tend to have higher income levels than African-Americans due to their higher education levels. (Sub-Saharan Africans are distinguished from African-Americans, who are the descendants of America's black slaves.) In addition, African immigrants have the highest educational attainment rates of all American ethnic groups, with higher levels of completion than the commonly stereotyped Asian-American model minority.[38][39] Like most Asian-Americans, Africans came to America in the last few decades after the Civil Rights Movement era ended. Prior to the mid-1970s, there were very few non-white immigrants because of immigration laws banning non-whites; that is, up until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which was an extension of (and made possible by) the Civil Rights Movement.[40] Despite this, U.S. immigration policies are still discriminatory insofar as favoring immigrant candidates that have professional skills and higher educational levels over the many immigrant candidates who do not. In addition to this, it was found in a study that non-Mexican immigrants who can't simply cross the border, but must be able to pay for transatlantic journey, usually come to the U.S. already educated with middle-class backgrounds.[41][42]

In 1997, 24.6 percent of all adult white Americans and 13.3 percent of all African-Americans held bachelor's degrees, while 48.9 percent of African immigrants held bachelor's degrees. Though the U.S. Census Bureau counts white populations who emigrated from Africa in the same category as black Africans, it shows African immigrants were more than three times as likely to hold a bachelor's degree than native-born African-Americans.[43] Despite the high educational achievement of African immigrants, they still tend to have lower median household incomes compared to other immigrant groups. Many African immigrants hold strong ties to their home countries and send remittances to their relatives.

African-American poverty

As of 2010, the poverty rate among non-Hispanic whites was 9.9%, whereas the poverty rate among African-Americans was 27.4%.[44]

Long-term poverty is rare for whites.[45] Almost 9 out of 10 long-term poor children are African-American and more than 6 out of 10 long-term poor children have spent time in single-parent families.[46] Poverty in a child's most formative years is critical to shaping a child's future attainments in terms of test scores, schooling, fertility choices, labor market outcomes and incomes.[47] Research has shown that parents who devote all of their time to meeting consumption needs have little time, money, and energy left to improve their own lives and their children's education and skills.

See also


  1. Sikes, / Joe R. Feagin, Melvin P. (1994). Living with racism: the black middle-class experience ([Nachdr.] ed.). Boston: Beacon Press. ISBN 9780807009253.
  2. Collins, Sharon M. (April 1983). "The Making of the Black Middle Class". Social Problems. University of California Press. 30 (4): 369–382. doi:10.2307/800108. JSTOR 800108.
  3. Landry, Bart (1988). The new Black middle class (Paperback ed.). Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 9780520064652.
  4. "» Notes on income, race and household types in 2009". 2010-09-18. Retrieved 2014-01-28.
  5. 1 2 3 DeNavas-Walt, Carmen; Proctor, Bernadette D.; Smith, Jessica C. "Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2010" (PDF). United States Census Bureau. Retrieved July 20, 2012.
  6. 1 2 Lacy, Karyn (2007). Blue-chip Black Race, class, and status in the new Black middle class ([Online-Ausg.] ed.). Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 9780520251151.
  7. Wilson, William Julius (1980). The declining significance of race: Blacks and changing American institutions (2nd ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago press. ISBN 9780226901299.
  8. Lacy, Karyn (July 25, 2011). "The Vulnerable and the Comfortable". New York Times. Retrieved July 20, 2012.
  9. Lee, Andrea (February 21, 1999). "Black Like Us". New York Times. Retrieved July 19, 2012.
  10. James D. Williams, ed. (1984). The State of Black America, 1984 (10th Anniversary ed.). New York: National Urban League. ISBN 9780878559374.
  11. Doman Lum (ed.). Culturally Competent Practice: a framework for understanding diverse groups and justice issues (4th ed.). Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole. ISBN 9780840034434.
  12. Carter G. Woodson, and Lorenzo Johnston Greene, The Early Black History Movement, University of Illinois Press, 2007, p 85
  13. Koditschek, Theodore, Cha-Jua, Sundiata Keita, and Neville, Helen. Race Struggles, p. 31. (2009)
  14. African-American History Month, US Census Bureau, February 2003.
  15. Gwendolyn Mink; Alice O'Connor (2004). Poverty in the United States: A-K. p. 42.
  16. 1 2 3 Rakesh Kochhar; Rakesh Kochhar; Richard Fry; Paul Taylor. "Wealth Gaps Rise to Record Highs Between Whites, Blacks, Hispanics". Pew Research Center.
  17. Moore, Antonio (January 22, 2016). "Our Real Racial Wealth Gap Story". Retrieved June 17, 2018.
  18. "Only 5% of African American Households Have More than $350,000 in Net Worth". November 10, 2015. Retrieved June 17, 2018.
  19. Shapiro, Thomas M. (2004). The Hidden Cost of Being African American: How Wealth Perpetuates Inequality. Oxford University Press. pp. 90–91.
  20. 1 2 Conrad, Cecilia A.; Whitehead, John; Mason, Patrick; Stewart, James (2005). "The Racial Wealth Gap". In Shapiro, Thomas M.; Kenty-Drane, Jessica L. African Americans in the US Economy. p. 179.
  21. Conrad; Whitehead; Mason; Stewart (2005). "The Racial Wealth Gap". In Shapiro; Kenty-Drane. African Americans in the US Economy. p. 175.
  22. Conrad; Whitehead; Mason; Stewart (2005). "The Racial Wealth Gap". In Shapiro; Kenty-Drane. African Americans in the US Economy. p. 177.
  23. "IDAs Match Rates" (PDF). Retrieved April 22, 2013.
  24. Latshaw, Greg (August 3, 2010). "Racism shadows property covenants". USA Today.
  25. Yinger, John (2001). Housing Discrimination and Residential Segregation as Causes of Poverty. p. 375.
  26. Yinger (2001). Housing Discrimination and Residential Segregation. p. 373.
  27. Yinger (2001). Housing Discrimination and Residential Segregation.
  28. Yinger (2001). Housing Discrimination and Residential Segregation. p. 379.
  29. Yinger (2001). Housing Discrimination and Residential Segregation. p. 369.
  30. Massey, Douglas (2004). The New Geography of Inequality in Urban America. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  31. Massey (2004). The New Geography of Inequality in Urban America. p. 177.
  32. Karnasiewicz, Sarah (September 22, 2005). "Apartheid America". Salon.
  33. Roscigno, V. J.; Tomaskovic-Devey, D.; Crowley, M. (2006). "Education and the Inequalities of Place". Social Forces. 84 (4): 2121. doi:10.1353/sof.2006.0108.
  34. Gordon, Kane & Staiger (2006). 'Identifying Effective Teachers Using Performance on the Job.' Brookings Institution.
  35. Helms, Janet E. (September 1992). "Why is there no study of cultural equivalence in standardized cognitive ability testing?". American Psychologist. 9. 47 (9): 1083–1101. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.47.9.1083.
  36. Steele, C., and J. Aronson, "Stereotype Threat and the Test Performance of Academically Successful African Americans" (pp. 401–430), in C. Jencks and M. Phillips (Eds.), The Black-White Test Score Gap (Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution, 1998).
  37. 1 2 Fordham, S.; Ogbu, J. U. (1986). "Black students' school success: Coping with the ?burden of ?acting white??". The Urban Review. 18 (3): 176. doi:10.1007/BF01112192.
  38. Le, C.N. "Demographic Characteristics of Immigrants". Asian Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. Retrieved December 1, 2012.
  39. Terrazas, Aaron (February 2009). "African Immigrants in the United States". Migration Policy Institute.
  40. Center for Immigration Studies (September 1995). "Three Decades of Mass Immigration: The Legacy of the 1965 Immigration Act".
  41. "Asian-Americans are a model minority". Retrieved 2014-01-28.
  42. "The 1965 Immigration Act : Asian-Nation :: Asian American History, Demographics, & Issues". Asian-Nation. Retrieved 2014-01-28.
  43. ARA Corporation (Autumn 1996). "African-Born U.S. Residents are the Most Highly Educated Group in American Society" (PDF). The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education: 33–34.
  44. "Poverty rate among African Americans nearly double that of White Americans". Milwaukee Courier. October 2, 2010.
  45. Corcoran, Mary (2001). "Mobility, Persistence, and the Consequences of Poverty for Children: Child and Adult Outcomes". In Danziger, Sheldon H.; Haveman, Robert H. Understanding Poverty. New York: Russell Sage Foundation. p. 130.
  46. Corcoran (2001). Understanding Poverty. p. 127.
  47. Corcoran (2001). Understanding Poverty. p. 128.


  • Landry, Bart. "The New Black Middle Class". 1987.
  • Harris Jr., Robert. "The Rise of the Black Middle Class". The World and I Magazine. February 1999. Vol. 14, p. 40.

Further reading

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