Black Picket Fences: Privilege and Peril among the Black Middle Class / Edition 2

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Black Picket Fences is a stark, moving, and candid look at a section of America that is too often ignored by both scholars and the media: the black middle class. The result of living for three years in "Groveland," a black middle-class neighborhood on Chicago's South Side, sociologist Mary Pattillo-McCoy has written a book that explores both the advantages and the boundaries that exist for members of the black middle class. Despite arguments that race no longer matters, Pattillo-McCoy shows a different reality, one where black and white middle classes remain separate and unequal.

"An insightful look at the socio-economic experiences of the black middle class. . . . Through the prism of a South Side Chicago neighborhood, the author shows the distinctly different reality middle-class blacks face as opposed to middle-class whites." —Ebony

"A detailed and well-written account of one neighborhood's struggle to remain a haven of stability and prosperity in the midst of the cyclone that is the American economy." —Emerge

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
This book is the product of a three-year ethnographic study of Groveland, a black middle-class neighborhood on Chicago's South Side. Sociologist Patillo-McCoy challenges the myth that a thriving black middle class has relocated to white suburban neighborhoods, abandoning the black underclass in inner-city wastelands. She demonstrates that the majority of the black middle class are living in black communities, which encompass poor black neighborhoods. As a result, a vulnerable, underemployed black middle class has to contend with inadequate public schools and high crime and poverty rates. Patillo-McCoy focuses on Groveland's multigenerational families, primarily its youth, and neighborhood networks, concluding that the future advancement of African Americans will require that the black middle class be factored into the debate on policies regarding affirmative action, segregation, and poverty. For specialized collections in African American studies, urban studies, and sociology.--Sherri Barnes, Long Island Univ. Lib., Brooklyn Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Trudy C. Palmer
Fences explodes myths and confirms truths.

Christian Science Monitor

Ebony Magazine
Through the prism of a South Side Chicago neighborhood, the author shows the distinctly different reality middle-class black face as opposed to middle-class whites.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226649283
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 10/28/1999
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 2
  • Pages: 283
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Black Picket Fences

Privilege and Peril among the Black Middle Class

By Mary Pattillo-McCoy

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2003

University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-226-64928-8


The goal of Black Picket Fences is to richly describe the
neighborhood-based social life of a population that has received little
scholarly or popular attention-the black middle class. The black middle
class and their residential enclaves are nearly invisible to the nonblack
public because of the intense (and mostly negative) attention given to
poor urban ghettos. Post-civil rights optimism erased upwardly mobile
African Americans from the slate of interesting groups to study. However,
the sparse research that does exist unequivocally indicates the continuing
economic, residential, occupational, wealth, and sociopsychological
disparities between blacks and whites, even within the middle class. In
this book I focus on one realm of the black middle-class experience-the
neighborhood context-by investigating how racial segregation, changing
economic structures, and disproportionate black poverty affect the
residential experience of black middle-class families, and especially
youth. To accomplish this goal, I report on over three years of research
in Groveland, a blackmiddle-class neighborhood on Chicago's South Side.

Even though America is obsessed with race, some policy makers and even
more average citizens act as if race no longer matters. The sweeping
assaults on affirmative action programs are prime examples. Not even forty
years since separate water fountains-which, in the scheme of Jim Crow
prohibitions, were much less onerous than the exclusion of African
Americans from libraries, museums, schools, and jobs-many Americans would
now like to proceed as if the slate is clean and the scale is balanced.
African Americans must compete solely on what each individual has been
able to accomplish, and how each has performed. Without being too
sarcastic, it is as if racism and racial inequalities died just before
Elvis, and those who still claim that racism exists are as misguided as
someone who regularly spots the King. Even though the facts say
differently, such perceptions partially rest on the visible progress that
African Americans have made over the last half-century. The upward strides
of many African Americans into the middle class have given the illusion
that race cannot be the barrier that some make it out to be. The reality,
however, is that even the black and white middle classes remain separate
and unequal.

Much of the research and media attention on African Americans is on the
black poor. Welfare debates, discussions of crime and safety, urban policy
initiatives, and even the cultural uproar over things like rap music are
focused on the situation of poor African Americans. With more than one in
four African Americans living below the official poverty line (versus
approximately one in nine whites), this is a reasonable and warranted
bias. But rarely do we hear the stories of the other three-fourths, or the
majority of African Americans, who may be the office secretary, the
company's computer technician, a project manager down the hall, or the
person who teaches our children. The growth of the black middle class has
been hailed as one of the major triumphs of the civil rights movement, but
if we have so little information on who makes up this group and what their
lives are like, how can we be so sure that triumphant progress is the full
story? The optimistic assumption of the 1970s and 1980s was that upwardly
mobile African Americans were quietly integrating formerly all-white
occupations, businesses, neighborhoods, and social clubs. Black middle-
and working-class families were moving out of all-black urban
neighborhoods and into the suburbs. With these suppositions, the black
middle class dropped from under the scientific lens and off the policy
agenda, even though basic evidence suggests that the public celebration of
black middle-class ascendance has perhaps been too hasty.

We know, for example, that a more appropriate socioeconomic label for
members of the black middle class is "lower middle class." The one black
doctor who lives in an exclusive white suburb and the few African American
lawyers who work at a large firm are not representative of the black
middle class overall (but neither are their experiences identical to those
of their white colleagues). And although most white Americans are also not
doctors or lawyers, the lopsided distribution of occupations for whites
does favor such professional and managerial jobs, whereas the black middle
class is clustered in the sales and clerical fields. Because one's
occupation affects one's income, African Americans have lower earnings.
Yet the inequalities run even deeper than just income. Compound and
exponentiate the current differences over a history of slavery and Jim
Crow, and the nearly fourteenfold wealth advantage that whites enjoy over
African Americans-regardless of income, education, or occupation-needs
little explanation.

We also know that the black middle class faces housing segregation to the
same extent as the black poor. African Americans are more segregated from
whites than any other racial or ethnic group. In fact, the black middle
class likely faces the most blatant racial discrimination, in that many in
its ranks can actually afford to pay for housing in predominantly white
areas. Real estate agents and apartment managers can easily turn away poor
African Americans by simply quoting prohibitive home costs or high rents.
It takes more purposive creativity, however, to consistently steer
middle-class blacks into already established African American
neighborhoods by such tactics as disingenuously asserting that an
apartment has just been rented when the prospective renters who show up at
the property manager's door are, to his or her surprise, black. Racial
segregation means that racial inequalities in employment, education,
income, and wealth are inscribed in space. Predominantly white
neighborhoods benefit from the historically determined and contemporarily
sustained edge that whites enjoy.

Finally, we know that middle-class African Americans do not perform as
well as whites on standardized tests (in school or in employment); are
more likely to be incarcerated for drug offenses; are less likely to
marry, and more likely to have a child without being married; and are less
likely to be working. Liberals bumble when addressing these realities
because, unlike housing segregation or job discrimination, of which
middle-class African Americans are the clear victims, earning low grades
in school or getting pregnant without a husband can easily be attributed
to the bad behaviors of blacks themselves. For middle-class blacks, who
ostensibly do not face the daily disadvantages of poverty, it is even more
difficult to explain why they do not measure up to whites. To resolve this
quandary it is essential to continuously refer back to the ways in which
the black middle class is not equal to the white middle class.

This book takes a micro-approach to these macro-realities of racial
segregation, disproportionate poverty, and economic fragility. It focuses
on the ecological context of black middle-class neighborhoods, which are
characterized by more poverty, higher crime, worse schools, and fewer
services than white middle-class neighborhoods. The questions that guide
this research are: How does this context influence parents who are raising
children, and adolescents and young adults who are growing up in such a
neighborhood? What are the distinctive choices and transitions that black
middle-class youth experience?

The lives of the families in Groveland provide some answers to these
questions. Groveland's approximately ninety square blocks contain a
population of just under twelve thousand residents, over 95 percent of
whom are African American. The median annual family income in the
neighborhood is nearly $40,000, while the comparable figure for Chicago as
a whole is just over $30,000. More than 70 percent of Groveland families
own their own homes. By income and occupational criteria, as well as the
American dream of homeownership, Groveland qualifies as a "middle-class

Yet this sterile description does not at all capture the neighborhood's
diversity, which is critical to correctly portraying the neighborhood
context of the black middle class. Groveland's unemployment rate is 12
percent, which is higher than the citywide rate, but lower than the
percentage of unemployed residents in the neighborhoods that border
Groveland. Twelve percent of Groveland's families are poor, which again
makes it a bit more advantaged than the surrounding areas, but worse off
than most of Chicago's predominantly white neighborhoods. The geography of
Groveland is typical of black middle-class areas, which often sit as a
kind of buffer between core black poverty areas and whites. Contrary to
popular discussion, the black middle class has not out-migrated to unnamed
neighborhoods outside of the black community. Instead, they are an
overlooked population still rooted in the contemporary "Black Belts" of
cities across the country. Some of the questions about why middle-class
blacks are not at parity with middle-class whites can be answered once
this fact is recognized.

The mix of residents in Groveland and in Chicago's predominantly black
South Side defines the experiences and exposures of black middle-class
youth. Groveland residents like twenty-one-year-old Ray Gibbs most
insightfully describe this heterogeneous environment.

If a family wanted to feel the
different spectrum of life, I think this
would probably be a' ideal place to
raise children. I mean, you know,
you go outside in the suburbs, it's
la-di-da-di. Trouble, stuff like that,
don't happen. If you want somebody
to see probably everything that could
happen, you'd move here. Some days
you'll have your good days where
everything'll be perfect. Then you
might have your bad days when yo'
kid might have a fight. You know,
you'll get to see all the makings of
all different type of people. That's to
me, that's what this neighborhood is.

Ray Gibbs put a positive spin on the range of activities and incidents
that characterize black middle-class neighborhoods. But parents who desire
to shield their children from negative influences are less enamored by
what Ray seems to think is exciting. Many parents actively attempt to
curtail their children's attraction to the less savory aspects of
neighborhood life-most significantly, the gangs and the drug dealing.

Privileges and Perils

By the end of my research tenure in Groveland, I had seen three groups of
eighth-graders graduate to high school, high school kids go on to college,
and college graduates start their careers. I also heard too many stories
and read too many obituaries of the teenagers who were jailed or killed
along the way. The son of a police detective in jail for murder. The
grandson of a teacher shot while visiting his girlfriend's house. The
daughter of a park supervisor living with a drug dealer who would later be
killed at a fast-food restaurant. These events were jarring, and
all-too-frequent, discontinuities in the daily routine of Groveland
residents. Why were some Groveland youth following a path to success,
while others had concocted a recipe for certain failure? After all, these
are not the stories of poor youth caught in a trap of absent
opportunities, low aspirations, and harsh environments. Instead, Groveland
is a neighborhood of single-family homes, old stately churches, tree-lined
streets, active political and civic organizations, and concerned parents
trying to maintain a middle-class way of life. These black middle-class
families are a hidden population in this country's urban fabric.

The evening news hour in every major American city is filled with reports
of urban crime and violence. Newspapers fill in the gaps of the more
sensational tragedies about which the television could provide only a few
sound bites. Rounding out the flow of urban Armageddon stories are the
gossip and hearsay passed informally between neighbors, church friends,
and drinking buddies. For many middle-class white Americans, the incidents
they hear about in distant and troubled inner cities provide a constant
symbolic threat, but an infrequent reality. For the families who live on
the corner of the crime scene-overwhelmingly black or Latino, and
poor-daily life is organized to avoid victimization. In the middle of
these two geographically and socially distant groups lives the black
middle class.

African American social workers and teachers, secretaries and nurses,
entrepreneurs and government bureaucrats are in many ways the buffer
between the black poor and the white middle class. When neighborhoods are
changing, white middle-class families may find themselves living near
low-income black families, but one group is inevitably displaced. The
neighborhood becomes, once again, racially homogeneous. More than thirty
years after the civil rights movement, racial segregation remains a
reality in most American cities. Middle-income black families fill the
residential gap between the neighborhoods that house middle-class whites
and the neighborhoods where poor African Americans live. Unlike most
whites, middle-class black families must contend with the crime,
dilapidated housing, and social disorder in the deteriorating poor
neighborhoods that continue to grow in their direction. Residents attempt
to fortify their neighborhoods against this encroachment, and limit their
travel and associations to other middle-class neighborhoods in the city
and suburbs. Yet even with these efforts, residents of black middle-class
neighborhoods share schools, grocery stores, hospitals, nightclubs, and
parks with their poorer neighbors, ensuring frequent interaction within
and outside the neighborhood.

The in-between position of the black middle class sets up certain
crossroads for its youth. This peculiar limbo begins to explain the
disparate outcomes of otherwise similar young people in Groveland. The
right and wrong paths are in easy reach of neighborhood youth. Working
adults are models of success. Some parents even work two jobs, while still
others combine work and school to increase their chances of on-the-job
promotions. All of the positive knowledge, networking, and role-model
benefits that accrue to working parents are operative for many families in
Groveland. But at the same time the rebellious nature of adolescence
inevitably makes the wrong path a strong temptation, and there is no
shortage of showy drug dealers and cocky gang members who make dabbling in
deviance look fun. Youth walk a fine line between preparing for success
and youthful delinquent experimentation, the consequences of which can be
especially serious for black youth. In the chapters that follow, I attempt
to paint a picture of these choices and crossroads that Groveland youth

I focus on youth for two reasons. The first is pragmatic.


Excerpted from Black Picket Fences
by Mary Pattillo-McCoy
Copyright © 2003 by University of Chicago.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1. The Black Middle Class: Who, When, and Where?
2. The Making of Groveland
3. Generations through a Changing Economy
4. Neighborhood Networks and Crime
5. Growing Up in Groveland
6. In a Ghetto Trance
7. Nike's Reign
8. William "Spider" Waters, Jr.: Straddling Two Worlds
9. Typical Terri Jones
Appendix A: Research Method
Appendix B: Groveland Neighborhood Characteristics
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