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Black Picket Fences: Privilege and Peril among the Black Middle Class

Black Picket Fences: Privilege and Peril among the Black Middle Class

by Mary Pattillo

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First published in 1999, Mary Pattillo’s Black Picket Fences explores an American demographic group too often ignored by both scholars and the media: the black middle class. Nearly fifteen years later, this book remains a groundbreaking study of a group still underrepresented in the academic and public spheres. The result of living for three years


First published in 1999, Mary Pattillo’s Black Picket Fences explores an American demographic group too often ignored by both scholars and the media: the black middle class. Nearly fifteen years later, this book remains a groundbreaking study of a group still underrepresented in the academic and public spheres. The result of living for three years in “Groveland,” a black middle-class neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, Black Picket Fences explored both the advantages the black middle class has and the boundaries they still face. Despite arguments that race no longer matters, Pattillo showed a different reality, one where black and white middle classes remain separate and unequal.

 Stark, moving, and still timely, the book is updated for this edition with a new epilogue by the author that details how the neighborhood and its residents fared in the recession of 2008, as well as new interviews with many of the same neighborhood residents featured in the original. Also  included is a new foreword by acclaimed University of Pennsylvania sociologist Annette Lareau.

Editorial Reviews


“An insightful look at the socioeconomic 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.”

William Julius Wilson

“The most insightful study I have read on the black middle class. Like no other author, Mary Pattillo reveals the obstacles and pressures of black middle-class families. Readers of this clearly written and engaging book will understand why these experiences are unique, and why they produce social outcomes that often differ from those of the white middle class.”
American Journal of Sociology - Cynthia M. Duncan

“[A] richly textured, thoughtful account of the precarious economic and social positions of young people in these middle-class families. . . . Pattilo knows Groveland, and she knows the literature on poverty and class. She is a careful and insightful observer. . . . Pattillo’s book provides a perceptive analysis of the black middle class in America in the 1990s and will be an integral part of courses on stratification, race, and poverty. But it is also an entertaining book that will appeal to general audiences interested in contemporary social issues. I recommend it.”

Critical Sociology - Robert Mark Silverman

“Few studies offer extensions to an existing body of research in a manner that is both paradigm shifting and enriching to the social sciences as a whole. . . . Pattillo has succeeded in doing both. Her analysis of the black middle class revives the tradition of community studies in American sociology while skillfully shifting the dialogue concerning the inner-city from its focus on social pathologies of the poor to a more holistic discussion of stratification and social interaction.”

Gapers Block - Daphne Sidor

“More than with sweeping conclusions or policy recommendations, Black Picket Fences concerns itself with turning a detailed eye to a picture that’s easily glossed over in discussions of [Chicago’s] segregation. So it’s an academic text but a lively one . . . Pattillo is an excellent listener, and anyone looking to expand their conception of the South Side beyond the dire stories of Englewood violence and the ivied island of Hyde Park should listen in as well.”

Product Details

University of Chicago Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
Second Edition
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

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Black Picket Fences

Privilege and Peril among the Black Middle Class

By Mary Pattillo

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-02119-5


The Black Middle Class

Who, When, and Where?

There is a paucity of contemporary studies on the black middle class, making it necessary to define who belongs in the black middle class, when such a group emerged, and where many middle-class African Americans live. The answers to these questions collectively indicate that progress in the immediate post-World War II period led social scientists to prematurely assume that the black middle class was secure, when in fact, deep racial disparities have persisted. Germane to my focus on the neighborhood context, the answer to the where question emphasizes the fact that black middle-class out-migration from inner-city areas has been greatly misunderstood. Middle-class African Americans have become more segregated from poor African Americans, but I argue that the increased size of the black middle class—not, as some suggest, its increased propensity to move away from poor blacks—has caused these observed changes in the configuration of black communities. In the end, the black middle class continues to live near and with the black poor. These facts influence and circumscribe social processes in Groveland.


"Middle class" is a notoriously elusive category based on a combination of socioeconomic factors (mostly income, occupation, and education) and normative judgments (ranging from where people live, to what churches or clubs they belong to, to whether they plant flowers in their gardens). Among African Americans, where there has historically been less income and occupational diversity, the question of middle-class position becomes even more murky. Just as social scientists wrestle with these issues, so do the residents of Groveland. Charisse Baker, a teenager in the neighborhood, gave her explanation of how class divisions exist within a racial hierarchy.

Me personally, I don't see rich black people on a regular basis, except on [the television show] Fresh Prince of Bel Air. I mean, I know it's black people that are doctors, that are lawyers. But because I don't see them every day, I don't think that we're as divided.

Mr. Simms, a Groveland resident fifty years Charisse's senior, also commented on the compressed nature of the black class structure:

I guess that there are classes divided on how much money you possess. For black people those are more artificial than real because we don't have where there's a very large upper class. But there are classes. And some are divided on the basis of what they think they have, and what they think you don't have.

Conversations with Groveland residents like Charisse and Mr. Simms underscore the fluid and complex nature of class categories among African Americans. Although most Groveland residents settle on a label somewhere between "lower middle class" and "middle class" to describe their own class position, the intermediate descriptors are plentiful. Some classification schemes focus on inequality. One resident resolved that there are the "rich," and everyone else falls into the categories of "poor, poorer, and poorest." Other words, like ghetto, bourgie (the shortened version of bourgeois), and uppity are normative terms that Grovelandites use to describe the intersection of standard socioeconomic measures and normative judgments of lifestyles and attitudes. Still other people talk about class in geographic terms, delineating a hierarchy of places rather than of incomes or occupations.

Without wading into either the social-scientific or layman's debates over class categories (which are quite extensive), I apply the "middle class" label to Groveland because it meets many of the standard criteria for such a designation. A majority of Groveland residents qualify as middle class by any of the commonly used income-based definitions. For example, economists use a measure called the income-to-needs ratio to identify class categories. The income-to-needs ratio divides total family income by the federal poverty level based on the family's size. The lower bound of the income-to-needs ratio for middle-class status is frequently set at two; that is, if a family earns two times a poverty-level income, they are middle class. Almost three-fourths of Groveland's families have an income-to-needs ratio of greater than two, qualifying them as middle class.

Sociological conceptions of class include occupation and education along with measures of income (Blau and Duncan 1967; Poulantzas 1974; Vanneman and Cannon 1987). Studies of the black middle class in particular have used white-collar employment as the marker of middle-class position (Blackwell 1985; Kronus 1971; Landry 1987; Oliver and Shapiro 1995; Wilson 1978; Wilson 1995). In Groveland, 65 percent of the working residents are employed in white-collar jobs, again making it majority middle class. The most strict definition of middle class (for both blacks and whites) includes only those with a college degree. Twenty percent of Groveland's adults have graduated from college. Although not a majority, this is a much larger proportion than the 12 percent (in 1990) of African American adults overall with a college degree.

Finally, aside from these more objective class measures, "typical" middle-class behaviors are readily apparent in Groveland. People mow their lawns, go to church, marry, vote (they really vote), work, own property, and so on and so on. While the blanket term middle class obscures the particularities of being black and middle class (which is the focus of this book), Groveland's residents labor diligently to maintain their families, their investments, and their neighborhood, and to further their achievements.

Having established Groveland as a middle-class neighborhood using contemporary standards, reviewing the history of stratification in the black community illustrates the changing axes upon which class standing has been defined. A historical perspective also highlights the recency of a sizable black middle-class cohort, and the processes by which neighborhoods like Groveland were established. Because most African Americans were economically poor until relatively recently, blacks have used changing criteria to make status distinctions. The identity of the black middle class (the who) changes as and when the general position of African Americans changes. Also, the ways in which social scientists have evaluated such changes in the black class structure have in some ways dictated the amount of attention given to various segments of the African American community.


American slavery inhibited the creation of a complete stratification system based on occupation, income, and/or education in the black community. Yet even within the enslaved population, distinctions did emerge that were primarily motivated by the racial hierarchy on which slavery was based. Blacks with lighter skin had particular advantages over their darker kin because of their position in the slave economy. One of the most important divisions was between household or skilled servants and field hands, which confounded "occupation" and skin-tone variation (Frazier 1939). House servants' sustained and close contact with the white upper class allowed for direct experiential knowledge of white lifestyles. These "mulatto" house and skilled slaves, along with a disproportionately mixed-race group of free Negroes, constituted the "old black elite" after emancipation and through Reconstruction (Keith and Herring 1991; Landry 1987). This first black middle class was defined by its phenotypical, spatial, and cultural proximity to the white upper class (Frazier 1939).

The situation changed with the northward migration and urbanization of African Americans in the early twentieth century. The First World War halted European immigration and carried away white workers to fight, spurring the Great Migration of southern blacks to northern cities. Northern industrial jobs beckoned blacks from the failing and oppressive rural economy of the South. Taking an expanded chronological view of the migration, six and a half million southern African Americans migrated northward between 1910 and 1970, altering the spatial configuration of race relations in the North (Farley and Allen 1987; Lemann 1991). Whereas there had been a relatively high degree of residential integration of blacks and whites prior to the flood of black migrants to the North, with the migration, whites began to leave integrated neighborhoods. The physical color line hardened. By 1920, former patterns of residential racial integration had all but disappeared in northern urban centers, creating all-black ghettos, which subsequently required a different kind of black middle class (Drake and Cayton [1945] 1993; Du Bois [1899] 1996; Kusmer 1976; Osofsky 1965; Spear 1967; Trotter 1985).

Aside from a small black intelligentsia, the old black elite earned its living through service to whites. Its status was imperiled, however, as whites moved farther away from black settlements, and increasing European immigration after World War I created a pool of white ethnic competition to black services. The old black elite also exhibited an air of superiority over "common" blacks. As a result, the old black elite did not take advantage of new opportunities that the black ghetto produced—namely, service to the black masses. The new racial ghetto formed the foundation upon which a new black middle class could flourish, one composed of "ghetto entrepreneurs" (Landry 1987). While the African American class structure still did not represent the full diversity of occupations, the "institutional ghetto" (Spear 1967) provided a captive clientele for African American entrepreneurs and professionals. Socioeconomic characteristics became more important indicators of class status. The importance of subjective indices such as skin color and occupational and social association with whites did not disappear, but did subside.

During this time between the two world wars, the black middle class comprised three major segments—small capitalists, professionals, and clerical and sales workers (Landry 1987). Black enterprises were clustered in local personal services—barbershops and beauty shops, cleaners, restaurants, grocery stores, and tailors. Black doctors, dentists, and especially lawyers were restricted to working in the black community. Even though their incomes placed them atop the black class hierarchy, the impact of racial segregation on their incomes was still severe. In the 1920s, a black doctor's income averaged $2,500 per year, while white doctors averaged over $8,500 (Landry 1987). Black clerical and sales workers made the least progress of all during this period. In the South, the prospect of blacks selling to and interacting with a white clientele went against the racial moral order. In the North, there were more opportunities for such service, but among Cleveland's working women in the 1930s, for example, only 3 percent of black females were in clerical or sales positions, compared to almost half of native white females, and 20 percent of foreign-born white women (Landry 1987; also see Cunningham and Zalokar 1992). Clearly, the black middle class continued to differ substantially from the white middle class in that it was anchored by professionals and business people, whereas the white middle class had a sizable contingent of (especially female) clerical and sales workers. In addition to compositional differences in the middle-class populations, the proportion of blacks who were middle class did not top 10 percent until 1960, whereas the white middle class constituted more than 20 percent of the total white population as early as 1910 (Landry 1987).

The unprecedented economic growth and prosperity after World War II, along with the social and political pressures of the civil rights movement, greatly expanded the black middle class in the 1950s and 1960s. The black class structure began to resemble the white class structure, with greater occupational diversity. Between 1960 and 1970, the percentage of black women in clerical jobs more than doubled (Landry 1987). Black women left domestic service jobs in which they had been trapped since slavery. In 1940, nearly 60 percent of employed black women were domestics. That figure declined to 6 percent by 1980 (Cunningham and Zalokar 1992). Between 1940 and 1970, black male professionals and technical workers went from 2 percent to 7 percent of employed black males; black proprietors, managers, and officials increased from 1 percent to 3 percent; and clerical and sales workers from 2 percent to 10 percent of all employed black men (Wilson 1978). The period from 1945 to the early 1970s was extraordinary in terms of opening opportunities for African Americans. Predominantly white educational institutions were admitting black students in large numbers, businesses were recruiting at black colleges, and unions yielded to the pressure of their formerly excluded black coworkers.

The growth of the black middle class piqued the interest of social scientists. In the mid-1950s, sociologist E. Franklin Frazier (1957) incited debate with his unfavorable account of the social life and individual psychology of the black middle class. One of Frazier's students, Nathan Hare (1965), repeated Frazier's opinions in the mid-1960s. Both Frazier and Hare argued that the black middle class imitated the white upper class. Because of this foolish imitation, along with the rejection of and disdain for black folk culture, Frazier (1957, 98) claimed that members of the black middle class "live in a cultural vacuum and their lives are devoted largely to fatuities."

This thesis of a soulless, apathetic, and frivolous black middle class was put forth just at the time when African Americans were launching the fight for civil rights, and as more African Americans from working-class and poor backgrounds were moving up the class ladder. While some of these descriptions may have characterized a segment of the old black elite, they were less applicable to the black middle class of the postwar period. Subsequent studies that looked specifically at the social and cultural life of middle-class African Americans found that while they did stress the importance of owning a home, and involvement in insular, family-centered activities, civic and church involvements were also central to black middle-class identity (Barnes 1985; Bell 1983; Kronus 1971; Sampson and Milam 1975). Upwardly mobile African Americans displayed a commitment to improving the situation of the black poor, and to civil rights more generally. In direct challenge to Frazier's contentions, William Sampson and Vera Milam (1975, 164) wrote that "middle-class blacks are conscious of their blackness, seem to feel an obligation to the race due to their more 'privileged' position, and express a strong sense of group solidarity."

A study of a black middle-class Chicago neighborhood not too far from Groveland was also an explicit test of Frazier's propositions (Kronus 1971). There were not the patterns of frivolous partying, card playing, and conspicuous consumption that Frazier recorded. Politically (a sphere Frazier thought nonexistent for middle-class blacks), the study's author considered 60 percent of the neighborhood residents that he interviewed to be "militant." That is, they responded affirmatively to the following assertion: "In seeking to end racial discrimination, Negro Americans need to stop talking so much and start more economic boycotts and other direct action." During this period of sweeping changes, there were continued ties between the black poor and the black middle class, despite the latter's new homes in nearby neighborhoods. Being middle class did not annul the fact of being black.


Excerpted from Black Picket Fences by Mary Pattillo. Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Meet the Author

Mary Pattillo is the Harold Washington Professor of Sociology and African American studies at Northwestern University. She is the author of Black on the Block: The Politics of Race and Class in the City, also published by the University of Chicago Press, and coeditor of Imprisoning America: The Social Effects of Mass Incarceration.

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