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.
About the Author
Mary Pattillo-McCoy is an assistant professor of sociology and African American studies and a faculty fellow at the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.
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Black Picket FencesPrivilege and Peril Among the Black Middle Class
By Mary Pattillo-McCoy
University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2000 Mary Pattillo-McCoy
All right reserved.
IntroductionThe 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 black middle-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 neighborhood."
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 face.
I focus on youth for two reasons. The first is pragmatic.
Excerpted from Black Picket Fences by Mary Pattillo-McCoy Copyright © 2000 by Mary Pattillo-McCoy.
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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
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Even though this book focuses on one area within a city, it is still very interesting to see a portrayal of the black middle class.