As Karyn R. Lacy's innovative work in the suburbs of Washington, DC, reveals, there is a continuum of middle-classness among blacks, ranging from lower-middle class to middle-middle class to upper-middle class. Focusing on the latter two, Lacy explores an increasingly important social and demographic group: middle-class blacks who live in middle-class suburbs where poor blacks are not present. These "blue-chip black" suburbanites earn well over fifty thousand dollars annually and work in predominantly white professional environments. Lacy examines the complicated sense of identity that individuals in these groups craft to manage their interactions with lower-class blacks, middle-class whites, and other middle-class blacks as they seek to reap the benefits of their middle-class status.
About the Author
Karyn Lacy is Assistant Professor of Sociology and the Center for Afro-American and African Studies at the University of Michigan, a Ford Fellow, and was a Visiting Scholar at the Russell Sage Foundation.
Read an Excerpt
Blue-Chip BlackRace, Class, and Status in the New Black Middle Class
By Karyn Lacy
University of California PressCopyright © 2007 The Regents of the University of California
All right reserved.
IntroductionThey're trying to be like the whites instead of being who they are," Andrea Creighton, a forty-three-year-old information analyst with the federal government, told me when I asked whether she believed blacks had made it in the United States or still had a long way to go. Andrea is black, and she perceives irrepressible distinctions between middleclass blacks and whites, even though many aspects of her life appear to reflect membership in the suburban middle-class mainstream. She and her husband, Greg, have two teenage children: a girl, age seventeen, and a boy, age fifteen. They have lived on a quiet street in Sherwood Park, an upper-middle-class suburb of Washington, D.C., for seven years. Their four-bedroom home is an imposing red-brick-front colonial with shiny black shutters, nestled on an acre of neatly manicured lawn. The children are active members of the local soccer team, and Greg is one of the team's coaches. Andrea and her husband each drive midsize cars and have provided their daughter, who is old enough to drive unaccompanied by an adult, with her own car. At first blush, they seem nearly identical to their white middle-classcounterparts. But unlike the nearly all-white neighborhood that the average middle-class white family calls home, the Creightons' upscale subdivision is predominantly black. Andrea and Greg are pleased that their children are growing up in a community filled with black professionals. The Creightons' residence in Sherwood Park is one indication of the kind of social differentiation Andrea employs to define her identity as a member of the black middle class. Though she shares many lifestyle characteristics with mainstream whites, she feels that middle-class blacks are not mirror images of middle-class whites, nor should they aspire to be.
Middle-class, distinctly black suburban communities like Andrea's are rare in the United States, but Andrea's inclination to define middle-class blacks in relation to their white middle-class counterparts is not. Middleclass black and white families are assumed to be different, and an established body of evidence supports this perception, suggesting that racial disparities in key indicators of middle-class status-wealth, housing, and income-perpetuate glaring inequities between blacks and whites, even when the individuals occupy the same class. But peering into Andrea's world reveals that some aspects of everyday life are similar for all middle-class people, regardless of race. That is, some middle-class blacks live in highly desirable neighborhoods, others have enrolled their children in exclusive private schools, still others work in predominantly white professional environments, and some have never had to endure economic hardship. The pool of class-based resources available to Andrea's family and others like hers suggest that there are two distinct groups of middle-class blacks in American society: the fragile black lower-middle class, a group that falls behind the white middle class on key measures of middle-class status; and the stable black middle class, a group that is virtually indistinguishable from its white counterpart on most standard economic indicators.
Lower-middle-class blacks, the focus of most contemporary sociological studies on the black middle class, have very little in common with the white middle class. As a group, they typically earn less than fifty thousand dollars annually, do not hold college degrees, and are concentrated in sales or clerical positions rather than white-collar occupations. In this way, the black lower-middle class resembles the "blue-collar middle class" that emerged in Detroit as a direct result of the tremendous expansion of the auto industry. Moreover, as recent ethnographies show, lower-middle-class blacks often live in racially segregated neighborhoods that are either inclusive of the black poor or contiguous with chronically poor black neighborhoods. Within these distressed black communities, lower-middle-class blacks typically live with high crime rates, poor municipal services, and underperforming schools. For these reasons, sociologist Mary Pattillo understandably characterizes the black lower-middle class in her book Black Picket Fences as separate from and unequal to the white middle class.
Without a doubt, the black middle class is bottom-heavy, and lower-middle-class blacks concentrated at the bottom of this class structure may find themselves clinging by a frayed thread to a fledgling middle-class status. As the data in table 1 show, in 2000, lower-middle class blacks (those who earned between $30,000 and $49,999 annually) made up the majority (65 percent) of the black middle class. At the same time, a completely different group of middle-class blacks exists, one whose socioeconomic circumstances more closely resemble the white middle class. Members of this second group of middle-class blacks work as doctors, lawyers, accountants, engineers, and corporate managers, occupations that require at least a bachelor's degree. These blacks, who earned more than $50,000 annually, made up 35 percent of the black middle class in 2000, and they are the focus of this book. In terms of sheer numbers, this group, composed of high-earning middle-class blacks, mirrors its white counterpart in the same income category, which constituted 47 percent of the white middle class in 2000.
Middle-class blacks at the top of the black class structure do not experience a middle-class lifestyle in the same way that those at the bottom do. The middle-class black subdivisions in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., that I studied do not contain poor residents, nor do these communities suffer from the relentless social and economic maladies that plague poor communities. In terms of occupational status, educational attainment, income, and housing, the top segment of the black middle class is equal to the white middle class. The key distinction between the white and black middle classes is thus a matter of degree. Middle-class whites fit the public image of the middle class and may therefore take their middle-class status for granted, but blacks who have "made it" must work harder, more deliberately, and more consistently to make their middle-class status known to others.
This book explores how different groups of middle-class blacks go about doing this work of fitting in by examining the symbolic boundaries they erect between themselves and white strangers, the white middle class, and blacks from other classes to establish and sustain a black middle-class identity. The book addresses the following questions: What distinct identities are constructed and maintained by the black middle class? How do different groups of middle-class blacks vary in their use of these identities? In terms of their access to cultural and economic resources, are middle and upper-class blacks more like their white counterparts than they are like lower-class blacks?
To understand the different types of social identity that middle-class blacks construct and how they vary among individuals and across contexts, I conducted in-depth interviews with thirty black middle-class couples and complemented these interviews with participant observation in three different middle-class suburban communities. I spent time doing the things that residents of these communities do in their everyday lives: attending church, Parent-Teacher Association meetings, homeowner association meetings, block parties, and political meetings. The first community, Lakeview, is a majority-white middle-class suburban tract in predominantly white Fairfax County, Virginia. In 1990, Lakeview was 4 percent black, 31 percent of its residents were professionals, 44 percent had bachelor's or more advanced degrees, the median family income was $78,907, and the median monthly mortgage payment was $1,242. The second community, Riverton, is a predominantly black suburban tract in mostly black Prince George's County, Maryland. In 1990, Riverton was 65 percent black, 21 percent of its residents were professionals, 23 percent had bachelor's or more advanced degrees, the median family income was $66,144, and the median monthly mortgage payment was $1,212. The third community, Sherwood Park, is a majority-black upper-middle-class suburban community located within Riverton. This exclusive ten-year-old subdivision is 85 percent black, 90 percent of its residents are college-educated professionals, the median family income is $117,000, and the median monthly mortgage payment is $2,128. The mean individual income for the entire sample is $72,000. Riverton respondents separate Sherwood Park from the other Riverton subdivisions; therefore, I report my findings in the context of three suburban communities rather than two.
Most of Blue-Chip Black focuses on differences by residential location in how middle-class blacks think about and make use of their social identities. Whereas middle-class blacks from all three suburban communities characterize their encounters with white strangers in public settings and their strategies for managing these interactions similarly, in other contexts their conceptions of what it means to be black and middle class vary widely, from perceptions of economic stability, to the optimal way to prepare black children to traverse the color line, to attitudes about the collective interests of their respective communities.
STUDYING SOCIAL IDENTITIES IN BLACK COMMUNITIES
In recent years, scholars have published a number of informative community-based studies that examine the life experiences of the black middle class, marking the end of a long period of inattention to this group. However, this is the first study to focus specifically on the set of distinct identities that different groups of middle-class blacks construct and use in their everyday lives in both the public sphere and their suburban communities. Scholars who have conducted ethnographic studies of black communities have done a great deal to fill enormous gaps in our understanding of how middle-class blacks conceive of their place in American society since Frazier's scathing indictment of the group in the 1957 classic Black Bourgeoisie and Bart Landry's notable study of the growth and culture of the black middle class published in 1987. The ethnographers Stephen Gregory, Mary Pattillo, John Jackson, Monique Taylor, and Bruce Haynes have all focused attention on the complex ways in which middle-class blacks manage their lives in black neighborhoods. However, their studies present the black middle class as if the group is undifferentiated, that is to say, composed of people who think similarly about their place in American society relative to other groups above and below them on the class ladder.
One limitation of these existing ethnographic studies of the black middle class is that each focuses on a single black community, one that is not uniformly middle class but inclusive of the black working class and, in some cases, the black poor. These case studies are mainly concerned with how a distressed black community context shapes the lives of its middle-class residents. As the studies demonstrate, because their samples of middle-class blacks share community space with lower-class blacks, the middle-class population define their identities primarily in relation to the black lower classes. But a single-site research design does not shed light on how the identities constructed by different groups of middle-class blacks vary according to the specificities of their distinct community context. The present study's multi-site design contrasts three suburban communities that vary in terms of their racial and class composition. Indeed, by focusing on three middle-class communities where poor blacks are not present, I show that difference in residence has a significant effect on how middle-class blacks perceive themselves and others. This methodological contribution sets Blue-Chip Black apart from existing studies of the black middle class.
A second limitation of recent ethnographic studies of the black middle class is that not a single work focuses on a southern community. This is surprising given the growing economic and social importance of the South. Demographers note that "an unusually robust economy" in the Southeast accounts for a significant chunk of the country's economic growth during the 1990s. Industries such as manufacturing that experienced declines in the United States overall grew and in some cases expanded in the Southeast. Other industries that grew slowly in the United States overall, such as services, expanded rapidly in the Southeast. Strong economic growth in the region has contributed to a return migration already in progress. Both the white and black populations are increasing in the South. The promise of steady employment has also lured Latino immigrants to the South in large numbers. Mary Waters and Tomas Jimenez refer to southern cities in states such as North Carolina and Georgia (in which the immigrant population has grown by 273.7 percent and 233.4 percent respectively) as "gateway cities," new ports of first-time entry for immigrants. Defined for so long by the black-white boundary, the Southeast is well on its way to becoming one of the most multiracial regions of the country. Through its attention to the impact of a southern black community context on identity, this study provides a point of comparison for existing studies of northern black communities and contributes to the growing dialogue on the increasing importance of the South.
A third limitation of studies focused on the black middle class is that they fail to address variations among middle-class black parents in terms of how they socialize their children. Scholars have not paid sufficient attention to variations among middle-class black parents, who are concerned not only with negotiating their own social identities but also with nurturing a black middle class identity among their children. The ways in which parents accomplish this goal are conspicuously absent from the sociological literature. In their revealing glimpses into the lives of lower-middle-class and poor blacks, Mary Pattillo and Elijah Anderson document the grave concerns of black parents who face formidable obstacles in their efforts to raise upstanding citizens. Yet the parents' escalating fears are specific to the demands of their distressed urban neighborhoods; they do not reflect the concerns of more privileged, suburban, middle-class blacks.
Annette Lareau's sensitively rendered ethnographic exploration of how black and white parents from different class locations communicate class position to their children makes abundantly clear the hidden processes through which black children acquire a middle-class identity; however, her study does not reveal significant differences in parenting ideologies across race. Lareau finds that black and white middle-class parents adopt the same type of cultural logic as a framework for raising their children. She writes of an upper-middle-class black child in her sample:
The fact that Alexander is a young African American male also shaped various aspects of his life in important ways. He belonged to an all-Black church, and he had regular opportunities to form friendships with other Black children. His parents carefully scrutinized his social environment, always seeking, as [his mother] said, to keep him in the company of individuals who were also "cultured." ... [His parents] were well aware of the potential for Alexander to be exposed to racial injustice, and they went to great lengths to protect their son from racial insults and other forms of discrimination. Nevertheless, race did not appear to shape the dominant cultural logic of child rearing in Alexander's family or in other families in the study.
Because Lareau did not set out to investigate attitudes about racial identity or racial socialization (she was interested instead in the transmission and reproduction of class), it would be useful to explore whether a different sample of middle-class blacks shows patterns of class socialization that are racially coded.
These rich ethnographic studies depict the considerable challenges parents face while raising children, yet they fail to capture how much work it is for middle-class black parents to help their children remember that they are black, even as they seek to provide them with the advantages they would receive if they were white and middle-class. Researchers have not looked enough at the ways that mothers and fathers help to construct a black middle-class identity through deliberate work. This study explores parents' efforts and demonstrates that different groups of middle-class blacks may conceive of this process in different ways.
UNDERSTANDING BLACK IDENTITIES
Three theoretical concepts are central to understanding how middle-class blacks think about their identities: boundary-work, the tool kit model, and construction sites. Each of these concepts helps us to work through the confusion and conflict around the notions of "making it" and "being black."
Excerpted from Blue-Chip Black by Karyn Lacy Copyright © 2007 by The Regents of the University of California. 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.
Table of Contents
List of IllustrationsPrefaceAcknowledgments
Introduction1. Defining the Post-
Integration Black Middle Classes2. Social Organization in Washington’s Suburbia3. Public Identities: Managing Race in Public Spaces4. Status-Based Identities: Protecting and Reproducing Middle-Class Status5. Race- and Class-Based Identities: Strategic Assimilation in Middle-Class Suburbia6. Suburban Identities: Building Alliances with NeighborsConclusionAppendix: A Recipe for Studying the Black Middle ClassNotesReferences
What People are Saying About This
"An important contribution to research on the black middle-class. . . . Rigorous analysis of black middle-class suburban identity."Journal of Sociology
"Offers a tremendously important contribution to scholarship on contemporary Black life and social class issues in America."Journal of Marriage & Family