The Mirage of the Black Middle ClassBreaking News
tags: African American history, housing discrimination, wealth gap, Black middle class
Among Dee’s friends, talking about money is considered impolite. But that’s not really what stops her. “Most of my peers are white,” she says, “and I get very angry about the systemic inequality evident in our situations, and their seeming obliviousness to it.”
Dee’s family has been middle-class and college-educated going back three generations, “since Black people reasonably could be,” she says. Her maternal grandparents were the children of sharecroppers in the South, migrated north as adults, got graduate degrees, and, unlike millions of Black Americans who were unable to secure mortgages at the time due to racist housing covenants and lending practices, bought a home.
Homeownership was, and remains, the beating heart of wealth accumulation for the American middle class. Our society privileges homeowners in everything from the tax code to the availability of home equity lines to membership requirements for neighborhood associations. You buy a place, that place grows in value, and either you trade up to a bigger place or you keep it until you can pass it down to your kids or your kids get the money from its sale. Stability gives birth to even more stability.
That’s not what happened with Dee’s family. “My grandparents were bludgeoned every time the economy took a downturn,” Dee recalls, in part because of the legacy of redlining and the devaluation of property in Black neighborhoods. “They ended up losing their house. They had enough to live on, but no wealth.” The same happened to her parents. She says they were “destroyed” by the 2008 housing crisis, which disproportionately affected Black homeowners, many of whom, because of longstanding discriminatory lending practices, believed subprime mortgages were the best financing option available to them. Dee’s grandparents managed to make ends meet, but their retirement savings were drastically diminished, and they’ll eventually require some subsidization from Dee.
But Dee, 41, has been struggling for years to find something approximating financial security in her own life. She lives in the Hudson Valley, north of New York City, with her partner and two kids. She and her partner make around $200,000 a year. At more than three times the national median household income, this sounds like a big number, but every month, they found their resources depleted. Before the pandemic, they were allocating most of their money toward their mortgage, child care, and student loans. They’d been putting money into their kids’ 529 college savings accounts, but otherwise the focus has been on credit card and student loan debt, which they’ve just started to be able to actually pay off. These days, they’re no longer paying expensive child care bills, but there’s a real threat that Dee’s partner’s job could disappear at any moment, at which point they would immediately start drowning in debt.
Dee describes herself as frustrated and so very, very angry. “Having everything ‘right’ and still living with precarity, literally living paycheck to paycheck, is deeply upsetting,” she says. Which is why her extra income is going toward her kids’ college savings: to prevent them starting their lives already behind, the way she feels she did. The hole Dee dug in search of middle-class stability for her family is so deep that she’d realistically need to double, even triple her income to pull herself out and have enough to stabilize her parents as well.
She doesn’t have a ton of hope that will happen. “I live in America,” she says. “There is no support for middle-class families, and there is no targeted support for those who have suffered from systemic racism. It’s getting harder and harder to maintain a middle-class life.”
Dee’s story is illustrative of just how different the hollowing of the middle class can feel, depending on your race and family history. Unlike many white middle-class Americans who find themselves bewildered by the prospect of going financially backward from their parents, Dee watched as her family’s best-laid plans for a steady, middle-class future were foiled, again and again, by economic catastrophes in which losses were disproportionately absorbed by Black Americans.
As economists William Darity Jr., Fenaba Addo, and Imari Smith recently explained, “for Black Americans, the issue may not be restoring its middle class, but constructing a robust middle class in the first place.” For families like Dee’s, the stability of the middle class has always been a mirage. And you can’t hollow out what’s never actually existed.