As black middle class rises, underclass falls still further

ATLANTA — ATLANTA -- A recent poll has found that 61 percent of black Americans believe that the values of poor blacks have become "more different" from the values of middle-class blacks in recent years. With the possible exception of Bill O'Reilly - who professed astonishment at the good manners of black patrons at a Harlem restaurant - no one should be surprised at those findings.

There have long been two Americas - both black. One is inhabited by the accomplished, the educated, the pragmatic. The other is the home of the marginalized, the undereducated, the incarcerated.


Perhaps the most noteworthy finding from the poll, conducted by the Pew Research Center in association with National Public Radio, was this: 53 percent of black respondents said that black people who don't get ahead are mainly "responsible for their own condition," while only 30 percent blamed racial discrimination. That shows a substantial consensus among black Americans about the declining significance of racism in American life.

In other words, Bill Cosby isn't the pariah in black America that his critics would have you believe. Quiet as it's kept, his emphasis on academic excellence, standard English and old-fashioned good manners is widely accepted. Those values are the subject of countless parental lectures in black middle-class homes.


The Pew poll doesn't suggest that black Americans believe the nation is suddenly colorblind. An overwhelming majority of black respondents - 67 percent - believe that black job applicants still face discrimination; 65 percent said the same about renting an apartment or buying a house. But they were clear-eyed enough to see that the color line is no longer a high-voltage fence hemming in black achievement.

The success of the civil rights movement enabled millions of black Americans to join the nation's economic, political and cultural mainstream. Condoleezza Rice and Colin L. Powell, Oprah Winfrey and Richard D. Parsons are distinguished by the magnitude of their achievements but not by their values or aspirations. Lots of other black Americans have similar outlooks. They own homes in well-kept neighborhoods. They seek good schools for their children. They worry about crime, taxes and property values. They work hard and frown on welfare dependency.

By contrast, the civil rights movement, which concentrated on removing legal and institutional barriers to black achievement, did not - and could not - benefit an underclass of poor and undereducated black men and women who lack the habits of mind that would propel them toward success. They are more likely to do poorly in school, to work in menial jobs, to live in impoverished neighborhoods, to bear children outside marriage, to end up ensnared by the criminal justice system.

Here's the paradox: As the black middle class has risen to new heights, the black underclass has become more deeply mired in a troubling web of pathologies. While blacks accounted for 34 percent of the nation's prison population in 1950 - when the prejudices of the criminal justice system were much more onerous - black men and women made up 40 percent of prison inmates by 2006, with arrest and incarceration a rite of passage in many poor black neighborhoods.

This research holds out hope for solutions that may not have been possible even a decade ago, when black Americans were more likely to see discrimination as the most substantial barrier to success.

America cannot erase discrimination based on color, not in this lifetime. But we have been moving steadily forward for the past 50 years, and now is no time to stop. Unfortunately, when it comes to people of color, some opportunities are more equal than others, and some children are less equipped to seize those opportunities that do come along. We should attack that imbalance just as our civil rights heroes attacked Jim Crow - with the same intensity and with the same assurance that the cause is just.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is