When public discourse turns to the plight of the middle class, white faces are typically the exemplars. In contrast, when the talk is about social pathologies — at least until the discovery of an opioid crisis — black and brown faces have typically illustrated the problem.
But what about the black middle class, those folks who are not exceptional like Barack Obama or Oprah or the latest most wanted criminal?
“The perception is there is no middle for us,” Karla Swinton, a marketing manager from Prince George’s County says in a documentary film now making the rounds. “I think the ones in the middle get dismissed or are not even thought about.”
How absolutely empowering would it be if blacks who have even tentatively made it into the middle class joined forces to help others navigate myriad barriers that keep them in the servant class? And how revolutionary would it be to redefine “middle class” so that those who embrace that category — no matter what their race or ethnicity or religion or sexual identity — forge alliances to promote their class interests?
These are questions one can come away with after viewing “Against All Odds: The Fight for a Black Middle Class,” a documentary whose producer, writer and narrator is the veteran journalist Bob Herbert.
“The United States views a strong middle class not just as an ideal but as its proudest creation,” Mr. Herbert says in the film’s opening. “But the black middle class is not and never has been the same as the white middle class. Whites talk about working hard and playing by the rules, but blacks have always had to play by a different, hateful set of hideously unfair rules. Working hard has never been enough for black Americans to flourish.”
Forces have colluded from time immemorial to bring us here — whether we are the poorest of the poor or part of a fragile middle class with much less wealth to draw upon than our white counterparts.
Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, a policy consultant and Maryland gubernatorial candidate, notes: “Eighty percent of African Americans have a net worth below the median net worth of white Americans, meaning that fundamentally the notion of economic stability that ‘middle class’ connotes is still something that African Americans are still striving towards. About a third of African Americans have no assets.” She and her husband, Rep. Elijah Cummings, are featured prominently in the film and cohosted a screening and discussion at the Parkway Theater on Sunday night.
The film is not a 75-minute woe-is-me tale but one that helps to place in context the lives of those who are at least on the verge of making it, but who know that the fields and the factories and the fast-food joints may be a short stumble away. It is against all odds that I am here, a university professor, a journalist, living fairly comfortably in Baltimore. A good portion of my Georgia childhood was in raggedy houses without indoor plumbing. Educational opportunities were my path of escape. The same was true for the congressman, the son of South Carolina sharecroppers who migrated to Baltimore. When his father saw him sworn in as a member of Congress in 1996, the elder Mr. Cummings later explained that he wept because he was thinking of what could have been — for him and for others — had racial barriers not been what they were when he was in the prime of life.
Largely because of so many barriers, our middle class is not eager to embrace the notion of limited government that politicians sell to the white middle class. As Mr. Herbert observes, “With so much bias in the private sector, there wouldn’t be much of a black middle class at all without government employment.”
Blacks, originally Republicans when the GOP was the party of Abraham Lincoln if they lived in places where voting was permitted, became Democrats when Franklin Roosevelt promised a New Deal. But the sentimental journey is running out of steam. The party that’s rolled over for Donald Trump seems perfectly fine with an American form of ethnic cleansing. The party that was fronted by Barack Obama is feckless.
So the time is ripe for reimagining a middle class and its political clout. Gatherings like the one at the Parkway or even in our living rooms and community centers, where people across the middle class spectrum view the film, share stories and float solutions, would be a fine starting point.
E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary, is the journalist in residence at Morgan State University's School of Global Journalism and Communication. Her column runs every other Wednesday. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.