Black Middle Class

Updated About content Print Article Share Article
views updated

Black Middle Class




In the United States, where blacks have comprised a sizable minority in relation to a white majority, and in South Africa, where blacks have comprised a considerable majority in relation to a white minority, the growth of a black middle class has been regarded as an important benchmark for blacks social and economic standing. A growing black middle class would seem, at least, to indicate improving social mobility, greater affluence, and expanded life chances for blacks.

In fact, the social science literature suggests that middle-class status, with all that it promises, is precarious for those blacks who have achieved it, and still out of reach for many others. As members of a minority group, middle-class blacks face historical and persistent marginalization, discrimination, and racism; consequently, their experience differs from that of the white middle class. Scholars have struggled to decide who among minority black populations should actually be considered middle class. Nevertheless, studies dedicated to defining and describing the black middle class confirm that inequities persist between blacks and whites in the United States and South Africa, as well as between middle-class blacks and poor blacks, despite the dismantling of legal structures that discriminate against blacks.


Prior to the civil rights movement in the United States, a small black elite emerged that often was defined by skin colorthat is, lighter-skinned blacks had greater opportunities for social advancement than darker-skinned blacks. This elite has been called the black bourgeoisie (the title of a controversial book by E. F. Frazier) and the old black middle class (a term used by the academic Bart Landry). It was associated with the educated strata of the black population, which W. E. B. Du Bois hoped would produce a talented tenth to serve as intellectual leaders for American blacks. Members of this group typically engaged in professional services to the black community, holding occupations such as teacher, social worker, pastor, mortician, and, occasionally, doctor or lawyer, as well as business owner. The success of these business owners was contingent in part on the existence of a market protected by segregation. Because they were excluded from working with or for whites, this old black middle class relied on the limited resources of black patrons and enjoyed only limited social mobility.

The civil rights era gave rise to a new black middle class. Some scholars have traced the origins of the black middle class to an earlier period, when restrictions on immigration (especially the Immigration Act of 1924) were introduced after World War I (19141918). These restrictions created opportunities for black workers to move in great numbers from the agricultural economy of the South to the industrial economy of the North. However, the scholarly literature generally attributes the growth of the black middle class chiefly to increased economic prosperity following World War II (19391945); to improved job opportunities for blacks after civil rights, especially in the public sector; and to the expanding economy of the 1960s.

Defining the Black Middle Class Scholars have struggled to define the black middle class. The most commonly employed criteria for membership have been income, education, occupation, and wealth. These measures are used either in combination or independently. The difficulty with using these measures to define the black middle class is that pronounced disparities between blacks and whites exist for all these variables. A black middle class defined by the middle range of black incomes, for instance, is not comparable to a white middle class defined by the middle range of white incomes. The 2000 U.S. census reported that whereas half of all black households have incomes of $29,423 or more (based on 1999 dollars), the corresponding figure for white households is $44,687, a difference of more than $15,000. In addition, scholars have disagreed about which occupations should be defined as middle class; opinions range from a strictly white-collar criterion to a less restrictive one that includes protective services, skilled craftsmen, and clerical and sales workers. Furthermore, discrimination in the workplace prevents occupational prestige from being a reliable marker of blacks social positions, especially the social position of middle-class blacks. Several scholars have proposed that lifestyle, values, and behaviors are much more meaningful measures of black middle-class experience than income, education, occupation, and wealth. Other social scientists have questioned whether it is appropriate to classify blacks as members of the middle class at all, given the pronounced disparities between the black and white middle classes, as well as broader problems with defining class.

Describing Black Middle-Class Experience An extensive literature characterizes the black middle class in terms of the inequities that middle-class blacks experience in relation to middle-class whites. These inequities include unequal residential patterns, occupational profiles, wages and wealth, and family structures. Middle-class blacks live in less socioeconomically attractive neighborhoods, close to the black poor; this phenomenon, dubbed racial residential segregation, may prevent social mobility. Middle-class blacks work disproportionately in the public sector, especially in city, state, and federal government. Of blacks who work in the private sector, the majority are pigeonholed into positions where they interact chiefly with black patrons.

Although middle-class blacks have moved increasingly into white-collar occupations, they have not received wages comparable to their white counterparts: In the closing decades of the twentieth century, blacks made 70 percent of what their white counterparts made. One consequence of this disparity in wages is that blacks receive less of a financial return on their personal investments in education than do whites. One study found that the black/white disparity is even more pronounced for men with more education (Tomaskovic-Devey, Thomas, and Johnson 2005). The black/white disparity is evident when comparing not only wages (income) but also wealth (assets). Home ownership is a primary means for individuals to establish and maintain their wealth status, but black home ownership lags behind white home ownership. In 2000, 46 percent of blacks and 71 percent of whites were homeowners. A few years earlier, a study reported that blacks had only 15 percent of the wealth that their white counterparts had. Thus, although the cohort whom scholars call the black middle class has grown historically, members of that cohort remain at a disadvantage compared to their white counterparts.

Related to labor and wealth are three characteristics of the black middle-class family structure that make that middle-class status precarious. First, black wives have to participate in the labor force to secure and maintain middle-class status for their families. Second, wealth disparities relative to whites leave middle-class blacks with fewer assets to bequeath to the next generation. Third, middle-class blacks have an extended family structure that emphasizes their moral obligation and social responsibility to invest assets in the larger black underprivileged community. These factors contribute to continuing economic disadvantages for the black middle class in the United States as compared to the white middle class.


Apartheid had produced a South African black elite that was employed inbut confined toserving a black clientele. Opportunities for social mobility expanded momentously after the end of apartheid in the 1990s. On winning control of government in 1994, the African National Congress (ANC), guided by the National Democratic Revolution theory, set out to foster a black middle class. The ANC pursued this goal by promoting growth and redistribution of wealth and by transforming social institutions and economies through equality employment and Black Economic Empowerment. These developments (which were similar to affirmative action programs in the United States) enabled South African blacks to move into the public sector. While some blacks gravitated to government employment, others obtained degrees and found work in the private sector.

Despite the new opportunities for blacks that opened in the post-apartheid period, scholars have remained concerned about the relatively small size of the black middle class and about growing gaps between the black middle class and the black poor. Although opinions vary as to size of the black middle class, the consensus is that this group is quite small relative to the larger population. Out of a total population of 44 million, the black middle class comprises somewhere between 2.5 to 3.6 million. Black employees in South Africa are highly unionized, a fact that both increases wages and improves work conditions; however, these benefits do not extend to poor unskilled blacks, who are prevented from unionizing and thus have greater difficulty in securing fair wages. As a result, though unionization has decreased inequality between whites and blacks, it has increased inequality between middle-class and poor blacks. South Africa presents the same problem seen in the United States: The black middle class is making modest strides toward parity with the white middle class, whereas a class of impoverished blacks falls further and further behind.

SEE ALSO Acting White; Apartheid; Class; Jim Crow; Middle Class; Racism; Sellouts


Frazier, E. Franklin. 1957. Black Bourgeoisie. New York: Free Press.

Kochhar, Rakesh. 2004. The Wealth of Hispanic Households: 1996 to 2002. Washington, DC: Pew Hispanic Center.

Landry, Bart. 1987. The New Black Middle Class. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Oliver, Melvin L., and Thomas M. Shapiro. 1997. Black Wealth/White Wealth: A New Perspective on Racial Inequality. New York: Routledge.

Pattillo-McCoy, Mary. 1999. Black Picket Fences: Privilege and Peril Among the Black Middle Class. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Seekings, Jeremy, and Nicoli Nattrass. 2005. Class, Race, and Inequality in South Africa. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Southall, Roger. 2004. The ANC and Black Capitalism in South Africa. Review of African Political Economy 31 (June): 313328.

Tomaskovic-Devey, Donald, Melvin Thomas, and Kecia Johnson. 2005. Race and the Accumulation of Human Capital Across the Career: A Theoretical Model and Fixed-Effects Application. American Journal of Sociology 111 (July): 5889.

Kris Marsh