(Administrator's Note: The following piece was written by SSL Guest Contributor Steven Brown, an incoming graduate student in Harvard's department of sociology. He can be reached at email@example.com)
After the passage of the Civil Rights Act in the mid-60s, large numbers of African-Americans began working for manufacturers like GM and Ford – jobs that did not require college education, but still paid strong living wages. Because of these companies, with their ever-growing workforce and strong unions, the black middle class of the day grew rapidly.
But now, forty years later, that same demographic segment is struggling, according to a piece published in the New York Times magazine in late June – "G.M., Detroit, and the Fall of the Black Middle Class". The article follows one man facing potential layoffs from a G.M. plant closing, highlighting him as representative of the large black middle class supported by Detroit car manufacturers. Marvin Powell is almost 40, married with two kids, with a mortgage, and making about $50,000 a year. He started working for G.M. at age 26, a few years after dropping out of college.
Two things strike me about this article. The first is the claim that Mr. Powell and others like him are middle class, and the second is the argument that the faltering auto industry is causing the black middle class to suffer. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that black auto workers were not at the forefront of upwardly mobile African-Americans. What I am saying is that what defined middle class a generation ago doesn’t hold up so well now.
Back then, earning a living wage and being able to mortgage a home of your own was a pretty reliable way of measuring middle class. Nowadays, being part of the middle class seems to be more about education and occupational prestige than about income. (Think about popular notions of white-collar vs. blue-collar.) Keeping in mind those who discuss the importance of wealth, being middle class today seems more about creating opportunities and weathering storms than about how much you take home every month. Just last year, then-Senator Obama was getting large amounts of press over his inability to court the “white, working-class voter.” A Pew Report described “white, working-class” as those without college degrees, making under $50,000 a year, and were often popularized in the media as living as union-members living and working in the Rust Belt and Texas. In other words, if Marvin Powell were white, he’d be working class. But since he’s black, he’s middle class.
To show my hand, I’ve long suspected the idea that there were different popular and empirical standards for what constitutes a “black” versus a “white” or mainstream middle class. There are indeed grounds for differentiation, like the fact that blacks were only very recently integrated into the middle rungs of the American workforce in any meaningful way. Also, the median household income for blacks in 2000 was only $29,530, compared to a national median of $46,000. By that standard, the auto worker’s salary looks quite substantial. But this differentiation is problematic. Different race-based standards under the umbrella of “middle class” obscure the distance between relatively well off blacks and non-blacks. To use a crude metaphor, if most of the people in your neighborhood are 5 feet tall, just because you’re 5’6”doesn’t mean that you’re actually tall. You’re not that short, but you’re not that tall either.
I mentioned earlier that a generation ago, being a unionized auto-worker would make you middle class, but not anymore. What changed? The explosion of the service economy (along with service economy wages) that required more sophisticated skills and higher levels of education is one reason. The simultaneous fall of manufacturing during the 70s and 80s is another. Think about how difficult it would be to transition to a non-industrial job after 20-years on a factory floor without a bachelor’s degree or technical certificate – a hard task made harder if you happen to be a black man looking for a job.
In addition to employment trends, social scientists developed more sophisicated ways of understanding class mobilty and security, putting more emphasis on education and considering wealth and assets, “last hired, first fired,” and continued job discrimination (not to mention numerous residence-based issues). A revisionist take by today’s methods of measuring class could show that black auto workers were never securely middle class. My guess is that black workers were disproportionately hit when foreign competition ate into the market share and caused layoffs. I would also assume that black workers would have a harder time moving if one plant closed in Flint and another opened in Mississippi.
Furthermore, the “cost” of being middle-class has also risen substantially. The cost of owning and buying a home, the cost of re-locating for work (as many in the service sector do), and the costs of sending children to school have all gone up quite a bit. And then there are the issues that affect the black middle class disproportionately, like owning homes in areas where values rise slowly, if not eventually decline.
My argument is not that the current failures of the auto industry are causing “the fall” of better-off black folks, but that the grounds have been shifting underneath their feet for decades. This segment of the black middle class has been falling for years, first out of the middle class, and now possibly and tragically out of their way of life.