Breaking the Dichotomy: How being black and wealthy affects parenting and educational choices by Jessica Nelson


The popular TV series “Black-ish” shows the everyday lives of the Johnsons, a modern middle class black family as they navigate their unique position in a majority white suburb. On one episode of the TV show Black-ish, Bow, the mother of the family, spends her time proving her wealth to a white neighbor by driving around the block in an expensive car and making sure the neighbor knows her earrings are real diamonds (Black-ish, 2016). In another episode, the family awkwardly attempts to conceal their affluence after hiring a black nanny who is from a working class background (Black-ish, 2016). The tension between these incidents demonstrates the complicated place that middle class black families hold. On one hand, there is the desire to cement their financial capability to be among white middle class families. On the other, they are forced to confront their place of privilege within the wider black community. While Black-ish provides a humorous overview of the challenges of a black middle class family, scholarly work on the topic is lacking.

The position of black middle class families is often lost when discussing the intersections between race and class; most of the discourse surrounding socioeconomic statuses is based on the dichotomy between rich and poor, suburban and urban, and black and white. White families are aligned with wealthy, middle class suburbs and black families are examined as they exist in working class urban backgrounds. This defined separation between white and black becomes incredibly important when examining education in the United States. Suburbs are studied as places that give white students access to high achieving schools while urban areas are critiqued for their failure to educate working-class minority students. Efforts to solve educational disparities and integrate schools revolve around these principles. School choice programs are created to bring white students and wealth from suburbs into cities or poor black children into nice, suburban schools. Often overlooked when considering these educational policies and trends is the instance of the black middle class. Where does the black middle class lie in a system where educational and child rearing disadvantages are aligned with both race and class? While limited, existing literature on the demographic suggests that there are variations in approached to raising children related to spatial differences within the black middle class.


Development of the Black Middle Class

The black middle class has developed relatively recently. In the mid-twentieth century, black Americans were given an increasing number of opportunities for upward mobilization due to an increase in available education and professional occupations (Durant, 1986). At this time also, during the Civil Rights Movement, there a push to integrate black Americans into mainstream society which provided more options to perceive higher levels of education and a greater variety of jobs (Durant, 1986). Although securing more rights helped the upward mobilization that gave birth to the black middle class, segregation played an important role in allowing black Americans to be successful. Segregation allowed black professionals, such as politicians and doctors to thrive in areas where they would be fully supported by their community, and thus more successful than they would be in integrated environments where they may face radicalized pushback (Lacy, 2007). The twentieth century also saw an overall increase in the number of professional jobs as the economy developed past an industrial and agriculture focus. This further increased the amount of opportunities and the amount of black professionals increased fourfold between 1950 and 1981 (Durant, 1986). Because of the more recent development compared to the white middle class, the black middle class is set in a position of high income and little wealth. As the black middle class began to develop more steadily in the 1980’s, black families began to accumulate wealth, however, white families were already centuries and thousands of dollars ahead (Fletcher, 2015). In modern times, the net median household wealth for a white middle class family was $141,900 in 2013 compared to only $11,000 for a black middle class family (Reeves, 2013). The lack of wealth puts the black middle class as whole in a precarious position where a job loss, natural disaster, or medical emergency can make a family downwardly mobile, and thus, many black middle class families put a large emphasis on ensuring the future success of their children.

Today, the black middle class is typically considered to be the demographic of black Americans who make over $30,000 annually (Lacy, 2007). However, there are variations within this group, and in Blue-Chip Black, Karyn Lacy makes the distinction between upper middle class black families and lower middle class black families. While both of these groups are technically middle class and relatively wealthy compared to working class black families, they differ wildly from each other. These differences can be related to the locational differences of each group. The distinctions seem to be divided between black middle class families who live in working class black neighborhoods, wealthy white suburbs, and wealthy black suburbs. These different living environments affect the way that black parents choose schools for their children as they attempt to propagate their middle class backgrounds into future generations.


The Black Middle Class in Working Class Neighborhoods

Black middle class families as a whole are more likely to live in poor neighborhoods than white middle class families. On average, black middle class families are three times more likely than white middle class families to reside in a neighborhood where a significant number of inhabitants are in a lower socioeconomic class (Pattillo, 2005). In addition to this, black families at any socioeconomic level tend to live in neighborhoods where they are around other black families (Pattillo, 2005). The combination of these two factors leaves a significant amount of black middle class families in poor, segregated, often urban areas.

These neighborhoods present the black middle class families with a host of problems associated with poor, urban locations, even if the family itself is not poor. These problems include gangs, drug usage, and an increased threat of violence (Lacy, 2007). Impoverished urban neighborhoods also have limited funding for public services such as schools, and thus the educational opportunities in these locations are often subpar compared to wealthier suburbs (Darling-Hammond, 2009). These black middle class families are also more likely to be on the lower end up middle income and less likely to own their own homes; only 52% of black middle class families earning between $30,000 and $49,000 own their homes, compared to 70% of white families in the same income bracket (Lacy, 2007).

While Lacy considers these families lower-middle class, much of the existing literature considers them solidly middle class due to the variation in what is considered a blue collar profession. Many black middle class families in this situation have adults who hold positions such as postal workers or sales clerks (Lacy, 2007). While these positions may allow a family to make more than other working class occupations, these members of the black middle class do not have the same income level as the black upper-middle class who is employed in professions such as doctors and lawyers. These kinds of positions, in comparison to professional positions, also often require that parents work for more hours per week or that both parents work instead of just one. In the late 1970s, 69% of black middle class families (defined by occupation) had wives that were employed compared to only 51.6% of white middle class families (Landry, 1978). These black middle class women also remained in their positions for about 20% more of their married lives than white middle class women (Landry, 1978). While these statistics represent the black middle class in a different time period, the literature of today does not fully cover these differences, and the logic holds true that a family making less money would have to work more.

The differing amount of work time creates an imbalance in time available for child involvement between this group and wealthier black middle class families. In Longing and Belonging by Allison Pugh, an upper-middle class black family is able to reach a high enough single parent income where the mother is able to suspend her profession to stay at home with her children (Pugh, 2009). Parents, typically mothers, who are able to stay home for a significant amount of time are able to dedicate more time and energy to their children’s educational experience. For example, parents who have more open time can make a significant difference at their school within their Parent-Teacher Association which provides a number of services that schools are unable to budget for (Anderson, 2007). Thus, the occurrence of two working parents in this subset of black middle class families puts them at a disadvantage in their children’s education because they are not financially able to dedicate large amounts of time to improving their children’s educational experience.

Within schools the proximity to black majority areas with lower socioeconomic backgrounds makes them less likely to have to the cultural and social capital considered necessary for success, even if they themselves may have a higher income than other families in the area. Children living and going to school in these areas are more likely to spend a greater amount of their time around people who do not have college degrees, especially if this black middle class encompasses occupations such as postal clerks (Lewis, 2003). This puts them at a disadvantage when they themselves are looking to pursue a college education, as they have limited guidance through the process and limited knowledge of college life (Lewis, 2003). Families in these backgrounds also form social networks that are limited to similar black lower-middle class or working class families. Social networks partially determine educational, occupational, and housing choices and opportunities, and because these families do not have access to white middle class or black upper-middle class social networks, they are restricted from forming connections that could lead to increased social mobility (Lewis, 2003).

The black middle class families in these situations have little choice in the educational situation of their children, outside of local school choice initiatives. Parents in this background tend to view private school as a privilege their kids do not need to be given (Lacy, 2007). Instead, they uphold a style of parenting that prides the moral value of work, believing that their children should not be given “a silver spoon” (Lacy, 2007). These parents also have financial barriers to consider in the school choice process. Because of their lower income than other black middle class families, they do not have the extra money to spend on private school if they wish to maintain a middle class life style (Lacy, 2007). This leaves parents with little choice outside of any existing choice system within their neighborhood schools, in which these families would face the same the typical difficulties of these systems, such as not being accepted to their desired choice school. Overall, families in this situation appear function in the same way that other black, urban families function, perhaps with a little more spending money. The same difficulties arise within public education, and the same limitations exist in efforts to eliminate these difficulties.


The Black Middle Class in White Suburbs

Another distinct set of black middle class families reside in white suburbs. Most of these suburbs have been entirely white until the arrival of one or two black families. Until the mid-1970s the black middle class was barred from moving into white suburbs due to de facto segregation and racial real estate practices. This maintained all white and all black suburbs until the first black middle class families were able to move into white environments (Lacy, 2007). Since most black families desire to live around other black families, a large factor of the migration to white middle class suburbs is the lack of an existing black middle class enclave near the desired city for these families to move into (Lucy, 2007). Another factor of moving to white neighborhood is the high quality of schools that usually exist there; black middle class families are aware of what counties have successful public schools and choose their homes accordingly (Pugh, 2009). Living in a white middle class environment gives this subset of the black middle class both the benefits that go along with typical wealthy suburbs and this disadvantages of having to deal with underlying racist practices of the wider white community.

White middle class suburbs offer a number of social, cultural, and economic benefits to the Black families living there. Schools in these areas are well funded, have more qualified teachers, and active legions of family volunteers (Darling-Hammond, 2009). Children from black families in white suburbs are also set up for further success because they learn cultural characteristics of the white upper and middle classes, which are typically favored in American society. For example, black middle class families develop social networks with their white middle class neighbors. These social networks lead to further occupation, housing, and educational opportunities (Lewis, 2003). Black students in white suburbs also have experiences associated with white suburban education, such as going on field trips and having project based learning experiences, which are considered optimal learning experiences in American society (Lewis, 2003). Combined with the economic capital that these families already must posses in order to live in these neighborhoods, the added benefits of socialization with white families creates an environment where middle class black children are prepped to thrive in American society.

The mixing of black families into white spaces also raises several issues. Although black families in majority white neighborhoods do not feel outright rejected by their white peers, they are conscious of their racial identity and how they are perceived in the white world. Middle class black families are constantly aware of racial differences whether they are shopping or picking up their kids from little league practices (Lacy, 2007). They feel as though they must present themselves in the right way in order to avoid white reproach and make their middle class status known (Lacy, 2007). The constant awareness of racial differences extends to the school environment. Parents may feel uncomfortable meeting with school administrators or attending schools events where other parents or even teachers harbor racial biases (Lewis, 2003). Black students in majority in majority white schools also face institutionalized racism. Black boys are the recipients of disciplinary action more frequently and more intensely (Lewis, 2003). Black students may also be tracked or steered into lower level courses, despite displaying high levels of intelligence (Lewis, 2003). While parents do not necessarily want their children to experience these issues, they believe that these instances can help prepare students for the “real world” of the United States (Lacy, 2007). Black parents embrace in white neighborhoods embrace the idea that living among white people will prepare their children for dealing with racism and majority white environments in the future (Pugh, 2009).

Black middle class families that live in mostly white environments must also put a large emphasis on the ability to code switch and be familiar with the cultures associated with both largely black and largely white communities (Lacy, 2007). These families want their children to be exposed to other black children both within and outside of their socioeconomic class. While parents chose to send their kids to predominately white schools, they often made sure their activities outside of school were in a black environments (Pugh, 2009). Parents both signed up children in activities where they would be surrounded by mostly lower class black children and sought out other middle class to upper-middle class black families to have dinners and birthday parties with (Pugh, 2009). Parents were also careful when exposing their kids to different environments so that certain behaviors would only appear in certain places. For example, parents would not want their children to speak African-American Vernacular English if they were around mostly white people (Pugh, 2009). Through this careful management of their children’s activities, they hoped that their kids would be comfortable around black people of all backgrounds, and would easily be able to float between different environments of both white and black children (Pugh, 2009). The black middle class family living in a mostly white environment is used to straddling the border between white and black spaces and they believe their children should be able to do the same. With this goal in mind, they carefully select their schools by choosing to live in certain neighborhoods and choose specific outside of school activities to provide experiences in many different situations.


The Black Middle Class in Wealthy Black Suburbs

To avoid the problems associated with living in a majority white environment, some middle class black families will seek out a majority black middle class neighborhood (Lacy, 2007). Black middle class neighborhoods, such as these developed out of early white flight (Lacy, 2007). As some black families gained wealth earlier in the mid-1900s and moved out of poor urban environments, white families promptly left the neighborhoods they moved into (Lacy, 2007). This left black some black neighborhoods segregated, but wealthy and created black suburbs to rival majority white ones. In these suburbs, black families are most likely in upper income brackets of the middle class, and thus more likely homeowners, which distinguishes them from lower-middle class blacks families who live in working class environments (Lacy, 2007). Owning homes in upper-middle class black neighborhoods puts families in a unique situation where they can begin to accumulate wealth, but where the racial composition of the neighborhood puts them at a disadvantage compared to black families in majority white neighborhoods. Majority black neighborhoods, even middle class ones, are seen as undesirable by white families, who are uncomfortable with the idea of living in a black majority area (Pattillo, 2005). Upper black middle class neighborhoods are also often marketed that way, ensuring that they remain segregated. Real estate agents are aware of people’s preferences towards group mentality and thus lead families to homes that they believe will be easily sold. And so, black middle class families are driven to black middle class suburbs and white middle class families are not (Lacy, 2007). Because white middle class families who represent a large portion of the housing market are reluctant to pursue homes in black neighborhoods, property values tend to fall if a neighborhood becomes majority black and remain low compared to white neighborhoods (Fletcher, 2015). This makes homeownership risky even in wealthy all black neighborhoods and at times contributes to the downward mobilization of some middle class black families in this situation.

Although buying a house in these neighborhoods may be risky, it is desirable, because in this environment black families can be the racial majority in a wealthy area, which is not typical in the black community as a whole. Besides the racial composition, wealthy black neighborhoods function are essentially the same as wealthy white neighborhoods; there are spacious lawns, neighborhood associations, and “block” parties that are held in the lavish cul-de-sacs (Lacy, 2007). They also in a way offer a safe haven for black middle class families and their children to avoid the outside racism. However, once these black professionals and thier leave their wealthy suburbs however, they are still faced with navigating institutionalized racism. Similar to their counterparts in majority white neighborhoods, black parents from these neighborhoods must constantly be aware of how their expressions of emotions are coming across to others in order to avoid being perceived as racial stereotypes (Wingfield, 2007). As black middle class children age, they must also learn the art of presentation in order to maintain positive relationships with white students, teachers, or professors (Wingfield, 2010). Unlike black families who live in white suburbs, there is not as much of an emphasis on learning to navigate the black experience as well as the white experience. These families rely on their majority black neighborhoods, although wealthy, to provide children with the experience of being around black families, and thus they only have a heightened awareness of their class or racial status when they leave their homes to go to work or school, which are often majority white.

Middle class black families in wealthy black suburbs often use school choice as a way to get their children out of public schools. Although these families live in wealthy black neighborhoods themselves, the school districts as a whole are usually not as wealthy compared to white suburbs because they have a closer proximity to poorer black areas (Lacy, 2007). So, these families believe they should send their children to private school to guarantee that the children are being challenged and achieving enough (Lacy, 2007). Unlike lower-middle class black families, these families are able to afford private school while maintaining a middle class life styles (Lacy, 2007). These families believe that their ultimate duty is to ensure that their children will be able to reproduce a similar middle class status in the future (Lacy, 2007). Because of this, they may make concessions, such as avoiding family trips to ensure that their kids are getting the best education possible, even if it is expensive (Lacy, 2007). Black children attending private school still experience the forms of racism that black children attending white suburban schools go through (Lacy, 2007). However, parents often have more power to confront teachers and administrators in private schools. For example, a parent who visited her son’s school saw her son was not being steered into lower math classes was able to confront administrators and get her son moved into a class that was closer to his actual level (Lacy, 2007). In general, he black middle class parents in wealthy black suburbs are less concerned with their children experiencing diversity as those parents in mostly white neighborhoods, but are instead concerned mostly with being able to replicate their middle class status in future generations. Because of these concerns, these parents strive to send their children to private schools where they will be given the best education.




            The existing literature around the black middle class divides the group into distinct groups that make it easier to assess cultural and sociological influences. These divisions also make for a more accurate representation of the black middle class, and the complicated relationship that this demographic has with race and class. By looking at the black middle class by location, a clearer picture can be formed at how being black and middle class is changed by living in white suburbs, wealthy black suburbs, or poorer black neighborhoods. In each of these environments, families have slightly different parenting styles that are represented through their means and choices in childrearing. Though, every black middle class family type functions in a way to attempt to carry on their middle class status to their children. Black middle class families in poor environments do this by instilling the belief in hard work and pushing oneself to the top, although these families are often at a locational disadvantage when preparing their kids for the future. Black middle class families in white neighborhoods strategically aim to put their kids into a number of varied educational situations both inside and outside of school in an attempt to make their kids masters at code switching, which they believe will give them success. Black middle class families in wealthy black neighborhoods tend to give their children whatever is within their means in order to guarantee their future middle class status. This results in a high number of families form this background sending their children to private schools.

Although there are existing literary works that offer an interesting look at the black middle class and the divisions within it in relation to education and childrearing, there are a lot of areas that could be explored. The texts of Pugh and Lacy provided in-depth descriptions for the thoughts concerning race and class of parents while they were already in certain locations, however there could have been more explanations as to whether these resulted from location or lead parents to certain locations. For example, since social networks play a part in housing decisions, do black families that move into white neighborhoods already have white social networks? More exploration also needs to be done on how black middle class families born into the middle class differ from black middle class families whose parents achieved significant upward social mobility. While these studies were mostly about the positions of black families in different middle class environments and thus the discussion was centered on the experience of the black families, it would be interesting to learn more about how these families are received by their wider environments. How do wealthy white students and working class black students consciously perceive wealthy black peers? And, how do the benefits of integration come into play when they are based solely on race and not class? Although the existing literature provided a basis of information, more work on the sociology of middle class black families needs to be done, especially as this demographic increases in size and importance in the future.





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