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Rich vs. Poor in Black America

Reports that 1 million black children live in extreme poverty exist side-by-side with news of unprecedented economic, political and cultural gains by African Americans.
 
 
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According to a recent report from the Children's Defense Fund, nearly 1 million black children now live not in poverty, but "extreme poverty." That's the greatest number of black children trapped in dire poverty in nearly 25 years. Yet barely a week before the Fund released those figures, a Census report found that blacks made gains in education and owned more homes, and that more black children lived in two-parent households.

The tale of progress in black America is evident in more than reports and crunched census numbers. In recent days, Black Entertainment Television founder Bob Johnson outbid Larry Bird for a professional basketball franchise, Oprah Winfrey cracked the billionaire's club, and Colin Powell became the much-touted point man for Bush administration foreign policy.

A year ago, Denzel Washington and Halle Berry copped top acting honors at the Academy Awards and black executives grabbed the top spots at American Express, AOL-Time-Warner and Merrill-Lynch. Add to that the legions of multimillionaire black superstar athletes, celebrities and professionals.

The contrast to the tales of poverty can't be more glaring. There are nearly 1 million blacks behind bars. The HIV/AIDS rampage, a sea of homeless persons and raging drug and gang violence plague many black communities.

Though the widening rift between the black haves and the black have-nots has been blurred by racism, ignored by blacks and hidden from white society, the class fissures have long existed, and they're getting deeper by the year. Between 1975 and 1995, the number of black professionals, technicians, administrators and managers nearly tripled, and the number of black college graduates doubled, according to census figures. By 2000, more than 15 percent of black households earned more than $50,000 annually. The top one-fifth of black families earned nearly half of all black income.

Black wealth, like white wealth, is now concentrated in fewer hands.

In the 1950s, sociologist E. Franklin Frazier warned that many blacks were becoming what he contemptuously branded a "black bourgeoisie" that controlled the wealth and power within the black community and turned its back on its own people. Worse, many members of Frazier's black bourgeoisie had begun to adopt the values, standards and ideals of the white middle class, and to distance themselves from the black poor.

In the 1960s, federal entitlement programs, civil rights legislation, equal opportunity statutes and affirmative action programs initiated during Lyndon Johnson's administration broke the last barriers of legal segregation. The path to universities and corporations for some blacks was now wide open. More blacks than ever did what their parents only dreamed of -- they fled blighted inner-city areas in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Detroit and Atlanta in droves.

By the end of the 1980s, one in 10 blacks was affluent enough to move to the suburbs. The expansion of tract homes, condos and apartments made the move easier. In the decade since the 1992 Rodney King riots, the stampede of black business and professionals from the inner cities accelerated.

At the same time, civil rights organizations and black politicians did an about-face. They defined the black agenda in increasingly narrow terms: Affirmative action, economic parity, professional advancement and busing replaced battling poverty, reducing unemployment, securing quality education, promoting self-help and gaining greater political empowerment as the goals of all African Americans.

This left the one out of four blacks who wallowed below the official poverty level, trapped in drug- and gang-plagued neighborhoods. Their children had to go to underserved, badly deteriorating inner-city schools that black middle class families had long since abandoned. Lacking education, competitive skills and training, the black have-nots were further relegated to the outer fringes of society.

But even though black professionals, politicians and celebrities may be light years apart from poor blacks in their wealth and status, color is hardly a relic of the past. Wealthy blacks fume in anger as taxis speed past and blithely ignore them. They can be stopped, shaken down, and spread-eagled by the police. They can be subjected to poor or no service in restaurants. They file countless EEOC complaints and lawsuits against corporations for stacking them at the low end in management positions. A sharp economic downturn could dump more than a few of them back into the same crumbling neighborhoods they worked long and hard to escape.

Rich versus poor, progress and poverty. It's an old tale. The twist is that it can now be told in black America.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a columnist and the author of "The Crisis in Black and Black" (Middle Passage Press).