The Two Black Americas

Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean recently lambasted President Bush for fiddling while black joblessness continues to soar. The double-digit unemployment figure for blacks is appalling. Blacks now are more than twice as likely than whites to be out of work. The unemployment rate for young black males in some urban areas is fast approaching the 1930's Great Depression levels. More blacks than ever are in jail, attend miserably failing segregated inner-city schools, and live in gang and crime ridden neighborhoods. Bush's skewed tax cuts for the rich, domestic spending slashes, and assault on affirmative action programs have aided and abetted the poverty crisis among many blacks. But Bush has also aided and abetted the continued expansion of the black middle class. There's been a big jump in black businesses, and homeownership, and selected black church groups have grabbed millions in Bush's faith-based initiative dollars.

Black Entertainment Television founder, Bob Johnson, owns an NBA team, and Arizona businessman Reggie Fowler recently bid for ownership of the Minnesota Vikings. Oprah Winfrey continues to climb higher in the billionaire's club, and Condeleezza Rice replaced Colin Powell as the much-touted point man for the Bush administration's foreign policy. Black executives hold the top spots at some of America's giants, and there are legions of multi-millionaire black superstar athletes, celebrities, and professionals, and increasingly more Academy Award winners. More blacks than Dean and the Democrats care to admit now flirt with the GOP. They hammer the Democrats for their "plantation" politics.

The class rift between the black haves and the have-nots is hardly new. According to Census figures, between 1975 and 1995, the number of black professionals, technicians, administrators and managers nearly tripled, and the number of black college graduates doubled. 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, was now concentrated in fewer hands.

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

In the 1960's, 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 big city blighted inner-city areas in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Detroit, and Atlanta in droves.

By the end of the 1980's, an estimated one in ten blacks was affluent enough to move to the suburbs. The expansion of tract homes, condos and apartments made their move easier. In the 1990s, the stampede of black business and professionals from these areas accelerated.

During the same time, civil rights organizations and black politicians did a sharp turnaround. 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 that chronically wallow below the poverty line in even greater dire straights. Lacking education, competitive skills and training, the black have-nots were further hurtled to the outer fringes of society.

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. They fume in anger as taxicabs speed past and blithely ignore them. They can be stopped, and shaken down and spread eagled by police. They are 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 in the same crumbling neighborhoods they worked long and hard to get out of.

Dean and Bush got it partly right. It's the worst of times for many in black America, and Bush's policies helped make it that way for them. But it's also the best of times for many in black America, and Bush's policies helped make it that way for them too. The tale of two black Americas is a cautionary tale of race and class pushing and pulling blacks together and apart.

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