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What Happened to the African-American Middle Class?

Posted on January 26th, 2012 by Alley Pezanoski-Browne 2 Comments

By Nathan Jones

In 1931, James Truslow Adams coined the term “American Dream” in his book The Epic of America. Since its inception, this theoretical and intangible ideology has plagued the American psyche. Politicians invoke it and toss it around like a badge of honor, immigrants pursue it, and despite tiredlessly negative economic news, citizens embrace it like a mythical relic. This so-called “American Dream” purports “that [the] dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.” Unfortunately, the myth of the “American Dream” feels more like a candid reality check of “dreams deferred” which one can find in between the pages of the Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma.

Millions of Americans have endured financial catastrophes in the recession since December 2007 and are rapidly continuing on a downward spiral. Many in the middle class are economically brittle, barely able to preserve their lifestyle, and are disillusioned by the illusive “American Dream”. However, the situation seems to be unbearably dire within the African-American community, specifically. Due to a steady loss of jobs, homes in foreclosure, loss of 401Ks, loss of retirement plans, and a lack of resources, many African-Americans who once enjoyed the spoils of a quasi-Cosbyesque “standard of living” have been commandeered by a depressed economy, forcing them into poverty and into homelessness in some cases. Is the African-American middle class experiencing a “recession” or “depression” and if so, is it over?

According to Algernon Austin, the Director of the Economic Policy Institute’s Program on Race, Ethnicity and the Economy: “The recession is not over for black folks.” In fact, the layoffs for African-Americans are only the latest piece of unwarranted bad news for a struggling middle class. In 2007, the Brooking Institution found that fewer than one-third of blacks born to middle-class parents went on to earn incomes greater than their parents, compared with more than two-thirds of whites from the same income bracket. Regrettably, the foreclosure crisis secured, shattered and wiped out a large section of a generation of African-American homeowners.

In 2004, the median net worth of white households was $134,280, compared with $13,450 for African-American households, according to an analysis of Federal Reserve data by the Economic Policy Institute. Within a five-year period, there was a decline in incomes earned by both ethnic groups. By 2009, the median net worth for white households had fallen 24 percent to $97,860; and the median net worth for African-American households had fallen 83 percent to $2,170, according to the institute.

What will the history of America look like, as the reversal of fortune knocks at the door of African-Americans who have fought hard to win economic  success, which took decades to achieve, just to see their efforts for a better life dissipate in a shaky economic system. How will the decimation of the African-American middle class be justified, under the Obama Administration? What will be the long-term effects on consumerism, if a sector of the populace has no purchasing power?  Will African-Americans once again, ask the questions that Langston Hughes posed, “what happens to a dream deferred”?  Can African-Americans really buy into the narrative of the so-called “American Dream” or will the dream of a “quality of life” be found in the matrix of the American Dilemma?  Poor people do not have recessions, poor people have depressions.

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2 Responses

  1. Most people are touched or affected by depression in their life.