In 1987, Professor Emeritus Bart Landry published a groundbreaking book, “The New Black Middle Class” (University of California Press). The work outlined the emergence of the African American middle class in the early 20th century, and compared its economic position with that of the white middle class after the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.
Thirty years later, Landry published “The New Black Middle Class in the Twenty-First Century” (Rutgers University Press), which provides research-based information about the progress the class as made in the past few decades, and what challenges the members of this class currently face.
“This is not the same group at all, 30 years later,” Landry said. “There is a greater diversity of occupations. There are many more opportunities now.”
Landry said that milestones such as the Civil Rights Act dramatically changed the lives of black Americans for the better, and that ripples of those significant moments can still be seen today.
“The doors of universities and colleges that had been shut are now open,” Landry said. “Access to education was one of the keys to the new Black Middle Class’s position in society.”
One false assumption that the first book helped to dispel was that the black community was a monolith; Landry said that now it is widely recognized that the Black Middle Class is a significant entity.
“People now know that there are many cities and areas within cities where the impact of the Black Middle Class is notable,” Landry said, citing Prince George’s County, Md., Atlanta, Dallas and Houston. He has also noticed the growing presence of the Black Middle Class in his hometown of Lafayette, Louisiana.
“People move where they think they can find resources, and where they think they will find a good place to live. Blacks have moved into the suburbs—a large percentage of the Black Middle Class lives in the suburbs now, which was an interesting finding to me. That is a change from the previous study. Blacks had been kept out of the suburbs until the ’90s,” Landry said. “Their ability to move to areas where they felt they would do well was not always possible in earlier decades.”
The initial Black Middle Class was formed in the United States amid the extreme forces of segregation. While the current Black Middle Class has made record gains in areas including education and employment, the members of the group still face significant disparity and discrimination.
“I do consider these developments from a ‘glass half-full and glass half-empty’ perspective,” Landry said. “When we look at educational advancements, the half-full view is that college degree attainment rates for African Americans aged 25 to 29 increased from 6 percent in 1964 to 22 percent in 2017. But the half-empty view is that, for the white population aged 25 to 29, the attainment rate increased from 14 percent in 1964 versus 42 percent in 2017. So the gap remains, the disparity persists.”
While there has been much progress, the challenges of discrimination and exclusion remain.
“Half of our respondents to the 2017 survey reported experiencing discrimination in the workplace, whether from income disparity or lack of promotion. I don’t see any signs that these kinds of discrimination will stop. Parents are preparing their children to face these challenges,” Landry said.
Progress for the Black Middle Class has been slow, steady, and hard-won, Landry said, noting that some of the gains in employment and education have started at home.
“Today’s children of black middle class families have opportunities that were created for them by their parents and family members, who made sacrifices to move into the middle class,” Landry said. “I am struck by the efforts these families have made, and how they have extended themselves. They make financial sacrifices. They give their time. They volunteer, spend time in the schools with the teachers, and create new opportunities.”
Looking ahead, Landry said he expects the Black Middle Class to continue to grow and make gains, but at a steady rate rather than at an accelerated rate, given the overall state of the economy.