The Values Gap Between Poor and Middle Class Blacks

Earlier, I referenced an essay by economist and writer Marcellus Andrews in the Black Commentator titled “No Exit in Black/ Trapped by the Economy and Politics.”

In his essay, Andrews voices the concern that “the unique solidarity between the black middle class and the black poor will soon end as the pressure of economic survival turns former allies into enemies.” He goes into detail about this:

The hard truth of our time is that the economic needs of poor black people are much closer to those of other poor Americans than they are to those of middle class blacks. Poor blacks, like all poor people in America, need an immense array of social goods and services that they cannot pay for – from health care and education to safe streets and housing. Middle class blacks, like all middle class Americans, want high quality public services balanced against low taxes in a society of self-reliant individuals.

Middle class black people support greater degrees of regulation and redistribution in economic life because they are poorer than whites and are still subject to discrimination. But the black middle class does not need or want government to the same degree as poor blacks because they are no longer trapped in the basement of the American job market. Many middle class black people are no more interested in paying taxes to support poor people than their white counterparts, not least because they see themselves as proof that hard work and perseverance in the face of white nationalism can pay off in still all-too-racist America.

Some people will say that the black middle class’s slow abandonment of the black poor is a sell out to white America, the act of selfish Uncle Toms who have forgotten what it is like to suffer as racial and class outcasts in this society. Nothing could be further from the truth or more irrelevant. Black middle class abandonment of the black poor is perfectly consistent with a strong sense of racial pride that nonetheless blames poor black people for making their bad situation worse. It is perfectly possible for middle class blacks to be angry at conservative white people and poor black people at the same time.”

Now there is evidence which bears out Andrews’ concerns. A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center last year, which is reported in “Optimism about Black Progress Declines – Blacks See Growing Values Gap Between Poor and Middle Class,” reveals income/class differences in the views of black Americans on a range of issues. The Center is a non-partisan think tank.

As noted in the report:

Growing Diversity: Is There Still a Single Black Community?

When this survey asked about values, it defined the term broadly: “By values I mean things that people view as important or their general way of thinking.” By a ratio of two-to-one, blacks say that the values of poor and middle class blacks have grown more dissimilar over the past decade. In contrast, most blacks say that the values of blacks and whites have grown more alike during this same time period.

On a related question, only about a quarter of all blacks (23%) say that middle class and poor blacks share “a lot” of values in common. A plurality (42%) say they share some values in common; 22% say they share only a little in common and 9% say they share almost no values in common.

Whites share the view that there has been a convergence in black and white values in the past decade; they also agree that the values of middle-class and poor blacks have grown less alike.

Well-educated blacks are more likely than blacks with less education to say that a values gap within the black community has widened during the past decade. At the same, however, it is blacks with lower incomes and less education who are most inclined to see few shared values between middle class and poor blacks – suggesting that the perception of differences over values and identity within the African American community is felt most strongly by those blacks at the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum.

In the matter of racial identity, black respondents were asked to choose which of the following two statements comes closest to their view, even if neither is exactly right: Blacks today can no longer be thought of as a single race because the black community is so diverse OR Blacks can still be thought of as a single race because they have so much in common. Nearly four-in-ten African Americans (37%) say that blacks can no longer be thought of as a single race. Just a bare majority of blacks – 53% – say it is still appropriate to think of blacks as single race.

The question “can blacks be considered a single race” is awkward, to be sure. But I think the people being surveyed got the point, and their responses are troubling. The black community seems set to split apart with class as the dividing line. The political and social impact of that is too scary to imagine.

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