Ta-Nehisi Coates just finished reading The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson's book about the 20th-century Great Migration of blacks from the South to the North and West. Coates tells us that Southern blacks who migrated had difficulties wherever they went, even though
the migrants were generally better educated than their Northern brethren, more likely to stay married, and more likely to stay employed. In fact, in some cases, black migrants were better educated than their Northern white neighbors.The book leads him to several conclusions, among them this:
What becomes clear by the end of Wilkerson's book is that America's response to the Great Migration was to enact a one-sided social contract. America says to its citizens, "Play by the rules, and you will enjoy the right to compete." The black migrants did play by the rules, but they did not enjoy the right to compete. Black people have been repeatedly been victimized by the half-assed social contract. It goes back, at least, to Reconstruction.And he doesn't let America's current leaders, including the president, off the hook:
The half-assed social contract continues to this very day with policies under the present administration, like the bail-out of banks that left the homeowners whom the banks conned underwater. The results of the housing crisis for black people have been devastating. The response is to hector these people about playing video games and watching too much television. Or to tell them they've have "an achievement gap." It is sickening, dishonest, and morally repugnant.Ultimately, Coates believes,
America does not really want a black middle class.Coates talks about the animosity faced by blacks striving for the middle class, all over the country. I grew up in Boston and lived through the busing era -- I know racism was far from geographically isolated and hardly a distant memory.
But is it correct to say that "America does not really want a black middle class" today? I think the problem now is that the powers that be don't really want any middle class whatsoever. And the hostility of the rich to the middle class has been a problem throughout the period when blacks might have moved into the middle class.
Conservatives say that white ethnic groups faced prejudice, yet managed to make it in America without affirmative action and similar programs. Bur white ethnics (including my Italian forebears) were able to get their piece of the pie during a period when the pie was getting bigger.
When was the civil rights era? The 1960s. What has happened to the (overwhelmingly white) middle class since then? Middle-class incomes have been flat since the 1970s. Blacks had to maintain a separate economy until the point when we whites finally conceded, at least in law, that they had a right to some of our pie -- and then they were expected to fight with us for the same amount of pie.
Yes, a lot of whites still don't want blacks to get ahead. But the system hasn't wanted anyone to get ahead for the past forty years, except the 1%. And the aftermath of the 2008 crash makes clear that the 1% want to break the rest of us, eviscerating our social safety net and keeping the unemployment rate high enough that we'll continue to settle for crumbs when we're lucky to land or keep jobs. Yes, whites on average start at a far better position than blacks. But the 1% don't really want any middle class whatsoever.