Wednesday, January 23, 2013


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.


Victor said...

Yup, you nailed it - the "Powers-that-be" don't want a middle class.

They're perfectly happy to let the white, black, hispanic, asian, and native, americans fight for the remaining scraps they leave on he table.
And they actually WANT that division, since, by dividing people, and having them vote against their best interests, their political arm, the Republican Party, has a much greater amount of power than they deserve, when compared to what they actually do for the 98% of the population.
And, sadly, the Democrats aren't much better, since they left Main Street and moved to Wall Street for their election money, when their once-loyal white blue-collar voters left them, largely over the already shrinking middle class pie after Civil Rights, in "The Reagan Revolution."

I'll provide a link to the great Thom Hartmann, who's always been terrific on this issue:

If you like what he had to say, google him for other articles, or to listen to his radio show.

aimai said...

I'm trying to read the Warmth of Other Suns. Got bogged down with other stuff. I don't agree that the US specifically doesn't want a black middle class. I agree with SteveM that the upper class doesn't want or need a real middle class of any color. But I also think that little by little, by very small acts of omission and comission, individual african americans are discouraged and attacked for pretending or assuming to the rights and dignities of individuals destined for the middle class. I see that all the time in the response to succesful african americans and can only imagine that tthe same insults and underminings are repeated all the way down the economic and social ladder. The continuous drum roll of "who do you think you are?" that has met the President and the First lady when they simply tried to execute their functions is probably exactly the same thing that they faced early on in their careers when they first went to boardrooms and courthouses and PTA meetings.

I don't think that I ever walked into a room with as much hostility and disinclination to help me, as a white middle class woman, that they have in their lives. That's not government action or even corporate or industrial action, that's just the reality of white racism in this country excercised by people of every rank from Head of the Board, the Admissions Office, to the Janitorial staff.

Anonymous said...


It's not just about "left main street for Wall Street for the election money" it's a change in who they are.

I grew up as a Democrat in the suburbs and city of Washington DC, I still live here, and I consider myself a Democrat. Yet everybody here wants to slash social security, thinks it pays too much, and advocates for centrist neoliberal policies. But it's a liberal area.

For most here, Democrat vs Republican is a matter of voting Democratic on the social issues and pushing the party to adopt Republican economic wisdom.

In other words, it's not just Wall Street. The reality is a lot of well off social moderates and liberals with economic views that would not be tolerated in the Democratic party are now in it, and run it. And we were all welcomed in because we sung the right tune on abortion, race, sex education, evolution, gay rights, you name the social issues. But many of my peers are vastly more hostile to the New Deal than the poor, yet racist, Republicans. We make up part of the party now and a lot of it's power base in rich cities like Chicago, DC, NY, and the party knows that.

Victor said...

Overclock speedy,
Yeah, that's because to many of todays Democrats would have been Republicans, until the age of Reagan brought in the Manichean Religious Right.

I'll be 55 in a few weeks, and I knew a whole bunch of very reasonable Republicans growing up. I grew up with them - I knew the parents and grandparents. And I voted for some of them, back in the day - not often, but there was no shame in voting for Jacob Javits, Hamilton Fish, and competent local Republican politicians.

But that party went through some massive changes in the 20 years from 1964, when Goldwater was their losing Presidential candidate, to when Reagan was reelected.

The have become radicalized, to the point of being Nihilists.

And sadly, when they kept veering right, the Democratic Party went with them.

President Obama's Inaugural Speech, was the most openly "Liberal" thing I've heard from a President, or candidate, since Walter Mondale.

That gives me hope.
But not so much hope, that I'm under the delusion that we won't have to fight tooth-and-nail to keep SS, Medicare, and a whole bunch of other programs.

They are now, and will continue to be under assault.
The richest see a huge profit margin in taking away "Earned Benefits" from workers and retiress, and privatizing them. And THAT, is the battle going on in DC now - imho.

BH said...

In my Social Security disability law practice (small-medium-town N Tx), I occasionally run across a white client who'll make a pretty overtly racist statement (presumably since I'm white as well), usually along the lines of "I'd already be getting my benefits if I was the right color". My usual response is to tell them firmly that they're dead wrong, based both on SSA statistics and on my 30 years' experience. Next I mention to them that so long as the powers that be (whether a bank, a cop or a bureaucrat) keep them busy blaming other poor folks of different colors for their problems, the powers that be will keep on getting away with treating all of us like shit. I don't know whether I've changed any minds or not, but at least I feel better & I don't have to hear the patented white-trash whine.

Mainstreet Liberal said...

An example of the manner in which corporate America and its allies among politicians and the media have been trying to smother the middle and lower classes for decades lies in the fate of the federal minimum wage. If the minimum wage of 1968 had kept up with inflation in the 40 years since, it would have been $10,58 in 2012. And the Economic Policy Institute has found that if it were raised to $9.80 by July 1, 2014(as proposed in the Fair Minimum Wage Act introduced in the House and Senate last year), fully 56.1% of the individuals who would benefit are non-Hispanic whites, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

Coates is well-meaning. But while conservatives/Republicans strive to drive the wedge between the middle class and the poor even deeper, it's not helpful to have liberals/progressives widen the rift between blacks and non-blacks.

RandomThgt said...

I would also note that the "white ethnics" who managed to advance in American society without Affirmative Action (as alleged by some), did in fact benefit from preferential treatment---the GI Bill (which is credited with creating a large middle class) following WWII was administered in a discriminatory manner against blacks (who fought for the nation, but were systematically denied the rewards of that fight), entire industries (and even educational institutions) were unavailable to African-Americans and women, police forces and fire departments routinely only hired folks from specifics ethnic groups (and it wasn't blacks!) and excluded women (irrespective of ethnicity) entirely--- the sad part is that this list isn't exhaustive...It wasn't simply that the "pie was larger", but the pool of folks competing for that "larger pie" was smaller, which inevitably means that the folks in the pool ended up with a considerably larger share.

I am not sure that I agree with Coates 100%, but I certainly see how he reached his conclusion.