Backward Mobility and America’s Broken Promises

The recession is wiping out the jobs, homes, and dreams of the black middle class. There's a lesson for our whole economy in that fact.

By Kai Wright Feb 10, 2011

This essay appeared originally in the March 2011 issue of The American Prospect. It is part of the special report "America’s Endangered Middle Class." The digital edition of that report can be read here.

If Barack Obama embodies the American dream of equal opportunity, Velma Hart represents the midnight wake-up call bearing bad news. In September, the Army veteran and successful executive interrupted Obama’s "recovery summer" road show by announcing, in a CNBC town hall meeting with the president, that she was broken. "I’m exhausted of defending you," she told the president. "I have been told that I voted for a man who said he’s going to change things in a meaningful way for the middle class. I am one of those people, and I’m waiting sir. I’m waiting."

Hart is hardly the only worn-out American, as the midterms proved. But her moment in the political spotlight was striking because she is exactly the everywoman the president’s remarkable personal narrative evokes: a middle-class black person who has worked hard and shared in the benefits of American prosperity, race be damned. Hart took a fabled road through military service to the middle class. She owned a house. She enrolled her kids in private school. She had a white-collar job. And by Thanksgiving, she’d been laid off. "She got bit by the same snake that has bit a lot of people," her former boss told The Washington Post last November. "It was a move to cut our bottom line."

We don’t know how Hart’s family has weathered the loss, because she quit talking about it. But if her trajectory matches the black middle class that she and Obama represent, she’s suffered a decidedly more lethal bite than her white peers.

The black bourgeoisie has long held a contradictory place in the American psyche, balancing the discomfiting fact that a quarter of black people live in poverty. If a once enslaved people can now fill suburban tracts, the thinking goes, then surely we have overcome our racist history. The opposite is true: The insecurity and often backward mobility of would-be middle-class African Americans like Hart reveal how unjust our economy remains, and not only for black folks.

The American middle class as a whole is collapsing as poverty reaches record highs. But that collapse is most apparent in black communities. The median income for blacks fell by more than 4 percent in 2009, putting it more than $17,000 behind the national median. Joblessness is now at least 15.8 percent among African Americans, not counting the untold numbers who are working longer hours for less pay or taking jobs that set back both their salary and career.

The most striking of the bleak numbers, though, comes when considering young people. Few parental lectures stand out more from my childhood than the ones about education. That’s true for most kids of civil rights-era black strivers. For generations, black families have held up schools as the portals to a better future, the stepladders for upward mobility and the security it brings. Indeed, one key measure economists use for middle-class status is the number of academic degrees you’ve earned. But try to explain that to today’s black college grads. More than 15 percent of them are jobless, according to the Economic Policy Institute, compared to less than 8 percent of white graduates. A shocking one in three black high school graduates under 24 are out of work.