Before the civil rights movement, lucky black men, some with college degrees, got steady work as Red Caps at major train stations and as Pullman porters on trains. Salaries and good tips gave them what was then high income for blacks. Even black physicians worked those jobs — and practiced medicine.
Jim Crow laws and other forms of segregation kept blacks out of other jobs for which they were qualified. Educated black women could be low-paid school teachers in rundown schools for blacks. A few enterprising black women washed and ironed clothes for a living and there were men who had small businesses, sustained because they were skilled at “handling white folks.”
During the late 1960s, only 3.4 percent of black households made more than $75,000 a year. By 2005, the percentage had jumped to 15.7. Just 40 years ago, nearly half of black America was poor, poorly educated, underemployed or jobless. Today, four out of five are solidly within some aspect of what is called the middle class.
Pulitzer Prize winning black columnist Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post posited that black America’s rise into the mainstream is “heroic.” In his important book, Disintegration — The Splintering of Black America, Robinson asserts that it’s “wrong to deny that the rise of the black mainstream is truly a great American success story — arguably, the greatest of all.”
For a people to survive being uprooted and marched long distances to dungeons, then making it through the hellish Middle Passage to chattel slavery on plantations throughout the Americas and enduring that status from 1619 until an 1865 Emancipation Proclamation, after which being double crossed by Reconstruction then brutalized again by white terrorist groups, law enforcement officials and Black Codes which inculcated any and all forms of discrimination and other injustices, black people are truly representative of a very special gene pool.
For example, Robinson reports, “In 1967, 10.6 percent of whites and only four percent of blacks had completed four years of college.” In 41 years, to 2008, “29.8 percent of whites and 19.6 percent of blacks were college-educated — a threefold increase for whites but a quintupling for African Americans.”
While Robinson’s book focuses on what he sees as a splintering among blacks into four distinct groups, clearly what he calls the “mainstream middle-class majority” has emerged as the dominant group within black America “with a full ownership stake in American society.”
Other groups are the Abandoned, a large minority of poor and near-poor blacks with no way out of poverty and dysfunction; the Transcendent elite, with great wealth, power and influence. Think Oprah, Bill Cosby, Willie Gary; and two newly Emergent groups — those of so-called “mixed-race” heritage and blacks mainly from the Caribbean and Africa who see the Abandoned as not applying themselves, of not striving to get ahead.
The great reporter that he is, Robinson makes very important points that have escaped too many journalists who report on African-American issues. Did you know, for example, that half of black American families own their homes? What about the fact that management and professional jobs are held by more than one-fourth of black adults. Did anybody know that one?
Robinson also tells us that, in 2008, before the economy almost melted away, “African Americans had an aggregate purchasing power estimated at $913 billion.” Robinson lets us visualize what that amount of money means in real terms: “If mainstream black America were a sovereign nation, it would have the seventeenth-largest economy in the world.”
Driving his economic point home, Robinson adds: “bigger than that of Turkey, for example, or Saudi Arabia, or South Africa.” The existence of this huge African-American mainstream is so obvious to Robinson. He quips, “In terms of population and income, it’s almost like failing to notice the existence of Australia.”
Al Calloway is a long-time journalist who began his career with the Atlanta Inquirer during the early 1960s civil rights struggle.He may be reached at Al_Calloway@verizon.net.