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Examining the Fragility of the Black Middle Class

May 25, 2005

Mary Pattillo, associate professor of sociology and African American Studies at Northwestern University, is one of the first academics to study the black middle class.

In particular, Pattillo is interested in the socioeconomic fragility of the black middle class.

The daughter of a doctor and an educator, she attributes her interest in the topic to curiosity that stemmed from being among the first generation of young sociologists born into a solid black middle class.

“We were born in the era when there already was a black middle class,” she says. “But we realized there was little in the literature about our experiences.”

Pattillo, who was profiled in the March 2003 issue of Elle magazine, currently is doing research that focuses on gentrification and public housing construction in a black neighborhood in Chicago. The research centers on both elites -- government officials and private developers -- and residents. The motivating question is: Can there be “community” in a mixed-income community?

The neighborhood Pattillo is studying is among those that Mayor Richard Daley has supported to recapture the middle class. Public housing is being demolished (four of six high-rise buildings were demolished in 1998), condos are being built and property values are going up.

A number of questions fuel Pattillo’s research. Revitalization for whom? As the neighborhood gets better, will the people for whom the improvements were undertaken in the first place be better off? Is the neighborhood better simply because the first group of low-income residents was relocated and is being replaced by the solidly middle class? Because the neighborhood is all black, do the usual race and class tensions of gentrification become somewhat mitigated?

In other words, are class tensions mitigated in these neighborhoods because poor and middle-class blacks share historical racial struggles and legacies?

Take an example that Pattillo cites in her article “Negotiating Blackness, for Richer or Poorer” (Ethnography, 2003).

A woman advocating for new public housing at a community meeting referred to a shared history of whites trying to divide and conquer by making hierarchal distinctions between house and field slaves.

“The shared history is a way to check any kind of attempts to get privileges for middle-class residents at the expense of the poor,” Pattillo says.

“That history may be used in attempts to unite the black community against, for example, the powerful city or outside developers that want to come in and take valuable land on the lakefront or the white people who want to move back.”

In New York, similar discussions and studies are focusing on the black middle class in Harlem neighborhoods.

In “Black Picket Fences,” Pattillo’s first book, as well as in subsequent research, she suggests that because the black middle class is more likely than the white middle class to come from poor families and to have poor siblings, fragility is embedded in its networks.

“This type of poverty very much differentiates the black middle class from the white middle class,” she says.

Pattillo is fully aware that the plight of the black middle class does not compare with the struggles for daily survival of poor black families. That said, she emphasizes, the fragile network and intimate links to poverty of the black middle class cause inequities that significantly affect its stability.

In her award-winning “Black Picket Fences,” Pattillo outlines the fragility of a black middle class neighborhood similar to the one in which she was raised. The high costs of living near poor neighborhoods include less political clout, more crime, poorer services and businesses, fewer well-supported institutions and more students needing supplementary educational resources. The book received two honors from the American Sociological Association, an award from the race and ethnicity section and an honorable mention from the community and urban sociology section.

In another project, Pattillo is investigating differences -- and reasons for these differences -- in black and white adolescents’ educational outcomes in Prince George’s County, Maryland. The study focuses on intergenerational human capital and educational influences to explain these variations.

She also is an editor of “Imprisoning America: the Social Effects of Mass Incarceration.

For more information about Mary Pattillo, go to: http://www.northwestern.edu/ipr/people/pattillo.html

Topics: Research, People