I honestly can’t be snarky enough about this WaPo editorial by NYU graduate student Thomas Chatterton Williams:

Like neurotics obsessed with amputating their own healthy limbs, middle-class blacks concerned with “keeping it real” are engaging in gratuitously self-destructive and violently masochistic behavior.

Sociologists have a term for this pathological facet of black life. It’s called “cool-pose culture.” Whatever the nomenclature, “cool pose” or keeping it real or something else entirely, this peculiar aspect of the contemporary black experience — the inverted-pyramid hierarchy of values stemming from the glorification of lower-class reality in the hip-hop era — has quietly taken the place of white racism as the most formidable obstacle to success and equality in the black middle classes.

A 2005 study by Roland G. Fryer of Harvard University crystallizes the point: While there is scarce dissimilarity in popularity levels among low-achieving students, black or white, Fryer finds that “when a student achieves a 2.5 GPA, clear differences start to emerge.” At 3.5 and above, black students “tend to have fewer and fewer friends,” even as their high-achieving white peers “are at the top of the popularity pyramid.” With such pressure to be real, to not “act white,” is it any wonder that the African American high school graduation rate has stagnated at 70 percent for the past three decades?

At best, this is complete nonsense. At worst, Williams has just wasted 700-plus words rehashing the same tired arguments of conservatives who insist that black America’s problems are due entirely to some nebulous “culture of failure.” Like the conservatives he emulates, Williams doesn’t bother to address other explanations for the lower rates of academic success and college attendance among black middle class families. He zeroes in on the cultural explanation and stays on target, other possibilities be damned.

Of course, those other possibilities have far more explanatory power, so it’s worth taking a quick look at them. There aren’t many books focusing on the black middle class, but one of the better ones — as far as I know — is Mary Pattilo-McCoy’s Black Picket Fences. Key to her argument is the fact that there are significant cultural and economic differences separating the white and black middle classes, and recognizing them is key to understanding the particular challenges facing the black middle class. Among these facts: most “middle-class” blacks belong to the “lower middle-class” of families earning between $50,000 and $100,000 annually. Unlike their white counterparts, who tend to have professional and managerial jobs, the black middle class is clustered in comparatively low-paying sales and clerical work, jobs that are more vulnerable to broad economic shifts. And this is to say nothing of the massive wealth gap between middle-class blacks and whites.

What’s more, middle-class blacks face significant housing discrimination, and on average, are far more segregated than any other racial or ethnic group of comparable means. The effect of this is to cluster large numbers of middle-class blacks in disproportionately poor neighborhoods, many of which suffer from poor schools and other social services. Middle-class blacks have fewer educational opportunities than their white counterparts and they lack access to the “achievement networks” that characterize white middle class life.

All this is to say that if there is a critical difference between the white middle class and the black middle class, it is relational and geographic proximity to poverty. Middle-class whites are simply less likely to know or interact with people that live at or below the poverty-line. Middle-class blacks, by contrast, have far closer ties to those below them on the socio-economic ladder. Here is a bit from the introduction of Pattilo-McCoy’s book that looks at the implications of this difference:

Second, the segregated geography of urban America has ramifications for the spatial context of the black middle class. Social ties across class lines, across lifestyles, and across the law exist partly because of the assignment of most African Americans to “the black side of town.” These social ties are the subject of chapters 4 and 5. Groveland is a remarkably stable neighborhood with respect to housing tenure. Some families have four generations living within the neighborhood’s boundaries, and others have developed kinlike relationships with their longtime neighbors. Chapter 4 illustrates how these networks promote easy access to both criminal and positive opportunities. The relationships between teachers and gang leaders, or preachers and drug dealers, highlight the appropriateness of the “crossroads” imagery in describing the neighborhood experiences of black middle-class youth. Chapter 5 focuses on three young people in Groveland to further elaborate on how youth steer through various peer networks, family situations, middle-class privileges, and criminal temptations.

Simply put, there’s a whole lot more to the problems in the black middle class than some ill-defined “cool-pose cultural.” Structural legacies and socioeconomic differences account for much of the disparity between the black and white middle class, and Williams does his readers a disservice by ignoring them in favor of the easy answer. I can understand why though; it’s very easy to pin black America’s problems on hip-hop culture and completely avoid the persistent structural inequalities permeate our system. It’s much more difficult to challenge people by pointing to the persistent systemic factors that contribute to lower performance among middle class black families. Besides, a piece about black failure is far more marketable than the alternative, so I can see why Williams would go that route. .

One last point: like I’ve argued before, if black kids with high GPAs have fewer friends, it’s not because they’re black, it’s because they’re nerds.

Update: Edited for quality.

Jamelle Bouie

Jamelle Bouie

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