On the night of Barack Obama’s election, I was reporting in the crowd of Chicago’s Grant Park, and like many Americans felt hopeful that our country was finally ready to deal with the vexing matters of race. Obama’s election was an incalculable accomplishment, and the arrival of a middle-class black family in the White House seemed to tell the world that the American Dream is alive, that our country’s establishment has successfully absorbed a people it once enslaved, and unapologetically marginalized.
And yet, when the Obamas moved into the White House, the country’s economy was already in free fall, and its fragile black middle class was, to put it simply, vanishing. Between 2005 and 2009, the year the Great Recession officially ended, the average black household’s wealth fell by more than half, to $5,677, even as their white peers held about $113,000 in assets. Nearly one-quarter of African-Americans have no assets besides a car, and roughly the same share have lost their homes, or they’re close. The African-American unemployment rate hovers around 14 percent, and according to a Pew report released in July, nearly 70 percent of blacks raised in families at the middle of the wealth ladder fall to the bottom two rungs as adults. The exodus of blacks from cities like Washington, Atlanta, New Orleans and even Detroit is driving a sense of eroding political power. Perhaps most depressingly, one in three black boys can expect to be incarcerated at some point in his life.
It’s tricky, explaining what it means to be black in America at this peculiar moment, mainly because the narrative’s dominant theme is decline. “You’re airing our dirty laundry,” a black lawyer told me over brunch one recent Sunday, after I explained this story’s theme. In the fall of 2009, shortly after I began a 14-month reporting assignment in Detroit for Time magazine, a black doctor threw a party at her sprawling home in the city’s leafy Palmer Woods neighborhood, one of the last relatively affluent enclaves. Much of the region, particularly African-Americans, were outraged over the opening stories in our coverage, so the hostess, and her friends, wanted a word. The essential message: Inside Time’s pages, pretend the black middle class is doing just fine.http://www.salon.com/2012/09/03/can_the_black_middle_class_survive