The disappearing black middle class
BY JESSE WASHINGTON July 10, 2011 12:24AM
Princeton Professor Cornel West (center) eagerly shakes the hand of President Barack Obama in June 2010. Today, West calls Obama “a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs.” | Pablo Martinez Monsivais~AP
Updated: October 29, 2011 12:35AM
Millions of Americans endured financial calamities in the recession. But for many in the black community, job loss has knocked them out of the middle class and back into poverty. And some experts warn of a historic reversal of hard-won economic gains that took black people decades to achieve.
“History is going to say the black middle class was decimated” over the past few years, said Maya Wiley, director of the Center for Social Inclusion. “But we’re not done writing history.”
Adds Algernon Austin, director of the Economic Policy Institute’s Program on Race, Ethnicity and the Economy: “The recession is not over for black folks.”
In 2004, the median net worth of white households was $134,280, compared with $13,450 for black households, according to an analysis of Federal Reserve data by the Economic Policy Institute. By 2009, the median net worth for white households had fallen 24 percent to $97,860; the median net worth for black households had fallen 83 percent to $2,170, according to the institute.
Austin described the wealth gap this way: “In 2009, for every dollar of wealth the average white household had, black households only had two cents.”
Austin thinks more black people than ever before could fall out of the middle class because the unemployment rate for college-educated blacks recently peaked and blacks are overrepresented in state and local government jobs. Those are jobs that are being eliminated because of massive budget shortfalls.
Since the end of the recession, which lasted from 2007 to 2009, the overall unemployment rate has fallen from 9.4 to 9.1 percent, while the black unemployment rate has risen from 14.7 to 16.2 percent, according to the Department of Labor. Last April, black male unemployment hit the highest rate since the government began keeping track in 1972. Only 56.9 percent of black men over 20 were working, compared with 68.1 percent of white men.
Even college-educated blacks fared worse than their white counterparts in the recession. In 2007, unemployment for college-educated whites was 1.8 percent; for college-educated blacks it was 2.7 percent. Now, the college-educated unemployment rate is 3.9 percent for whites and 7 percent for blacks.
Nearly 8 percent of African Americans who bought homes from 2005 to 2008 have lost them to foreclosure, compared with 4.5 percent of whites, according to an estimate by the Center for Responsible Lending.
Some see a bitter irony in soaring black unemployment and the decline of the black middle class on the watch of the first black president.
“I thought Barack Obama could have provided some way out. But he lacks backbone,” Princeton Professor Cornel West told truthdig.com recently.
West said Obama sold out the poor to become “a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats. . . . I don’t think in good conscience I could tell anybody to vote for Obama.”
Wiley said Obama should be applauded for several initiatives that have helped the black middle class, such as programs to modify certain mortgages and prevent foreclosure because of job loss. But she would like Obama to aggressively counter the suggestion that first black president would be showing favoritism if he specifically helped black people.
“It’s the right thing to do for the nation,” she said. “Black people are a huge segment of the population, they’re especially hard-hit, and the country cannot recover if the black community — as well as the white community and others — does not recover.”