United We Stood, But Divisions Now Show
Cosby Ignited a Debate About Class. We Need to Keep Talking
By Jonetta Rose Barras
Sunday, June 27, 2004; Page B03
This statistic in a magazine article recently caught my eye: Eighty-nine percent of journalists belong to the middle or upper-middle class. And because the media are so isolated from poor and working-class Americans, the article argued, they find it difficult to report on or to articulate class issues.
This argument struck me as particularly relevant in light of the media's handling last month of Bill Cosby's frontal assault on "lower income" African Americans for "not holding up their end" in the push for black progress. Although the comedian specifically referred to class in his blistering commentary, the media translated his remarks into a manifesto on personal responsibility alone.
That was surely one point Cosby was making but, in fixating solely on that, journalists actually diverted attention from the most salient truth that Cosby had exposed: the festering wound of class division in black America.
Weeks after Cosby's fusillade, the debate I still hear reverberating centers on the tensions between upper- and lower-class African Americans. To some, like Damu Smith, co-founder of the Washington-based human rights network Black Voices for Peace, Cosby's statement was "elitist and contemptuous," driving a wedge between blacks and ignoring "the structural inequality in the system."
Michael Francis, a veteran social worker and juvenile justice expert, agrees. He found Cosby's remarks "insensitive and without merit" and believes they "reflect the disdain and contempt many members of the black middle class have toward the lower income."
Francis equates what Cosby said with views first set forth in 1957 in a seminal book by sociologist E. Franklin Frazier. "Black Bourgeoisie: The Rise of the New Middle Class in the United States" described the birth of a black middle class that was beginning to adopt many of the same standards as its white counterpart, including distancing itself from the poor.
But other blacks think Cosby was dead-on, bringing out an issue that should have been aired long ago.
"Finally someone said it," a professional black woman commented to me before the recent taping of a television show on which we both appeared to discuss Cosby's comments. I've heard the same sentiment from others who acknowledge the growing conflict over class divisions in black America.
This tension emanates from what I call The Rise of the Black Middle Class, Part II, a phase that began about a decade ago, during the good times of the Clinton administration.
When Frazier wrote about Part I, the number of middle-class blacks was relatively small. Now, they have reached critical mass. Last year, the National Urban League's "State of Black America" report indicated that 61 percent of African American families had upper- to middle-class incomes in 1999.
This new class could provoke a shift in the "black agenda" while redirecting government policies. In the wake of the Cosby criticism, it seems apparent that blacks, like other Americans, are becoming less "cohesive" and more comfortable with challenging each other in public.
Indeed, many African Americans, such as financial analyst Logan Wiley of the District, think it's time for a full-blown discussion about class in black America. "Look, there are some rich black folks," he says. "There is a growing middle class. And poor people are becoming even more marginalized. We need to talk about this."
Class strife isn't new in black America. Tensions existed as far back as slavery, when there were disputes between house slaves and field slaves. They continued through Reconstruction and the Jim Crow years and were exacerbated by an internal color-caste system that celebrated light-skinned African Americans.
"Most of the discrimination I felt growing up was black on black," says James DeWitt, a longtime District resident and retired civil servant. The dark-skinned DeWitt recalls a Howard University professor saying in 1971 that "there was a time when Howard didn't take people like me."
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