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."
The color dynamic flipped during the Black Power movement of the 1960s and '70s; dark-skinned blacks became the rage, and poor people were dubbed "authentic" blacks. Their neighborhoods became the sacrosanct "community"; a failure to genuflect to the poor was sacrilege and cause for banishment. Then as now, it was unpopular to speak ill of the poor; that was traitorous behavior and signaled that the attacker was either guilty of self-loathing or had joined forces with white America.
African-American civil rights leaders enhanced this flawed philosophy with a "bundling" strategy that sought to unite all blacks, however disparate their backgrounds. To undergird it, they wrote a race-based cultural narrative that relegated the history of self-help as a prime vehicle for black empowerment to a mere footnote.
Growing up in New Orleans, where I traveled between the working-class world of my single mother and the middle-class one of my grandparents, I heard numerous stories of middle-class black women in proper hats and gloves working directly to aid the poor.
But these acknowledgements of class differences and the idea of blacks helping themselves were essentially deleted from our history; they were dangerous and could fracture the collective.
Simultaneously, black civil rights leaders developed a targeted agenda that focused tightly on white America and discriminatory public policies, and demanded redress through government services. This served as glue and sealant, creating the illusion of a monolith.
In the beginning, many bought into this strategy. Given the centuries of discrimination African Americans had faced, fighting together was far better than fighting alone. But over time, it has yielded ever-diminishing returns. The strategy is now bankrupt, yet even in the face of black progress and diversification, many African American leaders still enforce it. They continue to seize upon the most egregious cases of discrimination to perpetuate the notion of an America that always was, is now, and forever shall be racist. Writing in response to Cosby's comments in this newspaper, Theodore M. Shaw, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, found it necessary to refer to the murder of Amadou Diallo in New York City and an infamous drug sting in Tulia, Texas, where a crooked cop unjustly arrested nearly 10 percent of the town's black residents for drug trafficking, as evidence that "not all African American problems are self-inflicted."
The Diallo and Tulia cases were undeniably horrors, and there's no doubt that not every issue can be resolved simply by tying our shoestrings, standing up and reaching for the next rung on the ladder. But the orthodoxy of an aging civil rights mafia exaggerates the role of racism.
The result is that African Americans too often are discouraged from looking to ourselves as masters of our own socioeconomic destiny, be it stagnation, decline or even success.
This is especially true for those in the lower-income brackets. Years of defective cultural narratives have convinced many low-income people that their personal worth and value is tied to being poor. Losing their victim status would mean losing their authenticity. They are encouraged to cling to each other and snipe at the middle class, calling them sellouts and Uncle Toms, rather than seeing them as people to emulate.
When crime and prison stats go up, black leaders point to "three strikes" laws and discriminatory sentencing guidelines. These are legitimate issues, but not the sole reasons for the high incarceration rate among blacks or the high crime rate in black communities.
When the dropout rate or low test scores are mentioned, black parents don't see themselves as responsible. That's the government's yoke. The most recent demon destroying public education is, of course, the No Child Left Behind law.
African-American families have deteriorated as black leaders have pointed to government policies as the reason for teen pregnancies and absent fathers. They have refused to embrace "family values," seeing them only as part of a Republican-inspired platform, although blacks even during slavery had a strong belief in family. This decline is at the root of much of what ails many lower-income communities.
But the middle class hasn't been exempt from the adverse effects of the civil rights leadership's race-based mantra. While other populations are encouraged to snag the American dream, blacks are forced to cohere, and the middle class is stunted. Although there has been a steady rate of growth in its ranks, that growth is relatively slow compared to that of other ethnic and immigrant populations, because moving on up -- a la television's George Jefferson -- is perceived as abandoning or not caring about "the community."
"There is this subtle guilt thing," says Wiley. "It's as though, by being part of the middle class, somehow we have forfeited our blackness."
So, many talented young African Americans deliberately hold back in school for fear of being accused of "acting white," and adopt the "thug life" as "authentic black." Black business leaders voluntarily languish in "protected market" status long after they have become capable of competing in the mainstream.
African Americans refrain from aggressively investing in the stock market because they don't want to be seen as embracing "the system." Instead, they are encouraged to seek reparations for the enslavement of their "ancestors" -- even though if you asked some, they'd be hard-pressed to say which specific relative was a slave.
By stepping into this historic dynamic and changing the script without permission or warning, Cosby pierced the race sealant and gave a fresh airing to the class controversy in black America. But he didn't go far enough. His "call to action" was all call, and no action.
A screed is not sufficient to effect permanent change. Cosby and others have to take responsibility for their own predicament. After all, many of them are the political, social and economic leaders who advanced the failed bundling policy in the first place. They're the ones who have perpetuated the images Cosby decried.
"Many of those civil rights people [listening to Cosby that night] are complicit in creating the conditions Cosby was talking about," says Robert Woodson, founder of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, a Washington-based community assistance organization. Woodson pointed out, for instance, that the NAACP nominated R. Kelly to receive its coveted Image Award this year even though the R&B singer was facing charges of child molestation.
Where, meanwhile, are the accolades for people like the District's Rita Jackson, who has helped hundreds of young blacks in Northeast Washington with the arts and after-school program she has run since 1979?
And while Cosby should be commended for providing $20 million to Spelman College in Atlanta, and Oprah Winfrey for helping the National Council of Negro Women purchase its headquarters building in the nation's capital, such drive-by acts of charity, which help mostly the middle class, are insufficient. "They have to get more into the nitty-gritty of things going on in lower-income communities," says Francis.
But first African Americans and their leaders may want to endorse Woodson's proposal for a "one-year moratorium on whining about white folks." When groups gather, they should leave the excuses of "racism and white folks out of the room," says Woodson.
That could take African Americans, especially the civil rights leaders among them, beyond shrillness to a genuine analysis of the problems in black America and how to fix them -- including the simmering class struggle that is now out of the jar and on the table.
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