Assuming that they are given an equal chance, blacks are in a better position today to move into the middle class than any predecessor minority group, maintains Bart Landry, author of "The New Black Middle Class."
That is because the economy is producing more middle-class white-collar jobs than any other kind, he points out. "If you came in in the '50s and had an equal chance, you should have middle-class children now," said Landry. "If they went to school, boom, the jobs available to them should all be middle class. At the turn of the century, or during the Depression, a very small percentage of anybody was middle class."
The Washington area certainly has an economy fueled by white- collar information-intensive jobs. Does that make it a replicable model for creation of a national black middle class? The answer is mixed, according to those who have studied successful entrepreneurs.
Their concern is that the government system that contributed to blacks getting as far as they have here may have instilled bureaucratic methods of thought that are not conducive to the risk-taking almost invariably tied to obtaining real wealth.
There is no question that the original key for black success in Washington was the civil service examination. It linked employment simply to a test score. "Ethnic groups have always tended to head into certain occupational areas. Jews into the garment district because of the skills brought from Eastern Europe. Asians going into grocery stores. Swedes into lumbering. Irish into politics," noted Landry. "The government in Washington proved to be an employer that would hire," Landry said. "So blacks continued to enter into government service."
But government is no longer the font of all jobs in the area. In fact, the overwhelming majority of the middle-class and upper-middle-class blacks in this area today works in private industry. Only 12 percent is employed by the federal government, and a lesser number are employed by state and local government, according to Washington Post demographic data.
This vast movement to the private sector does not necessarily mean a jump to wealth, however. Being tied to a paycheck is the same no matter what the source of the check. It is in the area of entrepreneurship and owning a company that the big opportunities lie. And it is in that area that a history of government jobs can be a hindrance, according to James S. Howell. In essence, he says that good bureaucrats make lousy entrepreneurs.
Howell is the chief economist of the Bank of Boston, where he helped give birth to the entrepreneurial high-technology eruption that is reshaping New England. Also, he is chairman of the Council for Economic Action, a nonprofit foundation active in Prince George's County and nationwide that gives black entrepreneurs technical aid.
"The emerging black middle class ought to create entrepreneurship because of its education," Howell said. "But the mindset in Washington is not conducive to entrepreneurship. What you've got is two powerful forces fighting themselves. The government is what got you into the middle class. But no government entity has a lot of room for mavericks. It encourages consistency and conformity. You can see that in the uniformity of the dress on the streets."