The Invisible Black Middle Class

I read Invisible Man, the masterpiece by Ralph Ellison published in 1952, in an African American literature class in college.  The book details the trials of an unnamed black narrator who, through a series of events, grows increasingly angered and disillusioned with the world around him.  He realizes at some point that his race renders him invisible — not because he physically invisible, but because of a refusal of others to see him for who he is and what he’s endured.  The realization forces him to live in an underground lair, beleaguered and hiding from the world, even as it refuses to acknowledge him.

Daniel Kay Hertz wrote a wonderful essay last week about where Chicago’s black middle class lives.  It was an accurate depiction, full of insightful maps, detailing where in the city there are concentrations of middle class African Americans in the nation’s third largest city.  Ultimately, he too acknowledges that non-black Chicagoans, and most people outside the city, have little understanding of the complexity of the neighborhood structure where blacks live.  He describes the unique challenges of black middle class neighborhoods:

From a governance perspective, there are lots of reasons you’d want the people in charge of a city to have an accurate impression of the communities they’re governing before they start making up policies for them; but also from a purely social point of view, the fact that most non-black Chicagoans – and the vast majority of non-Chicagoans – can’t distinguish between Englewood and Calumet Heights means that they won’t ever visit, spend money, and certainly won’t consider living, in neighborhoods that they would likely find generally pleasant…

In short, it’s hard to build much of a local economy in a place that 75% of the population shuns without even thinking about it. 

How does the presence of black middle class residents, and black middle class communities, escape the perception of so many?  Mostly, as in Invisible Man, I believe it’s because of a willful refusal to see it.  But here I build on Daniel’s data and analysis to come up with three possible reasons for thought.

In his piece, Daniel produced this map, which comes closest to identifying a concentration of Chicago community areas that are both black and middle class:

If you focus in on the darker blue areas, those with 30% or more of black-led households earning more than $45,000 annually, we can see the outline of a broad, contiguous black middle class area in two parts of the South Side — a small cluster along the lakefront just south of the Loop, and a much larger cluster that covers the southernmost third of the city.

From this starting point I took the liberty of digging a little deeper to see what I could find about black middle class communities in Chicago.  Using the same 2008-2012 American Community Survey data that Daniel used, and a slightly different determination of middle class (households earning between $50,000 and $150,000 annually) I found the 19 community areas that have a majority African American population and at least 25% of households that meet the middle class definition.  Here’s the table:

A good source for a map with community area names, to help with identification, can be found here.

The black population of the 19 community areas listed here represents 56 percent of Chicago’s black population.  They generally correspond to the South Side cluster seen in Daniel’s map, with the only West Side community area highlighted being Austin (the furthest west and north light blue area on the map).

What do we find?  First of all, the data here does not specifically pull out black households in the identified earning ranges, but with samples that overall mean that more than 5 of 6 persons here are black, it’s safe to conclude that we’re mostly talking about black households.  That being said, there are reasonable concentrations of black middle class areas in Chicago.  They just happen to be surrounded by more impoverished areas that set the image tone for the entire community.  Only three community areas, Calumet Heights, Ashburn and Morgan Park, have more middle class households than poorer ones.  Elsewhere, it’s common to find households earning less than $50K outnumbering those in the $50K-$150K category by more than two-to-one.

Using this, I can guess at three reasons why Chicago’s black middle class is virtually invisible:

One has to travel through a lot of poorer areas to reach black middle class neighborhoods.  Black middle class areas tend to be enclaves rather than broad, contiguous areas of middle class-ness.  As a result, general impressions about a given community are formed long before you actually reach it.  Kenwood is a good example of this.  The community area that President Barack Obama calls home is wealthy on its southern border with Hyde Park, but more impoverished in its northern areas.  If a traveler is coming to Kenwood from the Dan Ryan Expressway, you’re traveling through far less wealthy Washington Park before you get there.  Similarly, the eastern two-thirds of the Auburn Gresham neighborhood are much more challenged than the western third that make up the North Beverly/Dan Ryan Woods area, but all become lumped together.

The commercial corridors of black middle class neighborhoods belie the actual middle class nature of the neighborhoods that surround them.  87th Street forms the north-south border between Avalon Park and Calumet Heights, two community areas on the above table.  There are thousands of households that earn solid incomes in very close proximity to the street.  But instead of a walkable destination that draws in people, 87th Street looks like this:

And also like this:

A long-time problem for black middle class areas has been their ability to attract commercial development that is commensurate with the socio-economic levels of nearby residents.  Banks, retailers and developers seemingly know little about the nuances of such communities, and miss out on opportunities to invest in under-invested communities.  There are complicating factors, however — many black neighborhoods have yet to demonstrate a willingness to move toward the kind of walkable commercial centers that are emerging in other parts of the city, and the enclave nature of the middle class areas means that large parts of the more impoverished areas are considered in the disposable income analysis that drives commercial development decision-making.

Black middle class neighborhoods may have a different household composition compared to other middle class households.  Daniel touched on this as he issued a caveat to the maps that were included in his analysis:

There are a million problems with this: it doesn’t account for household size, or life station (a 26-year-old with a bachelor’s making $40,000 doesn’t count, even though nearly anyone who met them would consider them middle class, while a single parent with four children making $45,000, whose economic and social position is likely much, much more precarious, does), or any number of other things. 

I believe black middle class areas include more single family households as Daniel described — marginally middle class and facing challenges that other households are able to avoid.  I also believe there are more two-parent households that earn, say, $30K each, or just $12.50 an hour, that lack the benefits that come with higher wage jobs, and contribute to feelings of stress and job insecurity.  Middle class?  Technically, yes, but operationally, something quite different from what you’d find in conventional suburbia.

Ultimately, the proximity of black middle class areas to higher poverty areas means they become defined in the same way.  Many black middle class residents have adopted the perspective of Ralph Ellison’s nameless protagonist in Invisible Man, and chosen to retreat underground, and accept their invisibility.

2 thoughts on “The Invisible Black Middle Class

  1. “Many black neighborhoods have yet to demonstrate a willingness to move toward the kind of walkable commercial centers that are emerging in other parts of the city.” Perhaps this is more related to the density/development era of Avalon Park and Calumet Heights rather than community preferences? Both communities have densities of less than 10,000/sq mi and saw the greatest wave of development in the 1950s. In comparison, the commercial districts of many far Northwest Side neighborhoods are not much different. I think a larger part of the problem is that many dense, centrally located black neighborhoods (such as Bronzeville or Garfield Park) formerly had walkable commercial corridors that have deteriorated after decades of investment. Perhaps as these communities revitalize, they will become more walkable? Hopefully they won't get strip-mall-style develop or more of this

    Although there are a few commercial corridors in predominantly black neighborhoods (71st Street in South Shore, 75th and 79th in Grand Crossing) that I would consider to be walkable.


  2. There is some truth to this. African-American middle-class neighborhoods are in close proximity to poor and more economically stratified areas. In NYC, you got nice mansions next to housing projects and in L.A. you got Baldwin hills and surrounding areas above the low income areas of south central, and in Atlanta you got cascade heights above Abernathy Blvd in the west end and other low income areas. And in Oakland, Ca you got nice middle-class black communities in the Oakland foot hills above low income struggling neighborhoods. And it's that way across America. These communities are what I call hidden treasures. And the fact that little attention is paid is paid to those areas is actually a good thing. Cause that keeps white supremacy looking in the wrong direction and away from our success to where they can't sabotage us and it keeps niggas and niggets from tearing it apart with their bullshit. Great job black people.


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