Across the country, young people and their families are celebrating the annual ritual of college graduation. These graduation ceremonies bring with them the promise of new opportunity, and for many young people who are one of the first in their family to finish college, social mobility.
For many African-American families, securing a college degree holds the promise of securing a middle-class life with financial stability. Work hard. Invest in the future. Delay gratification. These precepts are pillars of the colorblind promise of equal opportunity, self-determination and The American Dream.
And yet, as scholars Pamela Jackson and Quincy Stewart pointed out recently for middle class blacks, “Social mobility is a double-edged sword.” The paradox of the black middle-class experience is that it includes both significant privilege vis-à-vis working class and poor black peers and significant disadvantage vis-à-vis white middle class peers.
Recently, we co-authored a new report with colleagues at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Institute for Research on Race and Public Policy that demonstrates that many aspects of the black middle-class paradox persist in Chicago. For example, when it comes to education, having a college degree generally pays off across all racial groups. Those with more education have lower unemployment and poverty rates and higher income levels. That said, college degrees benefit some groups much more than others.
In Chicago, black residents with bachelor’s degrees are much less likely than those without one to be unemployed. Yet, they are still more than twice as likely as whites with the same degree to be unemployed. In fact, black Chicagoans with professional and doctoral degrees have higher unemployment rates than whites who only have a bachelor’s.
Many of these same patterns apply when we look at income inequalities in Chicago. Far more Black Chicagoans with a college degree are struggling financially than their white counterparts. And the gap grows worse when considering higher levels of income. About 1 out of 50 black college graduates earn over $120,000 per year compared to more than 1 out of every 10 white college graduates.
A common assumption is that if more black Chicagoans earned more income, then the city’s notoriously high levels of segregation would be reduced. The idea is linked to the notion that segregation is really about class dynamics. If that were true, we could expect to see segregation levels between blacks and whites decline as incomes rise.
In Chicago, affluent black households are just as likely to be segregated from their white peers as are poor black households. Black households earning over $120,000 per year are more likely to live among black households earning less than $25,000 than they are to live among whites of any income level. As scholars Esther Havekes, Michael Bader, and Maria Krysan have shown, these patterns of segregation persist even as black Chicagoans say their ideal neighborhood consists of about one-third black residents.
One might rightly question whether there is anything magical in having white neighbors if you are black. The problem is that segregation has devastating consequences for other areas of inequality. As Emory University law professor Dorothy Brown reported, at least in part because of the laws of supply and demand in a market with far more white homebuyers, “Research shows that homes in majority black neighborhoods do not appreciate as much as homes in overwhelmingly white neighborhoods. This appreciation gap begins whenever a neighborhood is more than 10% black, and it increases right along with the percentage of black homeowners.” Inside Chicago, the typical black home is worth $145,000 while the typical white home is worth $275,000.
These disparate outcomes are the product of historical discrimination but also continuing discrimination. Middle-class black homeowners in Chicago are more likely than their white counterparts to have been discriminated against in “open” housing markets (e.g., racial “steering” and profiling); denied a mortgage regardless of creditworthiness; and offered a loan that comes with higher interest rates, ballooning payment schedules and many additional fees. Homeownership is the primary means of wealth accumulation for the black middle class, so compared to their white peers, this discrimination means that the black middle class is positioned to transfer less inheritance to their children and their children’s children—hardening racial inequality along the way.
Middle class blacks also contend with the psychological consequences of the paradox. Having done what everyone said they should do and “made it,” they experience a deep rift between their expectations for treatment and the reality of persistent interpersonal discrimination.
Sociologist Sharon Collins’ pioneering work on black professionals’ experiences remains relevant as those who have achieved the most success in corporate and other private sector jobs often report even higher levels of discrimination than their working class peers. In many workplaces black professionals remain in the overwhelming minority and thus regularly confront the reality of entering into spaces where those doing their job historically have not looked like them. This leads to regular confrontations with low expectations and questions about qualifications.
One experience recently received national attention: Black OB-GYN Dr. Tamika Cross offered assistance to a passenger on a Delta Airlines flight and was told by the flight attendant that they needed an “actual doctor.” This sparked the viral hashtag #WhatADoctorLooksLike with black female doctors pushing back against the common experience of their credentials being questioned.
Public attention has also covered how privileged class status has not protected middle and upper-middle class African-Americans in confrontations with the police. In the summer of 2015 University of Virginia student leader Martese Johnson was brutally slammed to the ground while being arrested outside a bar near campus for having a fake ID. Johnson expressed his confusion about his violent treatment multiple times during the arrest: “I go to UVA! I go to UVA! I go to UVA! … How did this happen?!”
As news stories at the time reported, Johnson was an accomplished student from the South Side of Chicago who thought he’d escaped. “Although I left the South Side of Chicago, I hadn’t left my skin behind,” he said. “And at the end of the day, I’ll always be a black man. Always be seen as a criminal, always be seen as dangerous.”
To be sure, the challenges facing middle class African-Americans are distinct from the daily struggles for survival that confront those living in poverty or trying to manage paycheck to paycheck. But their experience is a reminder that, no matter how long they tug at those proverbial bootstraps, the consequences of racism mean that studying and working hard only take them so far up the social ladder.
So while we toast the important accomplishments of a new class of college graduates, we all have much work to do to ensure that they are able to fully enjoy the fruits of their labor.