African Americans and Classism:

Wealthy African american couple with champagne

It’s Complicated

When I started this post, I thought it would be a straight-forward musing on classism on and in African-American communities. A few minutes in, and I found that I didn’t know where to start. Should I write about the devastating effect that the intersectionality of classism and racism has on individuals and communities? Should I write about intra-community classism? Should I compare how government agencies have treated gun-toting, land-owning older white men in Oregon vs. working-class and poor black youth with toy guns or no guns? Should I write about the call by upper middle class and owning class black movie-making professionals for recognition and inclusion by their Hollywood colleagues?

Then it hit me, I was struggling, because the issues of class and classism are even more complicated for African Americans than for those from the dominant culture. My dad used to tell a “joke” that brings the issue into stark relief.

A Parable

My dad’s joke (or was it a parable?) was about a black doctor visiting from England who got on a bus in Florida in 1952 when his limousine broke down. The doctor sat down in the first open seat, unaware of the Jim Crow laws that forbade blacks from sitting in the front of buses. When told to move, the doctor smiled condescendingly at the poor and working-class people in the back of the bus and said, “My good man, I am Dr. Arimus Glenns here to give the keynote address at the U.N. Summit on Peace in less than an hour.” The driver responded, “I am impressed. That is really something, Boy, but you still have to go to the back of the bus.”

It’s Complicated

Like the British doctor, there are plenty of class-advantaged African Americans who feel that their education, income, wealth and occupation should provide them extra cachet. (We, too, cannot help but pick up on society’s class biases.)

I remember an upper-middle-class friend of mine, one of 11 children who grew up poor, praising the welfare-to-work legislation of the mid-90s. “I got out through hard work. Why shouldn’t they do the same,” she said. She gave me a “you poor Pollyanna look” when I reminded her that the current job market no longer offered as many well-paying blue collar jobs, and loan programs for higher education were drying up.

Not-so-funny, pre-scandal comic Bill Cosby lectured African Americans about the need to raise their children with middle-class values to stop the economic and moral (really??) decline of their communities. And black fraternities, sororities, clubs and fraternal orders can be as class-conscious as their counterparts from other racial and ethnic groups.


But the wealth gap and outside perceptions are there to remind African Americans about the dangers of classism – even if some folks ignore them. For example, class categories are different for African Americans than for white Americans. Educational attainment, while important, is less a factor for social mobility for blacks than it is for whites. Similarly, the class indicators of income and wealth are different.[i] Whites have a net worth that is 7.9 times greater than blacks. If you’re white and have a net worth of about $356,000, that’s good enough to put you in the 72nd percentile of white families. If you’re black, it’s good enough to catapult you into the 95th percentile.[ii]

With only 12 African-American families in the 1%, most black people know and are related to people in all class groups. You certainly still can have class biases like Dr. Arimus Glenns, but it is a lot harder to routinely “assign differential value to people according to their socioeconomic class” when they might be your sister, cousin, husband, mom or stepchild.

The intersectionality of race and class also serves to keep classism in check for many African Americans with more class advantage. Just ask the black Hollywood film professionals. Or I remember Colin Powell telling NAACP members that people would see him in his general’s uniform at 5-star hotels and assume he was a bellhop.

They Call It Class Advantage for a Reason

No one deserves to be publicly demeaned or have their career stunted. However, having more class advantage may just mean the difference between incarceration or freedom or even life and death for African Americans.

I will never forget being detained in my early 20s for two hours with my sisters, both under 12, as we tried to enter an upscale eatery inside a toney mall. With people passing by, we were told not to move because three black women had stolen several pairs of shoes. When my sister produced an ID from a private girls’ school, the policeman huddled, and we were allowed to leave. I cannot imagine what would have happened to us without that ID from the fancy school.

But that pales in comparison to what would have happened to the fictitious Dr. Glenns had he been a local, working-class black man in Florida like Corey Jones when his “ride” broke down. As he waited for help inside his broken-down car, the unarmed Jones was killed by a plain-clothes policeman for being “suspicious.”

Keeping You in Check

More class-advantaged African Americans, having internalized classism (a topic for another post), may certainly “look down their noses” at their less advantaged brethren. But when, like most black people in the United States, you have to walk-a-mile, you learn just how devastating classism can be for you and your community. That helps to keep you in check.

[i] Bhashkar Mazumder, “Black–white differences in intergenerational economic mobility in the United States,” 1Q/2014, Economic Perspectives


2 Responses

  1. Nicole Brown

    Thank you Denise for posting–I found a lot of points in your writing similar to my own experience walking the line of class and race. I wonder, did the police officers finally let you and your little sisters go after they saw her private school id and did they even bother calling your parents? Part of the racist assumption about Black children is that we are dangerous, even as youth, so our children’s bodies are “read” as being older. An example is that of the 12 year old child, Tamar Rice.

  2. Eunice Smith

    Good morning. Insightful article. I’m writing a novel that touches on classism among blacks. Would love to learn more. Could you point me to any other research?

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