The Persistent Significance of Class
For most of this century, Black people have been kept on the lowest rungs of the social structure and segregated from the dominant culture. The castelike nature of the racial barrier has frequently allowed white social science to ignore variations in social class, lifestyle, life chances, and social differentiations of any sort within the Black community. Even as the formal legal barriers between races began to erode with the civil rights movement, social science research on Blacks in the 1950s and 1960s most often either ignored class differentiations or focused on lower-class Blacks, often generalizing their conditions to the entire Black population (Billingsley, 1968; Rainwater and Yancey, 1967). Furthermore, research on class perceptions has tended to exclude Blacks altogether or to identify differences whose theoretical significance gets lost in a broader study of whites’ perceptions. Not surprisingly, the empirical results and theoretical generalizations about the relationship of the experience of racial oppression to perceptions of class structure have frequently been inconsistent and contradictory.
Who is Black and Middle Class?
As early as 1899, W. E. B. Du Bois (1967:310) cautioned: “There is no surer way of misunderstanding the Negro or of being misunderstood by him than by ignoring manifest differences of condition and power.” Since the 1930s and 1940s, students of Black life have investigated class in the Black community—from its structural sources to its social, economic, and psychological implications (Dollard, 1937; Frazier, 1939; Drake and Cayton, 1945; Cox, 1948). More recently, there has been much research and popular attention directed to the Black middle class (e.g., Wilson, 1978; Willie, 1979; Collins, 1983). That work generally acknowledges the growth of the Black middle class since World War II, even as a debate escalates over who is Black and middle class and what it means to be Black and middle class (e.g., Hare, 1973; Wilson, 1978; Higginbotham, 1981; Newby, 1981; Collins, 1983). Throughout this literature, there seems to be agreement on at least one issue: being Black and middle class is different from being white and middle class. For our purpose—to explore the subjective class identifications of Blacks—two important themes in this literature are especially relevant.
Middle class as “middle mass”
One thread in the literature is that the Black middle class is typically defined more broadly than the white middle class. The comments of Hare and Billingsley illustrate this theme:
Objectively, just where the Black middle class begins and ends is anybody’s guess. It clearly includes professionals, white collar workers and skilled workers. But what is middle class for whites may not be the standard that Blacks will use. The Black middle class includes the semi-skilled. Bus drivers would be middle class for Blacks as would be almost any homeowner. A policeman or mail carrier might be lower middle class for whites but might rank much higher among Blacks. A physician, or even a teacher, might be “upper class” in some Black social circles. (Hare, 1973:45)
The indices of social class which have been developed in social science research are relatively more reliable when used within white ethnic groups, where they were developed, than when used unmodified with Negro groups. For example, the family of a high school principal in a white community may be considered middle class. In a Negro community, however, in all probability, the Negro high school principal’s family will be considered upper class. (Billingsley, 1968:122–23)
Wilson (1978), like others before him (Frazier, 1957; Billingsley, 1968; Hare, 1973), has employed a definition of the Black middle class that encompasses all white-collar workers and skilled blue-collar workers. It derives from Weber’s (1921) notion that classes reflect shared economic “life chances” largely determined by market relations. According to Wilson’s view of the Black community, life chances most sharply diverge between the white-collar and skilled-worker middle class on the one hand and the semiskilled and unskilled working class on the other.
This inclusive “middle-mass” view of the Black middle class is put forth at a time when even the more restrictive blue-collar-white-collar dichotomy (also frequently employed as an operationalization of Weber’s notion of class) is generally dismissed as too broadly defined to represent the middle class among whites.
Figure 10.1 summarizes key differences among Wilson’s “middle-mass” view of the Black class structure, a traditional “blue-collar-white-collar” dichotomy, and Braverman’s “professional/managerial-class-working-class” dichotomy. With minor exceptions these occupational groupings represent traditional operationalizations of the three different views of the class structure.1 It is apparent that Wilson’s view of the Black middle class is the most inclusive, whereas the two versions of the class structure that have not focused specifically on the Black community view the middle class as a more restricted group.
The middle class as “respected community members”
A second prominent theme in the post-World War II scholarship on class in the Black community suggests that Black people see themselves and others as middle class on the basis of criteria that are relatively independent of the material realities of their lives. That is, they do not see the middle class in relation to an objective position in the class structure or the prestige hierarchy of the society at large. Instead, they see class as a primarily nonmaterial, ideological phenomenon. In the Black community, to consider oneself and to be considered by others as middle class requires that one display middle-class behaviors, such as maintaining stable family relationships, being active in community and church affairs, and spending money and dressing in particular ways. Typical of this approach are the positions of Frazier and Billingsley:
FIGURE 10.1. Three models of class structure in the Black community
SOURCE: U.S. Census, 1980, Table 279.
In this segregated world, especially in cities, a class structure slowly emerged which was based upon social distinctions such as education and conventional behavior, rather than upon occupation and income. At the top of the social pyramid there was a small upper class. The superior status of this class was due chiefly to its differentiation from the great mass of the Negro population because of a family heritage which resulted partly from its mixed ancestry. (Frazier, 1957:20)
Not only do absolute levels of education, income, and occupation take on somewhat different meanings in the Negro community, but factors other than these, including respectability and community activity, loom large in the attribution of social status. (Billingsley, 1968:122–23)
In addition to displaying middle-class behavior, individuals must maintain middle-class values and place a high value on education as a mobility channel:
The middle class is marked off from the lower class by a pattern of behavior expressed in stable family and associational relationships, in great concern with “front” and “respectability,” and in a drive for “getting ahead.” All this finds an objective measure in standard of living—the way people spend their money and in “public behavior.” (Drake and Cay ton, 1945:661–62)
According to this view, a retail sales clerk who values education highly, works hard, is a stable community member, and attends church might be viewed as middle class in the Black community. Her middle-class position would be recognized despite her low educational attainment; despite the low value placed on her work (with its related low earnings and prestige) by the wider (white) society; and despite the lack of authority, power, or control vested in her position. In this view, the Black middle class is substantially within the grasp of most individuals, separate from their relationship to the system of production. Class is viewed as a function of attitude, behavior, and personal character; it is independent of power in the wider society or the character of one’s occupation.
Views such as this focus attention on the alternate visions of the social system that are developed by superexploited groups. They illustrate how Black people validate themselves and their people, in the face of racist assaults on their culture, by setting internal community standards for evaluating worth. For example, recent research (Higginbotham, 1985) identifies two values explicitly taught in many Black homes: “There is no such thing as a lowly occupation,” and “Do the best you can, whatever you do.” Such teachings clearly imply that a person should be judged not by the type of work he or she does (something over which one has little control in a racist society) but rather by the quality of his or her performance in the role (something over which one has more control). In short, one’s worth in the society should not be determined by one’s place in the restricted occupational spheres to which Blacks are relegated in a racist society.
The presence of a different value system for judging self-worth and esteem does not necessarily mean that the material conditions of life are ignored when Blacks evaluate their position in the class structure. To return to the earlier example, the retail sales clerk who attends church, strives to get ahead, works hard, and behaves appropriately may have earned a level of respect and esteem in the Black community that would be unattainable for a similarly situated white woman. But the essential question here is whether the same criteria that seem to play a major role in the assignment of respect or esteem also determine perceptions of position in the objective class structure. If so, we would not expect that position in the objective class structure would predict Blacks’ class identifications, because middle-class self-identification would rest on internal community value and behavior, separate from class position in the broader society. The following analysis explores the relationship of objective class and class self-placements among Blacks.
Our data indicate that the division between the professional/managerial class (mental labor) and the working class (manual labor) does represent a meaningful class distinction in the minds of Black Americans (see Table 10,1). Middle-class self-placements are reported by 22 percent of the men, and 19 percent of the working women. Further, managers and workers differ greatly in their middle-class self-placement. Choosing the middle-class label among men were 53 percent of the managers and only 18 percent of the workers; among working women, 39 percent of the managers and 16 percent of the workers. For Black men and working women, these are differences of 36 percent and 24 percent respectively, in the middle-class self-placements of managers and workers.
These gross differences do not represent conclusive evidence of class-based perceptions. The gaps may merely reflect the higher income, education, and prestige associated with mental labor. Table 10.2 displays the data after adjustments for these status factors (see appendix, Table 10.A, for equations). Among men, the 36 percent difference between managers and workers remains a 25 percent gap after controlling for income, education, and occupational prestige. For working women, status differences account for 11 of the 24 percentage points separating managers and workers, and class perceptions for the remaining 13 points of the mental-manual gap in middle-class self-placements.
SOURCES: General Social Surveys and American Election Surveys.
The effect of mental labor on Blacks’ choice of the middle-class label is twice as large for Black men as for Black working women. This finding is consistent with the results previously presented for white women: class divisions are not as sharply defined and perceived by women or by workers in female-dominated occupations. Of course, the sex-segregated nature of occupations is even more pronounced for Black women. Racial oppression has historically placed them in a classic double-bind situation. On the one hand, racist institutions devalued and exploited Black men’s labor so that the survival of Black families—the women’s domain—would depend on Black women’s employment outside the home. Thus, during the first half of the twentieth century, labor force participation rates among Black women ranged from 37 to 50 percent (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1973a). However, Black women were pushed into the same racially restricted labor market, so that paid employment options were limited to the least desirable and dirtiest of “women’s jobs.” Until 1960 approximately 60 percent of employed Black women worked as domestics in private households (U.S. Bureau of Census, 1973a). More recently, Black women have entered jobs formerly held by white women just as those jobs were becoming proletarianized, routinized, deskilled, and devalued—as is the case with clerical work (Braverman, 1974; Higginbotham, 1983).
SOURCES: General Social Surveys and American Election Surveys.
NOTE: Percentages represent middle-class placement at mean values of education, income, and occupational prestige. Class difference = the effect of class net of all status variables; status difference = the effect of all status variables combined net of the class variable. The probit equation is in Table 10. A.
Despite the way that race and gender oppression have produced a uniquely restricted set of work and family options for Black women, the data indicate that the managerial class distinction is meaningful to Black women’s as well as Black men’s view of themselves in the class system. Perhaps as striking as the apparent strength of the mental-manual division is the undeniable weakness of the status factors for predicting Blacks’ class self-placements. Neither education, income, nor occupational prestige affects the class identifications of men, and among working women, only additional education produces more middle-class self-placements.
Previous studies of class identification have typically ignored Blacks, but Jackman and Jackman (1973) and Evers (1976) concluded that income alone (not education, occupational prestige, or collar color) has a significant impact on Blacks’ perceptions of class. In their more extensive study of class identification, Jackman and Jackman (1983:86) find that even income doesn’t predict class identification among the Black working or middle classes. They conclude that racial identity overwhelms the impact of “socioeconomic achievements” in Black consciousness. Our results suggest that class identity is quite strong among Blacks but that it is shaped by the mental-manual class division, not by “socioeconomic achievements.” Additional increments in income, education, or prestige—factors that may be important in the interpersonal realm (for self-esteem, respectability, and the like)—do not alter Blacks’ perceptions of their position in the broader social class system.
Other class divisions: collar color, middle mass
While the managerial division is an important class distinction among Blacks, it may not be the only—or even the most meaningful—class system they perceived. We will examine two alternative conceptions of class that have been preferred by some Black scholars (e.g., Frazier, 1957; Willie, 1976; Wilson, 1978).
Figure 10.2 summarizes the results of tests of the middle-mass and manual-nonmanual class divisions (see Table 10.B for equations). The middle-mass division suggests that the critical class boundaries are those separating skilled manual laborers from unskilled and semiskilled workers. The data are presented so that we can evaluate the middle-mass and collar-color divisions and a close approximation of the managerial division in the same model. This is done by identifying the increment in the percentage of middle-class identifiers from semiskilled and unskilled workers to three other occupational groupings: (1) skilled workers (the middle-mass model); (2) lower white-collar, clerical, and sales workers (the manual-nonmanual model); and (3) managers and professionals (the professional/managerial model).
The middle-mass class model is not supported by these data: there is no significant difference in the middle-class identifications of skilled craftsmen and semi- and unskilled workers. The lifestyle and social rank differences between skilled workers and other blue-collar workers that have been noted by Black scholars (e.g., Frazier, 1957; Billingsley, 1968; Hare, 1973) may affect a worker’s esteem in the Black community, but they are not interpreted as class boundaries.
FIGURE 10.2. Effects of several class divisions on middle-class placements
SOURCES: General Social Surveys and American Election Surveys.
The next occupational grouping—clerical and sales work—is also one that means little for class identification. Other than the greater middle-class self-placements produced by the higher education, income, and prestige of the work, clerical and sales workers are no more likely to identify as middle class than are unskilled and semiskilled workers. Among Black men, most of these clerical workers are postal clerks, file clerks, mail carriers, and the like. However, one might expect this division to produce the greatest increment in middle-class identification for the working women, since the nature of race and gender segregation has meant that even today a negligible number of Black women have been able to secure skilled crafts positions (Westcott, 1982). So the first sizable group of Black women above such low-status manual laborer positions as domestic and service workers, farm workers, clothing pressers and ironers, and other operatives are in clerical and sales work. But even for Black women, clerical work does not appear to increase middle-class identifications beyond those of manual laborers. Black women in clerical and sales positions clearly see themselves as working class and more closely aligned with domestic workers’ standing than with the professionals and managers for whom they work.
In many areas of life—for example, occupational health and safety—being a clerical worker or salesperson rather than a manual laborer may mean facing different risks, stresses, opportunities, and challenges. But when Black women assess their standing in the class structure, they see that the jobs are still created and controlled by others, people are still supervised, and power is still vested in the “bosses.” Slightly higher income may mean more control over other aspects of their lives but does not place those women in a position to fully shape their own lives.
These data clearly reinforce other findings that the critical class division perceived is the one between managers and workers. Even when we compare skilled workers and managers who have similar levels of education, income, and prestige, managers are 26.4 percent more likely to identify themselves as middle class (see Figure 10.2). The differences are not as great for women, but 15.8 percent more women managers than clerical workers identify as middle class at the same status levels.2 In short, the mental-manual dichotomy is by far the most meaningful dimension in determining who is seen as middle class in the Black community.
Comparisons of Blacks and Whites
To this point, the data suggest that the perceived criterion for inclusion in the middle class is the same among Blacks as among whites—managerial position. But we have not yet directly compared the class identification process for Blacks and whites. Although the arguments of Frazier, (1957) Willie (1976), Wilson (1978), and others seem to suggest that Blacks are less class conscious—and more status conscious—than whites, such a conclusion is not self-evident. In fact, several researchers have rather forcefully contended that the Black working class is more class conscious, has a stronger sense of social injustice, and is more militant than the white working class (Leggett, 1968; Geschwender, 1977; Robinson and Bell, 1978; Schlozman and Verba, 1979; Gurin et al., 1980; and Schulman et al., 1983). Bonacich’s (1980:16) summary statement is typical of this perspective: “Black workers in the United States, despite their subproletarian status (or perhaps more accurately, because of it) are undoubtedly more class conscious and ready for socialist revolution than the white working class.”
Some of the research on Blacks has shown a tendency to draw such conclusions from demonstrations of militant behavior; for example, Geschwender (1977) takes incidents of Black worker militancy as evidence that Black workers are more class conscious than white workers. We have repeatedly cautioned against assuming that lack of successful worker militancy or revolution is evidence of a lack of class consciousness. In this case, even though the conclusion is reversed—Blacks are deemed more, not less, class conscious—the inference is no less troublesome. Blacks’ class consciousness must be assessed by direct examination, not inferred from militant acts.
Leggett’s study of Detroit autoworkers and the study by Schulman and his colleagues of a Southern textile community are exceptions because they directly question both Black and white workers on class issues. In part, Leggett (1968:4) also tends to equate militancy with class consciousness: “Many American Negroes have displayed class consciousness by expressing militant views and by taking aggressive political action. The militant Negro is particularly common among blue-collar workers found in large urban ghettoes.” But in Leggett’s scale for measuring class consciousness, the highest levels—more frequently reported by Blacks—clearly indicate a willingness for social change; however, that may reflect a “race” rather than a “class” consciousness.3 Fortunately, the study also provides us with a wealth of comments from Black workers that attest to a strong sense of class thinking in the Black community. Here, for example, are some Black responses to the question: “Who gets the profits when business booms in Detroit?”
You know who gets the profits. The stockholders. The big wigs get the big fat bonuses the more they produce.
The manufacturers. The worker just gets a living out of it. The profits go to the operators.
The owners of big business. The rich man. He’s the one that gets the profits. (Leggett, 1968:9, 100)
To explore whether Blacks are more or less likely than whites to perceive class divisions, we will examine two factors. First, since Blacks are more concentrated in the working class than whites, they should be more likely than whites to identify as working class. Second, if class divisions are more clearly perceived in the Black community, then the difference between Black managers and workers in the percentage of middle-class placements should be greater than the gap between white managers and workers.4
FIGURE 10.3. Black-white differences in class self-placements
SOURCES: General Social Surveys and American Election Surveys.
Figure 10.3 displays the data from the GSS and the Election Sample bearing on the two class questions (see Table 10.C for equations). First, even when comparing Black and white workers having equivalent levels of education, income, and prestige, 17 percent more white males (N = 6,544) and 27 percent more white females (N = 4,709) identify as working class than Black men (N = 679) and Black women (N = 698). Only 19 percent of all Black male workers but fully 36 percent of all white male workers identify as middle class. These differences are even more pronounced among working women, where only 14 percent of Blacks but 41 percent of whites identify with the middle class. Black workers seem more reluctant to take on the middle-class label than white workers. Although by a smaller margin, it is also the case that white managers and professionals are more likely to identify as middle class than their Black counterparts: among the men, 59 percent of white managers but 50 percent of Black managers; among working women, 49 percent of white managers but only 28 percent of Black managers.
Why do so many Black managers and professionals consider themselves working class? One common but, we believe, false explanation is that racial oppression diminishes the importance of class in a person’s identity. For example, Jackman and Jackman (1983) cite attachment to race to explain the finding that Black class identifications were not related to prestige, income, or education. They discovered that Blacks who identified as middle or working class felt warmer toward “Blacks” than they did toward their own class. The Jackmans concluded that for middle- and working-class Blacks, class identity is secondary to racial identity, and “subordinate statuses are more personally compelling—people are not equally influenced by all their group memberships, as pluralists assume, but instead are most sensitive to those that give them a subordinate status” (1983: 86).
A key problem with this line of reasoning is its assumption that human beings rank-order their multiple statuses. An emerging body of Black feminist thought makes clear that Black women (a group with the additional subordinate status of gender) do not rank the multiple dimensions of their oppression (e.g., Dill, 1983). Furthermore, Black feminists contend that the pressure to rank statuses is externally imposed and is actively resisted by Black women, who employ the concept of simultaneity of oppression to represent their experience (Smith, 1983). Collins points to the absurdity of such a ranking from the point of view of Black women themselves:
For Black women, subordinate status attached to an array of dichotomies (e.g., race, class, sex) is a personally experienced, culturally based contradiction that means, in a fundamental sense, if one were to rank oppressions, one is denying part of oneself. Thus, Black feminist thought has been concerned with the connections between systems of oppression, and with finding out exactly what holds this interlocking system together, (forthcoming: 10)
There are avenues for further investigation that might yield information about the greater working-class content in the work situations of Black professionals and managers. Black professionals and managers are less likely to be self-employed (Newby, 1983; Collins, 1983) or to wield significant authority, and are generally to be found in the public sector in relatively powerless positions (Higginbotham, forthcoming). Sharon Collins (1983) notes that middle-class Blacks in both the public and private sectors tend to work in jobs with “segregated functions”—administering to the Black working class in programs designed to ensure their continued dependency. Many who hold jobs in the public sector are “street level bureaucrats” (Lipsky, 1980). These professionals administer social services in schools, social welfare agencies, and other public-sector spheres to a clientele that is increasingly composed of minorities. The current crisis of capitalism has been particularly harsh on these workers. All too frequently they are caught between a bureaucracy facing retrenchment and a growing population of needy clients. Despite its professional nature, the work becomes highly routinized, and workers retain little control over its shape.
Likewise, neither are Black workers likely to be found in the skilled and more desirable working-class occupations, or in positions that retain authority over others. They are more likely to be “ghettoized” into the most menial, least stable, and least desirable of working-class jobs.
In addition to the characteristics of the jobs that Blacks do, a greater working-class identification among Blacks may reflect the impact of the more working-class family origins of Black workers and managers. The castelike nature of the racial barrier during most of this century has meant that Blacks have only recently begun to enter the managerial class and are more likely than whites to have been raised in working-class or “under class” families (Wilson, 1978). As we shall see in Chapter 11, there is evidence among the white samples that the class of the family of origin exerts a continuing influence on people’s current class perceptions.
Despite the greater working-class identification among Black managers, the data also suggest that the perceived class gap between Black managers and Black workers is greater than between white managers and white workers, whether they are working women or men. Among men having the same status characteristics, Black managers are 31 percent more likely than Black workers to identify as middle class, while white managers are only 23 percent more middle class than white workers. For working women, the perceived class divisions are also greater among Blacks than among whites: Black women managers are 14 percent more likely than Black workers to identify as middle class; white managerial women, only 8 percent more likely than white workers. In short, the weight of the evidence comparing Black and white class divisions seems to suggest that managerial class boundaries are more clearly perceived in the Black community than among whites.
But if Blacks are more class conscious than whites, they also appear to be less status conscious. A comparison of average Black and white workers shows that each additional year of education for Black male workers increases middle-class self-placements by 0.83 percent; the same year produces 4.35 percent more middle-class identifiers among whites. A 10 percent increase in average income produces a 1.5 percent increase in middle-class placements for white workers but only a 0.3 percent increase for Black workers. The fact that occupational prestige is not significant for Blacks or whites suggests that it is unimportant to the class identifications of either group.
For working women, each additional year of education among Blacks becomes a 2.4 percent increase in middle-class self-placements; for whites, 5.8 percent. A 10 percent increase in income for working women produces 1.2 percent more white middle-class identifiers but a nonsignificant decrease of 1.0 percent in Black middle-class placements. As was the case for men, occupational prestige is unimportant to both Black and white working women’s class perceptions.
In sum, the data consistently assert that Black people are less likely than whites to translate status differences into different class orientations. This is in no way to suggest that Black people are oblivious to status distinctions. Recall that several Black researchers have carefully documented the attention paid to status in the Black community, especially among the Black middle class (Frazier, 1957). Status variations may be critical to such interpersonal issues as self-esteem, honor, and friendship choices or such lifestyle issues as consumption patterns and preferences. However, those influences must be clearly distinguished from the perception of class. Status divisions may be no less important in the Black community for determining how one spends one’s money, but differences in income or in education are less likely to be confused with true class boundaries among Blacks than among whites. These data support the conclusions of Leggett (1968) and Geschwender (1977) that Blacks are indeed more class conscious than whites.
Trends in Class Self-Placement
It is difficult to discuss the class positions or perceptions of Black Americans without a historical perspective—even more problematic than for whites—although ahistorical empiricism makes little sense in any case. Most scholars agree that only since World War II has a Black class structure developed that in any way resembles the white class structure. Since that time, such dramatic changes have taken place in the stratification of the Black community that it is important to investigate not only the current perceptions but also the post-World War II alterations in the class structure and class perceptions of Black Americans (Cannon, 1984).
The civil rights movement, the breakdown of segregationist barriers, and the expansive post-World War II economy all enabled the Black class structure to begin to take on some of the characteristics of the white class structure (Wilson, 1978). During the postwar period, the castelike nature of the racial barrier began to dissolve with gains in average constant-dollar family income and personal earnings, educational attainment, and occupational standing (Farley, 1977; Wilson, 1978; Burstein, 1979). These status gains accompanied significant shifts in the percentage of the Black community employed in professional, technical, managerial, and administrative occupations. Newman et al. (1978:62) report that in 1940 only 4 percent of employed Blacks occupied such positions. By 1980 that group had increased almost fourfold, to 15 percent of all employed Black workers (Wescott, 1982).5
Newby (1983) finds a similar rise of Black employment in the “primary independent” sector of the labor force where the work is not routinized and the workers have supervisory authority and decision-making power but are not themselves directly supervised. He reports that the percentage of employed Black males in these jobs more than tripled, from 3.9 percent in 1960 to 12.8 percent in 1980. Among Black females, gains were also great, from 7.3 percent in 1960 to 15.5 percent of employed Black women in 1980. Simultaneously, shifts occurred in the private sector and in self-employment: by 1980, 75 percent of Black males were so employed. These trends lead Newby to conclude that “the relationship of Blacks to the overall political economy has been shifting dramatically over the last two decades. In fact, the change suggests that Blacks are no longer “outside” the class structure but becoming more integral to it in both the “middle layers” and the working class” (1983:16).
William Wilson (1978) goes even further to suggest that the growing post-World War II class divisions in the Black community signaled the declining significance of race in determining Blacks’ life chances.
As the Black middle class rides on the wave of political and social changes, benefiting from the growth of employment opportunities in the growing corporate and government sectors of the economy, the Black underclass falls behind the larger society in every conceivable respect. The economic and political systems in the United States have demonstrated remarkable flexibility in allowing talented Blacks to fill positions of prestige and influence at the same time that these systems have shown persistent rigidity in handling the problems of lower-class Blacks. As a result, for the first time in American history class issues can meaningfully compete with race issues in the way Blacks develop or maintain a sense of group position. (Wilson, 1978:22)
Unlike Wilson, Newby (1983) stops short of concluding that the changes in the Black class structure can be taken as “fundamental” or “permanent.” Others too suggest that the changes highlighted by Wilson should not be taken as evidence of a fundamental shift in racism or in the Black class structure (e.g., Newman, 1979; Pettigrew, 1979; Willie, 1979). Analytically, these critiques tend to take one of two tacks: pointing to the fragility, tenuousness, and marginality of the new Black middle class, or highlighting the worsening conditions of life for the Black poor and the growth of the Black underclass.6
Typical of the first perspective is recent work by Sharon Collins (1983: 374). She suggests that the Black middle class is not integrated into the market economy because its members are predominantly working in positions created by government policies, not by consumer-generated market forces; thus the Black middle class is in a uniquely tenuous position, and the withdrawal of federal supports would erode this class position. Newman (1979:95) similarly points to the weak position of the Black middle class: “The Black underclass is but a stone’s throw from its middle class in our still segregated society, and not much farther, either in distance or riches, from its wealthy. Few Black families are truly rich in the traditional sense.”
Debate has centered on the extent of change in the Black community and on the social significance of the changes for many aspects of Black life, but there has been no research on the subjective meaning of the observable objective trends; no research has addressed the question of the importance of changes by asking whether the Black community actually sees itself differently. If, as Newman suggests, the new Black middle class remains a mere “stone’s throw” from the Black underclass, then we would not expect their class self-placements to be all that different. In such a case, our longitudinal data would document the increased percentage of Blacks in the managerial class, and the improvements in average education, earnings, and occupational prestige but not necessarily a greater subjective sense of belonging to the middle class.
The cross-sectional analysis presented earlier hints that Blacks have perceived some of the changes in class and status. But there are important questions that cannot be answered by this still-shot of social reality at one historical moment. For example, have middle-class self-placements steadily risen throughout the post-World War II period in direct proportion to the status gains and growth in the Black middle class? Or could the strong class perceptions observed above merely reflect the thinking of the 1970s, and could it have supplanted a greater orientation to status distinctions in the 1950s or 1960s? In short, what has been the relation between the perception of class position and actual change in the class structure of the Black community since World War II? We examine these and other related trends in Blacks’ class self-placements between 1952 and 1978, and thus bring additional evidence to bear on the clarity of Blacks’ class images.
Data were taken from the 12 election surveys between 1952 and 1978, and variables were operationalized in the same way as for the time-trend analysis presented in Chapter 6. For purposes of these analyses, data are presented for a pooled sample of employed male heads of households and wives of household heads.7 The total sample size for all years combined is 1,235; after weighting, this yields an effective 1,086.9.
Let us first document the growth in the managerial class and the improved status rankings experienced by the Blacks in these election surveys. The means of the status and class variables show improvements in each of these indicators over the period (see Table 10.3). However, since sample sizes in some years are small, year-to-year variations in the indicators may be unstable. Thus, four separate regressions—including all respondents in all years—were used to obtain for each indicator a single measure that summarizes the extent of change in that factor over the 26-year period. Those measures are presented at the bottom of Table 10.3 as the slopes (i.e., the understandardized regression coefficients) of the four bivariate linear regressions, where each socioeconomic variable was taken as the dependent variable, and the time-period variable was treated as independent. In this way, the slope for time period merely captures the yearly change in each class or status variable and, when multiplied by 26, indicates the estimated gains in each of the indicators from 1952 to 1978. In sum, these data show significant increases of 4.4 prestige points, 3.7 years of education, $4,620 constant dollars, and a nonsignificant increase of 4.9 in the percentage of workers employed in professional and managerial occupations.
SOURCE: American Election Surveys.
aT-values are parenthesized below the unstandardized slopes for time (year of interview). Weighted N for each equation = 1,086.9. Sample combines male heads of households and wives of household heads.
bIncome values were coded in constant $1,000 units.
Have middle-class self-placements steadily risen throughout the post-World War II period in direct proportion to Blacks’ improved status rankings and expanded managerial class? Figure 10.4 also presents the percentage of middle-class self-placements for each year. Although there are short-term fluctuations, a significant overall increase in middle-class identification is documented in the probit analysis results (see appendix, Table 10.D, column 1). As in the regressions above, the probit analysis takes time (i.e., the year of the interview) as the independent variable and the middle- or working-class self-placements of individuals as dependent. The statistically significant time coefficient summarizes the yearly change in middle-class self-placements for the 1,086.9 individuals. When the coefficient is translated into percentage-point predictions, it reveals that middle-class identification more than doubles over the 26–year period, from 10 percent of the sample identifying as middle class to 22 percent.
The fact that objective class and status gains occurred at the same time as increased middle-class self-placements hints that the one change produced the other, but only a direct test can determine whether it was the increased percentage of managerial and high-status Blacks and not a heightened false consciousness among the working class that produced more middle-class self-placements. This question is addressed by adding the status and class variables to the simple model including only the time-period variable.
The results (see column 2 of Table 10.D) indicate that the probit coefficient for time is reduced to zero (B = 0.0074; t = 1.22) when the class and status variables are controlled. Controlling the class and status variables effectively compares Blacks who have the same class and status characteristics at different points in time. Since the time variable is reduced to zero, this indicates that individuals in 1952 were no less likely to identify as middle class than their equal status and class counterparts in 1978.8 Thus, the 12-point increase—or doubling—of middle-class identifiers among Blacks between 1952 and 1978 was produced by the concomitant upgrading of the Black class and status structure. More Blacks occupied managerial class and high status rankings, and they identified as middle class. In sum, the changes in the Black class structure noted by Wilson (1978), Newby (1983), and others clearly produced more self-consciously middle-class Blacks.
Scholarship on the Black community has highlighted the growing importance of class as a significant factor differentiating the experiences and defining the problems of Black Americans (Wilson, 1978). Organizations, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Urban League, have now broadened their focus to include institutionalized racism and other structural inequities linked to class. Today, these groups concentrate on such class and economic issues as low-income housing, health care, and jobs for the poor and working classes regardless of color.
Despite this recent thrust, very little was known about the way that class is perceived in the Black community.9 Previous research has produced widely divergent pictures of the phenomenon. Some conceptions of the Black middle class (e.g., Frazier, 1957; Wilson, 1978) hold that it encompasses skilled workers and all white-collar workers (“middle mass” models); some hold that it includes only white-collar workers (“collar-color” models).
Some characterize the Black community as highly status conscious, emphasizing respect, prestige, and esteem as critical evaluative dimensions (e.g., Frazier, 1957; Drake and Cayton, 1962; Billingsley, 1968). They suggest that merely holding middle-class values (e.g., valuing education) or engaging in certain public behavior (e.g., attending cultural events) is what makes a person middle class. On the other hand, some politically leftist white scholars (e.g., Leggett, 1968; Geschwender, 1977) have presented an opposing image of Blacks as highly class conscious. Seen as having nothing to lose, Blacks in this picture are portrayed as the militant vanguard of the modern proletariat.10 Finally, a few scholars who have examined class identification among Blacks suggest that they are neither class nor status conscious. For all Blacks except the poor, “feelings of racial identity overwhelm the subjective significance of any socioeconomic achievements” (Jackman and Jackman, 1983:86; Hodge and Treiman, 1968).
The obvious contradictions in these viewpoints can be resolved only through research that directly examines class perceptions in the Black community. The data presented here on the class self-placements of Black Americans do not support the more middle-mass or collar-color definitions of the middle class in the Black community. Instead, they indicate that objective class divisions are indeed perceived in the Black community, and that (even more than among whites) it is the mental-manual dichotomy that best distinguishes those who see themselves as middle class from the remaining working class. Clerks, secretaries, postal carriers, and janitors alike tend to identify as working class.
Even as professional or managerial position is more important to the consciousness of Blacks than it is to whites, so status rankings are less critical to the class self-placements of Blacks than they are to whites. Thus, it is the dichotomous “them-versus-us,” “mental-versus-manual” model rather than a continuous hierarchical prestige ladder that reflects the way Blacks identify themselves in the class system. Though “front,” “respectability,” and other status concerns may hold importance in some domains of Black life, status rankings do not blur Blacks’ class perceptions. Previous research concluding that class is not perceived by most Blacks (e.g., Jackman and Jackman, 1973, 1983; Evers, 1976) erred by focusing solely on status measures or the blue-collar-white-collar dichotomy and omitting the critical mental-manual dimension.
In addition to the lesser impact of prestige on class self-placements for Blacks, these data show that Black people are—and have been—overwhelmingly working class, both objectively and subjectively. With this reality as a backdrop, however, the recent rise in middle-class identifiers—produced by the socioeconomic upgrading of the race—signifies a major change in class perceptions among Blacks. Now, there is a sizable segment of that population in middle-class positions who also see themselves in that way. This is in contrast to whites, who have been characterized by a relatively large proportion of middle-class identifiers throughout the post-World War II period. In fact, middle-class identification remains more than twice as high among whites as among Blacks.
A close look at the class identification process among Blacks reminds us that future research is needed that puts Blacks and other people of color at the center of the analysis. Most studies of class perceptions have not done that, so contradictory conclusions about Blacks and the class system have remained comfortably buried in larger studies of whites’ perceptions. Findings about Blacks almost always diverge from white results but the discrepancies never really serve as the seeds of a new theory. New research on race, class, and gender is beginning to challenge these traditions. For example, Patricia Hill Collins (forthcoming), a Black feminist scholar, shows that when Black women are the starting point of any analysis, a holistic perspective is called for, which illuminates the interconnections of race, class, and gender in people’s lives. Some of these new developments in research on this topic are discussed in Chapter 12.
SOURCES: General Social Surveys and American Election Surveys. NOTE: * = p < .05. Education is years of schooling. Prestige is NORC occupational prestige score. Income is log of constant 1980 dollars family income. Survey is 0 = GSS; 1 = American Election Surveys.
SOURCES: General Social Surveys and American Election Surveys.
NOTE: * = p < .05. These coefficients represent those for each occupational category controlling for education, income, and prestige. These analyses were also conducted separately for the GSS and American Election samples, and the results are replicated within each subsample.
NOTE: + indicates p = .065; * = p < .05. Coefficients that are significantly different for Blacks and whites are starred.
SOURCE: American Election Surveys
NOTE: T-values are parenthesized below the unstandardized probit coefficients. Weighted N for each equation = 1,086.9.
1. The primary difference between these broad occupational categories and the operationalization of the class categories involves the case of foremen, who are blue collar (and thus working class) according to the Weberian dichotomy. Due to their role in managing and controlling the activities of workers, however, Braverman (1974) classifies foremen in the professional/managerial class: i.e., the “middle class.”
2. We also examined the role of authority and self-employment in Blacks’ class perceptions. Neither factor was significantly related to middle-class identification once the mental-manual and status variables were controlled. The test had limitations, however, that caution against quickly dismissing these domains. Wives were excluded from the analysis because the supervision question was not asked of spouse’s occupation. Moreover, these samples are limited to GSS surveys, while the earlier analyses included the Election Sample. The sample sizes remaining are men, 214; working women, 192. Statistically distinguishing the separate effects of three class categories (mental labor, authority, and self-employment) while controlling the four status variables is especially problematic, since the numbers of Black self-employed (men, 13; working women, 9) and supervisors are small. Further, the coefficients for self-employment are fairly large even though not statistically significant. In sum, however, we believe that better data are required before we dismiss them as irrelevant class factors in the Black community.
3. Specifically, “militancy” was measured by willingness to take action against a landlord, and “egalitarianism” by a willingness to distribute the wealth of the country evenly. Particularly in the case of the landlord issue, race consciousness could have been an equally strong motivation for Detroit Blacks—many of whom probably lived in white-owned buildings or houses, and all of whom were well aware of the restrictions on housing that derived from racial, not class, discrimination. Given the high levels of racial segregation, housing is not a good issue on which to discriminate between race and class consciousness among Black people.
4. Past research on class self-placements is not particularly helpful in answering these questions. For the most part, differences in class thinking resulting from racial oppression were neither expected nor explored. The few notable exceptions unfortunately reached different conclusions. Evers (1976), Schlozman and Verba (1979), and Schulman et al. (1983) report that Blacks are more likely to identify as working class than are whites of equivalent social position. Hodge and Treiman (1968) find no such difference, and Jackman and Jackman (1983) report that Blacks are more likely to identify as poor. Some studies have focused on the impact of status characteristics on class identification but never directly on class. They provide some evidence of status identification (Jackman and Jackman, 1973; Evers, 1976) or the lack of status identification (Jackman and Jackman, 1983), but leave us without any understanding of class perceptions in the Black community.
5. During the same period, white employment in these occupations increased at a slower rate, from 17 percent of all employed white workers in 1940 to 28.5 percent in 1980 (Newman, 1978; Wescott, 1982).
6. E. g., Newman (1979:93) reports the income gap between middle class and underclass is much smaller for Blacks than for whites. Hill (1979:78) reminds us that Black unemployment was at its highest level ever by 1978 and more than 2.3 times the white ratio.
7. Prior to 1966, the surveys contained head of household’s occupational information but no data on respondent’s occupation. Since we could not know a working woman’s own occupation when she was married, continuing with that sample was not feasible for the time-trend analysis. Although results are not presented in the text, analyses of the smaller sample of female heads of households indicated an increase in middle-class identification from 6.6 percent in 1952 to 21 percent in 1978. That increase was only partly explained by the class and status factors, none of which had a statistically significant impact on middle-class self-placements. The sample of female heads of household was also characterized by a small number of managers (never more than seven in a year) and lower status rankings.
8. Column 3 of appendix Table 10.D reports the interactions of time period with the class and status variables. Only the occupational prestige interaction is statistically significant, and it is negative—indicating that prestige differences are less important determinants of Blacks’ class identifications now than they were in the past. The nonsignificant interactions for managerial class position, education, and income suggest that these factors were important determinants of Blacks’ class identifications in the early postwar period and remained so into the 1970s.
9. In some ways, earlier analyses of the question of class consciousness in the Black community using national surveys could be considered premature, given the small size of the Black middle class. If virtually all members of the Black community were a part of the subproletariat, then race-caste thinking would be equivalent to class thinking, and separating the two analytically would be difficult if not impossible. Now, however, the Black middle class is large enough to allow meaningful differentiation between race and class.
10. It should be noted that the Black scholars’ concern with status reflected a similar trend in white middle-class scholarship at the time. And while white leftist scholarship may have portrayed an idealized radical image of Blacks, mainstream white scholarship ignored Blacks altogether.