In my research, I examine the inner-class differences among middle-class individuals based on race. The scholarly examination of the black middle class is important because, unlike any other group, it is downwardly mobile, and that is antithetical to the American Dream.
I am especially interested in differences between middle-class blacks and whites. An important distinction between these groups is that blacks are less likely to be members of the upper middle class. Upper middle-class individuals are more educated than their middle-class counterparts, which correlates with higher pay and employment level. And these higher levels yield the social networks needed for continuous upward mobility. There is a compounding of resources, and education remains the initiator of all resources.
My research highlights the educational disparities between middle-class blacks and whites. I study the relationship between educational aspirations and attainment, and I’m interested in students who attend and complete college. In terms of educational attainment, we know middle-class blacks tend to attend college at lower rates than middle-class whites. Accordingly, many blacks’ aspirations to attend college are unrealized.
In some instances, lower middle-class blacks earn as much or more than upper middle-class whites. How is this possible? Colonial America was economically based on manual labor. Until the Great Recession, our economy was still rooted in such jobs that provided a stable middle-class living. These workers, however, lacked education and upwardly mobile social networks. Our current economy is rooted in service jobs that have displaced many manual laborers. It’s almost certain that the remaining manual labor jobs will not be an option for the next generation, yet the next generation has not been resocialized to prepare for college.
Preparation for college is a lifelong task. Many lower middle-class black parents in Generation X did not see the need to save for their children’s college education because they expected their children to attain the same well-paying manual labor positions they held. For those who recognized the transformation in our economy, it was difficult to pull together enough money to pay for college even if they started saving before their children were born.
Even if money isn’t an issue, social and cultural capital plays a major role. While many middle-class whites possess social capital, many middle-class blacks don’t know highly educated or professionally employed individuals. Additionally, many middle-class blacks lack cultural capital, and parents lacking cultural capital might not understand the school system’s bureaucratic nature. Furthermore, less educated parents are typically less confident advocating for their children, who may in turn fall through the cracks; studies show that teachers attend to students’ needs most when parents hold teachers accountable through regularized interactions. In addition, many manual laborers have inflexible work schedules that preclude them from attending parent-teacher conferences that usually occur during work hours and require more time off than a laborer can sacrifice. Those who make less money but have more flexible schedules are better able to prepare their children for college by monitoring their children’s educational progress and taking advantage of educational resources that could lead to scholarships and offset the parents’ lower incomes.
Part of the American Dream is expecting our children to surpass our own success, but black middle-class children are typically faring worse than their parents. My research is timely because we have the opportunity to implement first-generation college student programming in schools to combat this social phenomenon. Advocacy programs exist for poorer citizens to help attain a college education, such as education policies and financial aid, but few exist for middle-class citizens — it is assumed they don’t need assistance because it is assumed they are financially successful. As rapper Jay-Z says in the song “Swagga Like Us,” “You can pay for school, but you can’t buy class.”
Assistant Professor of Social Sciences and Education Omari Jackson joined the faculty in 2013. He holds a B.A. from The University of Michigan and an M.A. and a Ph.D. from Wayne State University.