Dream Averted: The Disappearing Black Middle Class

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HomesIn his special “Kill the Messenger,” comedian Chris Rock reflected on his home and neighborhood in Alpine, New Jersey. He then did what he does best: began riffing on his own life to make outlandishly humorous, yet relentlessly biting racial commentary.

?My house costs millions of dollars,? Rock states matter-of-factly while waving off applause from the audience. ?In my neighborhood, there are four black people. Hundreds of houses – four black people. There?s me, Mary J. Blige, Jay-Z and Eddie Murphy. Mary J. Blige: one of the greatest R&B singers to walk the Earth; Jay Z: one of the greatest rappers to ever live; Eddie Murphy: one of the funniest actors to ever do it. Do you know what the white man who lives next door to me does for a living? He?s a ****ing dentist! He ain?t the best dentist in the world. He ain?t going to the dental hall of fame. He?s just a regular, pull your tooth, dentist.?

Rock touched on a well-known, yet somehow, still debated truth that blacks remain systemically disadvantaged in American society today. His special aired in 2008, right as the American economy seemed to be in freefall and the recession began to take hold. In the aftermath, the housing market has recovered, and the economy is back on track. Unemployment is back to pre-recession levels, and the deficit is down. Yet black families continue to struggle, and a closer look at the numbers and the effects of the recession paint a picture not of a nation on the rebound, but one that left an entire group of its minority population behind.

A recent article in the Washington Post told the story of Prince George, a D.C. area county with a rare feature: it was a location that had a growing, majority black population that was also affluent and wealthy. Home values there commonly surpassed the one million dollar mark. Then, when the recession hit, the mostly African American population found themselves underwater with homes that were worth less than their mortgages.

The tale is all too common, and will be familiar to anyone with even the faintest knowledge of the Great Recession. It?s an American narrative, and the climax of the saga seems to be the point that we, as a nation, were able to collectively pull ourselves out of it with an abundance of facts and figures to prove it. Unfortunately, this is where the story branches and, for black families, the end of this chapter is far different.

This can be clearly seen in black areas like Bowie, MD, which took the same hit as the surrounding towns when the recession struck. Except while the surrounding white areas as of today were able to recover, for residents of Bowie, the recession never ended. The median home value peaked in Bowie in 2006 at $620,000. In the nearby, comparable yet mostly white area of Reston, the peak was $520,000 at the same time. During the collapse, Bowie homes lost half of their market value down to $330,000. Reston depreciated to $360,000. The difference is that by 2014, Reston homes had recovered to within $65,000 of their original peak. Meanwhile, Bowie homes are still well over $300,000 less than their value at their height.

This phenomenon can be seen across the US – black middle class communities were not only hit harder by the recession, but were unable to recover from the blows they were dealt. According to the Fed, 1 in 7 black families owed more on their mortgages than their homes were worth in 2013, which is a steep increase from the height of the recession in 2010. Whites were far better off at only 1 in 18 families, and those numbers have since improved. But, for the average black homeowner in the U.S. today, not only have things not gotten better during the recovery, they?ve actually gotten worse.

This is particularly troubling when the already expansive wealth gap between white and black families is taken into account. The 90s and early 2000s were an exciting time for black communities because, for the first time in American history, that gap was shrinking considerably. Blacks were using homes to enter the middle class in mass. Families were able to invest in their futures as parents began accumulating wealth and equity to pass on to their children to improve their opportunities. Then, when the housing bubble burst, that notion was all but eliminated for the average African American household.

?An entire generation of black wealth was wiped out,? reported Michael Fletcher in his piece for the Washington Post.

Why the recession more heavily impacted, and continues to affect, black families as the rest of the country recovers lies within our nation?s history. The vast majority of today?s African American population is direct descendants of slaves who began their journey as free Americans quite literally with nothing by way of possessions, property or wealth.

Exclusionary housing and loan policies and socio-economics made it all but impossible for blacks to purchase homes even throughout the mid 20th century as whites were moving to the suburbs to buy houses of their own. Despite civil rights victories, the lasting effects are very apparent today. The black middle class is virtually non-existent.

Meanwhile, the white population made it there. 55% of all white families have incomes between $50,000 and 1 million. Only 33% of black families do. The largest percent of black income earners max out at $50,000 at 42% compared to 24% of white families. Even more striking, is the post recession figure of debt. 27% of black families have yearly debts higher than their incomes and have a negative net worth meaning they are bleeding money. Only 9% of white families are in the same predicament.

?There was never a period in American history where the wealth gap was not enormous, but after this most recent recession, the wealth gap went from dismal to even worse,? says Darrick Hamilton, professor of economics and urban policy at the New School in Manhattan.

The numbers that fill that gap are striking. When it comes to property, the average black family holds $41,581 compared to the average white family which holds $233,793. In assets for retirement, the number is $21,433 to $138,526. In total assets, the gap is 7 fold: $95,261 for black families compared to $678,737 in white ones.

The most telling figure has to do with debt. In essence, current financial holdings are a calculation of any source of disposable income (including paychecks, stock holdings etc) after debt is subtracted (including loans, credit payments etc.). For the average black family, that dollar amount is an anemic $1,128. The average white family has over 100 times more at $180,354.?

With black families becoming unable to escape debt and work toward a better future, the issue becomes multi-generational when the best children can hope for is being able to restart from square one. The crisis becomes insidious when it?s a slow burn, and it takes the form of a gradual squeeze instead of a shock wave.

The disappearing black middle class isn?t slipping into poverty, but they?re having their homes foreclosed, they?re pulling their kids from private schools or good school districts, and they?re watching college funds dry up. For a group of people already fighting to stay in the game, any advantage counts, and losing them is nothing short of devastating. Perhaps Chris Rock expressed it best as he matched comedy with exasperation with his home, his neighborhood, and his white next-door dentist:

?See the black man gotta fly to get somewhere a white man can walk to. I had to make miracles happen to get that house. I had to host the Oscars to get that house.?
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