Defining the Global Black Middle Class
Grace Khunou and Kris Marsh
The growth of a Black middle class has been regarded as an important benchmark for Black people’s social and economic standing. Some perspectives focus on the social mobility of this group and purport it as evidence that discrimination and prejudice have eroded. Social science literature provides evidence that middle-class status is precarious for Black populations who have achieved it. However, as a collective and global group, middle-class Black people continue to face historical and persistent marginalization, discrimination, and segregation. For these reasons, scholars also still grapple with how to conceptualize the Black middle class and identify its members. Black middle-class scholarship examines a breadth and depth of subjects including but not limited to marriage and mate selection, wealth accumulation, consumption patterns, participation in the arts, community mobilization, political activism, health and well-being, and social movements.
This special issue highlights scholarship on the global Black middle class that informs policy, especially wealth generation and management policies, for previously excluded racial, ethnic, and/or social groups around the globe.
CONCEPTUALIZING THE GLOBAL BLACK MIDDLE CLASS
Studies on the Black experience have been significant in helping us understand how Blackness manifests and is experienced. An important factor for most scholars on the Black experience is the homogeneity of the experience due to intersections of class, geography, religion, gender, sexuality, and more. In our attempts to understand the Black experience, it has, however, been significant to use a comparative lens to understand how this experience manifests in the Diaspora. Although there are divergences of experiences, there are also important nuanced similarities. These similarities illustrate how Black people in general experience discrimination as a result of how they are racialized as inferior.
When thinking about comparisons of middle-class Black people within and between countries, the differences between Black people become fundamental for our engagement with the phenomenon of Black middle classness. These differences are pronounced when thinking about the lower, middle, and upper Black middle classes. The divergences of experiences of these groups are clearly articulated in the article by Pattillo in this issue. Pattillo illustrates how lower-middle-class groups experience disproportionate marginalization and thus could be defined as the marginalized middle classes.
The concept of the marginalized middle classes is an important one for thinking about studies on the global Black middle class. Pattillo argues that because “middle-class identity is in many ways built on the ‘otherness’ of marginalized groups, their upward mobility cannot fully erase their otherness.” This is important because most studies of the middle class tend to emphasize upward mobility through the single lens of economic mobility without critically thinking about how this economic mobility is achieved at the expense of other forms of capital necessary for well-being.
OUTLINE OF THE ISSUE
Scholars in this issue explore the ways in which middle-class status is subjectively conceptualized among Black people across the world. The contributions in this special issue are on the global Black middle class from the United States and South Africa. Although these geopolitical spaces are different with regards to histories and socioeconomic conditions, it is important to note that there are important parallels when it comes to the experiences of the Black middle class in both places. These similarities particularly relate to how Blackness was historically defined in terms of access to socioeconomic resources and thus opportunities for upward mobility. Even though this special issue is unable to speak to how middle classness is experienced by Black people across the world, it begins to illustrate important factors for thinking about the global Black middle class and issues to anticipate when studying this phenomenon.
The article following this introductory piece is poignant in how it begins to speak to the importance of comparative work on the experiences of marginalized middle classes. The article by Pattillo argues that, given how the marginalized middle classes emerge, it is clear that the middle position they occupy is a place of relative power, and thus their contribution to society, especially to the Black group, is precarious as they tend to act in ways that might empower and disempower. This article is important for beginning the work of thinking about what is possible in global Black middle class studies.
Keeping with the concept of place, Paige, in her article “Trickle Down Gentrification? Working-Class and Middle-Class African Americans’ Views of Development in Greater Downtown Detroit, Michigan,” explores how both the Black working class and middle class in Detroit make sense of gentrification by developing three different frames: “Revitalized City,” “Tempered Optimism,” and “Exclusive Development.” Paige demonstrates that gentrification views are not monolithic, and residents discuss the positives and negatives.
What is noteworthy is that the articles in this issue foreground the experiences of Black middle-class women, a subgroup that is usually overlooked. For example the article by Sacks, Sewell, Asher, and Hudson, “‘It Fell on Me to Help Everybody’: Financial Precariousness and Costs of Upward Social Mobility among Black Middle-Class Women,” center the experiences of Black American middle-class women from St. Louis, Missouri. This article explores how Black American middle-class women try to reach and remain in the middle-class position. To show these processes, the article illustrates how these women deal with precarity and navigate predominantly White workplaces. Similarly, Plank and Khunou, in their article, “Stigmatization and the Complex Lives of Single Middle-Class Women from Soweto,” centers the voices of single Black middle-class women in Soweto, South Africa. This article examines how their class status impacts their romantic relationships through intimacy. For example, when women are the top earners in the households and place value on their careers, they are viewed negatively and relegated primarily to their social identities as mother and romantic partner. These particular articles are useful for thinking about how to continue inserting the voices of Black middle-class women into global Black middle class studies.
Still, on the experiences of Black middle-class women, the article by Mauro, “Well Then, I’m Joan Henry: Coping, and the Subsequent Threats to Upwardly Mobile Black Women’s Well-Being,” makes a contribution to reimagining how we think about social mobility for African American women in particular and in our studies of the global Black middle class. Mauro’s contribution is significant because it centers pain as an important conceptual framework for understanding the experiences of upward mobility for Black women. Her article argues that as racial minorities, Black women’s experiences of discrimination have psychological and physiological impacts. Her conclusions call for further research to explore how Black women’s coping mechanisms with stress emanating from their upward mobility might be useful for understanding how best to support the upward mobility of this group.
Turning to media representations of Black middle-class, South African women, Ebrahim and Malatjie, explore this notion in their article “Success Is Our Destiny: A Thematic Analysis of Black South African Women on Destiny Magazine Covers,” using magazines as a media platform and analytical framework. They find that these women are more visible now, as well as portrayed as active and empowering members of the larger South African society. This study contributes to the literature by providing a framework to investigate the media presentation of global Black middle-class women.
From a critical gender studies point of view, it is clear that the experiences of Black men have a certain level of precarity as patriarchy does not benefit them the same way it does White men. Therefore, for Kiguwa and Nkosi, it was important to explore the experiences of Black middle-class men from South Africa in “Elusive Masculinity: Being Black Middle-Class Men in a ‘Free’ Society.” Their article reflects on how “subjective experiences and feelings of failure are further enmeshed in intersecting idealizations of successful Black masculinity, that are imposed by others and by themselves.”
Jackson’s article, “A Generation Out of Apartheid: Intergenerational Educational Experiences among the South African Black Middle Class,” on the other hand, helps us think about the significance of education for middle classness. The most important contribution from Jackson’s article to global Black middle class studies is on how intergenerational conceptualizations of the Black middle-class experience can shed light on how factors like education impact everyday life for these groups. Another important factor in Jackson’s article is the concept of hope, which is used to foreground the importance of education for upward socioeconomic mobility.
Education remains a fundamental marker of middle classness, and it is linked to the idea that those in the middle class are able to contribute more to their communities. This idea has been especially fundamental for the Black middle class in particular, given their historical “otherness” in colonial, apartheid, and Jim Crow histories of marginalization. Therefore, the contribution by Robinson in the article titled, “Black Middle Class Interpretations of Civic Engagement: ‘It’s What You’re Supposed to Do,’” makes an important contribution on how global Black middle class studies can begin to engage with this phenomenon of civil engagement in ways that can shed new light on what is possible and the possible stumbling blocks. Robinson makes the argument that, despite the differences in the Black middle-class experience that result from gender and other factors of life, civic involvement remains an important avenue for those middle-class Black people who engage in it.
Grace Khunou, University of Johannesburg
Kris Marsh, University of Maryland