Marginalized Middle Classes in the City: A Comparative Lens on Race, Class, and Power
The late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have been marked by discussions of growing income inequality. This manifests as expanses of affluence and poverty across the metropolis, with various levels of spatial and social segregation. But what about the middle classes? More specifically, what about the middle classes who also belong to marginalized racial, ethnic, caste, or religious identities? This article lays out a general conceptual framework for thinking comparatively about “marginalized middle classes,” of which the Black middle class is one important example. These groups are often at the frontlines of arbitrating, managing, and resisting the extremes of inequality in cities. From colonial administrators to civil servants, small business owners to politicians, gentrifiers to nongovernmental organization staff, the behavior of marginalized middle classes is a variable. They both carry out and fight against urban policies that further enrich the elite and disadvantage the poor.
Keywords: Marginality; urban inequality; middle class; race; comparative studies
One of the most significant contemporary debates in Chicago policy and politics surrounds the proposed Obama Presidential Center. Beginning in the 1930s, U.S. presidents have donated their personal papers and other items related to their presidency to a library that would make such materials available to the public for research and general viewing. Former President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama chose Chicago as the site for their monument. The Obama Presidential Center has grand ambitions. It aims to “build a world-class museum and public gathering space that celebrates our nation’s first African American President and First Lady, steps away from where he began his career, where she was raised, and where—together—they made their home” (Obama Foundation 2019). In fact, Obama’s papers will not actually be housed at the center, but rather will be digitized and accessible from anywhere. Instead, the center is promoted more as an engine of economic growth for the neighborhood that surrounds it rather than as a place solely for research.
The Obama Presidential Center will be built on the South Side of Chicago in the Woodlawn neighborhood, where 83 percent of the residents are Black, 79 percent of the households are renters, 57 percent are either unemployed or not in the labor force altogether, the median household income is less than half that of the city overall, and 31 percent of families have incomes below the official poverty line (CMAP 2019). In other words, Woodlawn is an economically distressed, predominately Black neighborhood. In theory, this is the reason the Obamas chose it as the location for the center, since the goal is to attract investment, bring jobs, and provide services and amenities to people who need it most. Yet the residents remain skeptical, and they have organized to demand a Community Benefits Agreement before any construction commences (Obamacba.org 2019).
A Community Benefits Agreement would be a legally binding document regarding employment and housing in the neighborhood. It ensures that residents are hired during the construction and the ongoing operations of the Obama Presidential Center; that residents are protected from displacement as housing costs rise; and that new affordable housing is built to make sure that any economic boost that the center creates benefits existing residents. Obama and his staff have resisted the Community Benefits Agreement from the very beginning (Schneider 2018). At a public meeting to discuss the center, Obama said the following:
It is not my experience … that the big problem on the South Side has been too much development, too much economic activity, too many people being displaced…. We’ve got such a long way to go in terms of economic development before you’re even going to see the prospect of significant gentrification. Malia’s kids might have to worry about that (CityCommentary 2018).
Could Obama truly believe this? First, rather than “a long way to go” before the prospect of gentrification arises, news outlets are already documenting dramatic price increases in Woodlawn (Rodkin 2018, 2019). Second, it will not be Malia’s kids who will have to worry about it. Malia’s kids will likely be able to live wherever they want. But other Black people of Malia’s kids’ generation will definitely have to worry.
Woodlawn residents have seen this scenario play out across Chicago and beyond. They know they are up against the potent tides of competitive capitalism in which they will be easily outbid for land and housing and pushed to some other area that no one more powerful or richer wants. Is it possible that Obama does not know this? He worked for years in Chicago as a community organizer, fighting precisely for the rights of neighborhoods like Woodlawn to be at the table and to determine their own destiny. He fought for the kind of Community Benefits Agreement that residents are now demanding. He showed similar distrust of big institutions with big money and shiny new development projects promising to rebuild neighborhoods and make residents’ lives better. And he showed that distrust even when the spokesperson was a likeable enough guy with a wildly popular wife, both of whom came from humble beginnings and were proudly Black.
As the former president of the United States, Obama is not the best exemplar of either marginalization or middle-class status—which is the focus of this article—but his sensibilities as an upwardly mobile Black person in the still-racist United States are nonetheless instructive. The last 50 years have been marked by discussions of growing income inequality with growing expanses of affluence and poverty across the metropolis. But what about the middle classes who also belong to marginalized racial, ethnic, caste, or religious identities? Obama was a part of this group when he was a community organizer. Then, he used his college education and professional credentials to actively fight for the rights and protect the interests of less fortunate Black Chicago residents. Many members of marginalized middle classes take this route. But others go in a different direction—perhaps the way of Obama today. They are more aligned with wealthy private interests who stand to benefit when previously destitute areas of the city are cleaned up and/or cleared out.
More generously, Obama may truly believe that his center will benefit the Black and poor community that surrounds it and that made his political career. In that case, bad outcomes might come despite his best intentions. These beliefs also characterize many members of the marginalized middle classes who have been educated in the tenets of urban planning that privilege private investment as the engine of community improvement, and are thus sincere in their promotion of such efforts. Still, capitalist urban planning will always yield losers in the housing and commercial markets, and those losers are often the poorest of marginalized or minority groups.
Given that Obama’s allegiances could go either way, my argument here is that marginalized middle classes represent a variable rather than a fixed interest group. There will be considerable diversity across individuals who comprise marginalized middle classes, and specific local histories are especially consequential. Nonetheless, this is a crucial group to highlight because they challenge existing frameworks of hegemonic power and instead foreground the importance of mediation, indeterminacy, and intersectionality. In this article, I define the marginalized middle class, discuss four relevant theories for analyzing its role, offer four brief empirical cases, and conclude. The goal of the article is to suggest a second step alongside pathbreaking new studies on the global Black middle class, namely comparison to other groups that similarly experience marginality and discrimination as well as upward mobility. The comparative approach can yield important scholarly insights, but the more important payoff could come through new international political alliances that further efforts toward freedom and justice.
WHO MAKES UP MARGINALIZED MIDDLE CLASSES?
The notion of marginalized middle classes encompasses the Black middle class and other similarly positioned groups around the world. Thinking comparatively allows for a better specification of the particular effects of Black culture, identity, and history on the behaviors and predicament of the Black middle class, as well as the role of anti-Blackness in determining integration, participation, and treatment within national borders. Because the definition of marginalized middle classes must be able to travel across national boundaries, I use flexible and relatively straightforward criteria to determine who or which groups qualify for the designation.
By marginalized, I mean groups that have experienced historical and/or contemporary systematic discrimination, segregation, violence, exclusion, and/or cultural denigration, which has led to their disproportionate relegation to the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder, and thereby to poorer areas of the cities in a given society. Such marginalization could be based on race, ethnicity, religion, skin color, Indigeneity, migration history, language, numerical underrepresentation, ancestry, or other identity markers that are salient in a particular national context. I do not consider gender or sexuality in the basis for the constitution of a marginalized middle class because my primary domain of interest here is that of city and urban inequality, not stratification more generally. Thinking about marginalized female or LGBTQ middle classes would be more fruitful in the domains of employment, health, or politics.
By middle class, I do not intend to delve into debates about Marxist or Weberian (or other) definitions of class (Wilson 1978; Wright 1980), but instead offer a more practical set of criteria, which include people in nonmanual and nonagricultural occupations who gain most of their income from work (as opposed to from investment profits); with at least some postsecondary education; with incomes in the second, third, and fourth quintiles of their national income distribution; and with the financial ability to participate in consumer culture above basic needs. While Obama—as a Black man—would qualify on the first criterion of marginality, he would not qualify as middle class since he does not currently have a job and his income (from royalties and investments) is well above the fourth quintile of incomes in the United States.
To summarize, marginalized middle classes consist of members of marginalized groups who have attained socioeconomic middle-class status. I emphasize “socioeconomic middle-class status” to signal that money may not translate into social or cultural inclusion in the middle class, as several studies about the Black middle class in the United States have documented (Feagin and Sikes 1994; Lacy 2007; Sacks 2018). As Wuthnow writes, “Marginalized individuals and groups served persistently, repeatedly, and often quite prominently as the contrasting cases, the negative comparisons through which middle-class respectability was defined” (2017:2). Since middle-class identity is in many ways built on the “other-ness” of marginalized groups, their upward mobility cannot fully erase their otherness.
THEORIES OF MARGINALIZED MIDDLE CLASSES
The most foundational theorization of being in the middle of two worlds comes from W. E. B. Du Bois’s classic formulation of double consciousness. “One ever feels his two-ness,” Du Bois wrote of the Black American experience: “an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder” (1904:5). Yet double consciousness assumes within it a particular social class position. In the same essay, Du Bois recognized the disproportionate poverty experienced by African Americans, writing: “To be a poor man is hard, but to be a poor race in a land of dollars is the very bottom of hardships” (7). Despite his own middle-class status, Du Bois imagined Black Americans as oppressed both because they were Black and because they were poor. Marginalized middle classes, however, exist in three dimensions—their national identity, their marginalized (racial, ethnic, religious, minority…) identity, and their distance and difference from the assumed and historical poverty of that marginalized identity. The following four theories speak to this complexity.
Du Bois’s discussion of the “Talented Tenth” theoretically (and practically) tackles the complex position of marginalized middle classes. For Du Bois and many scholar activists of his era, “racial uplift” was the duty of the “Talented Tenth,” or that small segment of the Black community who had achieved both educational and professional success. It was not simply enough that they had succeeded; the true measure of their worth was how they enabled other Black people to succeed. “Did the college graduates, with all their fine theories of life, really live?” Du Bois asked. “Are they useful men helping to civilize and elevate their less fortunate fellows?” (1903:48, emphasis added). While scholars debate Du Bois’s evolving position on the Talented Tenth (James 1997; Morris 2015; Reed 1997), his core analysis of how racial and class stratification work is still insightful. Those in power are not going to freely supply the resources and tools for marginalized groups to prosper; instead, such opportunities must be taken—both through individual social mobility and collective political agitation—and whatever benefits that come of such efforts must be shared widely. Successful members of marginalized groups have a duty to “sacrifice their personal interests and endeavors in favor of community leadership activities designed to improve the social, economic and political condition of the race” (Battle and Wright 2002:655). Under this theory, we would expect that members of marginalized middle classes across various national contexts would leverage their political and economic resources for collective benefit, including at the neighborhood level. This is precisely how the Obamas framed their choice of the Woodlawn neighborhood for the Obama Presidential Center.
This is only one side of the coin, however, and the character of marginalized middle classes is variable. They can just as likely fight to dismantle oppression as to uphold it, as in the second theoretical proposition. As a result of moving into schools, institutions, neighborhoods, occupations, and sometimes even families (through intermarriage) from which they were once barred, marginalized middle classes forge alliances with powerful hegemonic elites and can consequently act to exclude and dominate other, more marginal members of their own group. Cohen (1999) refers to this process as “secondary marginalization,” whereby members of a disenfranchised group establish bases upon which they are superior to members of some subclass of that same group, who command even less moral or political legitimacy or power. In Cohen’s example, Black professional leaders obscured the problem of HIV and AIDS in the Black community because it was initially suffered by gay men, sex workers, and drug users. Within the marginalized category of “Black people” existed these even more marginalized subgroups. Black middle-class leaders thought that fighting for the health and survival of gay men, sex workers, and drug users would bring shame and negative attention to all Black people, and so they kept quiet or, even worse, participated in vilification. Here we see the importance of intersectionality theory (Collins and Bilge 2016), which foregrounds how there is no master identity, but rather multiple intersecting identities that lead to complex simultaneities of privilege and disadvantage, power and vulnerability (Lorde 1983). The practices of differentiation that marginalized middle classes engage in are ultimately political acts, as they privilege certain modes of action, define “out-groups” and “under-groups,” specify which voices will be heard, and determine how resources will be distributed. In doing so, some subgroups become doubly marginalized, primarily at the hands of dominant elites and secondarily by members of their own group. Secondary marginalization emphasizes the oppressive potential of marginalized middle classes.
Whereas in secondary marginalization the privileged members of a marginalized group oppress those within their own group who have even more stigmatized identities, the theory of middleman minorities is about alternately serving and oppressing members outside of one’s own group. Hubert Blaylock (1967) and then Edna Bonacich (1973) first laid out a theory of “middleman minorities” as applied to immigrant ethnic entrepreneurs in the U.S. context, where ethnic immigrant entrepreneurs often work in poor African American neighborhoods. Bonacich characterized this group as “act[ing] as a buffer for elites…” and “plug[ging] the status gap between elites and masses, acting as middlemen between the two” (584). More recent literature about middleman minorities in the United States documents the presence of Jewish, Asian, and Middle Eastern immigrant merchants in low-income and racial minority neighborhoods (Abraham and Shryock 2000; Lee 2002; Min 1996). The consumer goods and services that they provide fill the void left when major capital investments chase the religious, racial, or linguistic elite. In that way, middleman minorities offer much-needed commerce to disinvested neighborhoods. However, the presence of middleman minorities also foments frustration among native marginalized groups, since newcomers to the country seem to have an easier time getting conventional financing and licensing than those born and raised in the United States. This intergroup tension keeps focus off of and away from the elite and wealthy.
A final relevant theory comes from the workings of colonialism. The dilemma of the middle was an acute feature of colonial governance, which either used existing local stratification systems or promoted new forms of stratification in order to rule. Under colonialism, the elite of the colonized society became a part of the marginalized subaltern group. Such actors across the colonial world staffed the police forces, worked as translators, did the paperwork, and doled out to their fellow colonial subjects whatever scant provisions were allotted by the imperial government, whose actors were often absent. They were marginalized by the imperial power for being non-European, but they were part of a middle class because they were paid for their work, often in a newly established wage labor system. Theorist Franz Fanon (1963:150) characterized them as “stupidly, contemptibly, cynically bourgeois.” Yet one could argue that as a Black Martinican and university-trained psychiatrist, Fanon was also a part of a marginalized middle class. This would also be true of the thousands of college students and graduates who made up the membership of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) during the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, as well as the many Black professionals who staff contemporary protest and nonprofit organizations that fight police brutality, build affordable housing, and support union organizing. Sometimes, middle-class and native agents of colonialism used their educations, language skills, and insider knowledge to support the revolutions that won independence, and such people continue to fight for justice and rights under neocolonial arrangements, once again illustrating the indeterminate and variable role of this population.
COMPARATIVE EMPIRICAL EXAMPLES OF MARGINALIZED MIDDLE CLASSES
My research on the activities of Black middle-class professionals in the revitalization and gentrification of a poor Black neighborhood in Chicago forms the basis for my theorizing about marginalized middle classes (Pattillo 2007). In the North Kenwood-Oakland neighborhood of Chicago, middle-class Black residents acted as brokers—of mortgage dollars, jobs, political recognition, street cleaning, and other resources—spanning the space between established centers of White economic and political power and the needs of a down-but-not-out Black neighborhood. Their variable impact was seen in their efforts to improve educational options in the neighborhood. There was no question that something had to be done to remedy the disgraceful state of the schools in North Kenwood-Oakland. There was also no question that the activists who worked hard to open new schools wanted to improve the educational options available to local Black parents. The available reform tools, however—schools with selective enrollment criteria, charter schools, and small schools—made school reform more exclusive and put limits on the ability of more disadvantaged Black families to benefit from the new schools. This is the power structure under which marginalized middle classes—in this case, Black professional neighborhood activists—operate. These constraints yielded mixed results. The new schools have remained predominately Black and have shown positive outcomes in attendance, test scores, school safety, and graduation rates. They also have high proportions of low-income students, although lower than the district overall. Yet they are not easily accessible to neighborhood residents. The high school and one of the new elementary schools accept students from across the entire city, either through a lottery system or an entrance exam. This means that Black students who live in the immediate neighborhood have to get in line with everyone else, lowering their chances of admission. This is the kind of outcome that Woodlawn residents hope to avoid through a Community Benefits Agreement with the Obama Presidential Center. Overall, in the North Kenwood-Oakland schools’ case, the marginalized (Black) middle-class activists brokered a valuable resource that nonetheless had limited utility for low-income Black families in the neighborhood.
Perhaps the most comparable situation to the U.S. case is that of South Africa and the growth of the Black middle class after apartheid. Focusing on the role of this marginalized middle class in the changing geography of South African cities, Roger Southall (2016:186) writes
[N]ew geographies of exclusion based upon the inheritance of racial division and the unregulated workings of property and labour markets, have been further entrenched, and the poverty of the townships continues to be hidden away. Such neo-apartheid has seen a further dispersion of upper-income consumer and business opportunities to the suburbs. This has brought about ‘enclavisation’ involving ‘gated communities’ and a shift to class rather than race-based segregation, as middle-class blacks increasingly move to town house complexes and more expensive high-walled dwellings in the formerly exclusive white areas.
At the same time, Southall writes, “the upgrading of Soweto has made the township more attractive to both the middle class and lower middle class, although even there the drift to enclavisation is evident” (186). In other words, the Black middle class is increasingly residentially mobile, both integrating into White areas and upgrading Black areas (also see Carter 2012), but exacerbating class segregation through their erection or maintenance of gated communities. Given the newness of this phenomenon, it is important to ask if Black middle-class movement into White areas of South African cities has been met with White flight, which would lead to those destinations becoming predominately Black in a matter of years. Evidence about the persistence of racial segregation in South African cities suggests this is likely the case (Christopher 2005). The question then turns to class segregation within or across Black communities. The U.S. case shows that residential class segregation is higher among African Americans than among White Americans (Reardon and Bischoff 2011), which is evidence of marginalized middle classes further marginalizing poor members of the same group. How might this play out in South Africa?
Thinking comparatively about marginalized middle classes requires thinking beyond race. In India, one salient axis of stratification is the caste system, with Dalits (previously called “untouchables”) constituting the lowest group in the caste system. Srinivas’s (2016) survey-based research on the Dalit middle class is fascinating for the number of domains studied, from middle-class Dalits’ residential location to their experiences of discrimination to their marriage patterns. One topic that yields particular comparative purchase is evidence of the duty to give back, posited by Du Bois’s theory of the Talented Tenth. If the group’s well-being is important for one’s own well-being, then members of the marginalized middle class should participate in the uplift of other members of the group who are less fortunate. In the literature on African Americans, this is also referred to as the concept of “linked fate” (Dawson 1994). Quite the opposite of secondary marginalization, linked fate compels marginalized middle-class group members to give an extra hand up to those with fewer opportunities. Srinivas finds exactly that. A wide majority of middle-class Dalits participate in one or more Dalit organizations fighting for the betterment of the group overall. In this way, upward mobility has not erased Dalit identity, and this marginalized middle class serves as a major force behind political activism and the push to receive benefits from the state.
The final example goes in a different direction. The young North African professionals that Beaman (2017) interviewed in France had a weaker connection to their North African ancestry and a greater attachment to their French-ness. Their frustration, instead, was that White French people denied them French-ness through acts of both subtle and overt racism, discrimination, and disregard (also see Lamont et al. 2016). Nonetheless, these young marginalized middle-class Frenchman clung even tighter to the ideas of the French Republic. Beaman (2017:97) writes: “Children of maghrébin immigrants are rejected despite belonging to France. They are staunch defenders of the Republican model but feel in their case it is not implemented correctly. They want all French citizens to be treated the same. They do not assert an oppositional identity or consciousness. They accept, rather than reject, France.” So these young people do not want the U.S.-style affirmative action or Indian-style reservation system that singles Black or Dalit people out for special consideration and preferences. Instead, they want everyone to be treated the same. They want Republicanism realized. Their movement about the city illustrates this desire. Beaman writes
Most of my respondents, about 65 percent, live in the banlieues [working-class suburbs]…. Many respondents who are residents of the banlieues nonetheless work, attend school, or regularly socialize in Paris and travel back and forth by metro, bus, and tram. This cross-boundary movement appears to be a privilege of the middle-class segment of the North African second generation, for working-class individuals I encountered spend more time in their neighborhoods or banlieue communities and are less likely to spend time in Paris (57–58).
While Beaman does not directly engage how this young North African-origin professional class will help to remake the city through their boundary-spanning movement, her observation raises questions about how consumer dollars get spent within or outside of marginalized neighborhoods, or how interactions with police might be concentrated along these transportation routes. Will these upwardly mobile young people, who seem comparatively less connected to a marginalized identity, fully integrate into French middle-class Whiteness in a generation? Or will repeated frustrations ultimately amplify their connections to less privileged second generation North Africans?
Each of these cases is different, and each marginalized middle class takes a unique stance vis-à-vis the state, the city, the dominant group, and their fellow marginalized citizens. When and under what circumstances (and histories and policy regimes) will marginalized middle classes foreground which parts of their identities and work for or against the interests of others similarly marginalized?
The city is a site of battles over land use, housing, clean air and water, formal and informal employment, good schools, and what counts as a crime and how to control it. One important constituency to understand as a growing player in forms of governance and control is marginalized middle classes, whether they be religious, racial, or linguistic minorities, or racial or ethnic majorities who have long been kept at the bottom of the class ladder—as in the case of Black South Africans. As some members of these marginalized groups experience upward mobility—and some even far beyond the middle class into the elite, as in the case of Obama—how will they reshape the city? Where will they live? Who will they align with? Will they fight for the rights of fellow marginalized group members, or will they act more as police officers and private investors who protect their own status and enact practices of secondary marginalization?
The answer at this point is both that we do not know and it depends. It depends on the saliency of the marginalized category. Blackness in the United States and South Africa seems to be a stronger force of unification than North African-ness in France. What about being upwardly mobile and Indigenous in Brazil? A migrant worker in Doha or Dubai? A First Nations citizen in Canada? Muslim in India? Or a Spanish speaker in the United States (Cobas and Feagin 2008)? How do each of these identities play out in cities? And how do other marginalized middle classes help us better understand the global Black middle class?
The middle is a place of relative power because it is subjected to the power, and thus the constraints, of some higher entity while still maintaining authority over those below. Power is often conceptualized in binary terms—an oppressor and an oppressed—ignoring the reality of multitiered inequalities that create middles. In the realm of urban planning and politics, native elites in colonies, migrants in their host and home countries, and Black gentrifiers in poor Black neighborhoods hold this same contradictory place. The work of spanning two worlds is rewarded by the “pleasures of assimilation” (Howe 1976:613) and the competitive advantage that a person achieves by moving up the class ladder. Other rewards come from the satisfaction of delivering much-needed resources to one’s less advantaged community or from representing the challenges they face so effectively that those in power actually become sympathetic and make just reforms. But the job of marginalized middle classes is also stressful because they are on the frontlines, carrying out the initiatives of a largely invisible collection of elite corporate and governmental actors. Sometimes they think the goods they are selling are the right things for the community—as perhaps Obama does for his Presidential Center—and sometimes they act more duplicitously. But they have signed on to make the pitch nonetheless. The allegiances and preferences of marginalized middle classes are variable and perhaps even unpredictable. What is consistent is their presence as mediators, conduits, brokers, and enforcers, at one moment upholding the status quo, at another helping the rich get richer, and at still another moment demanding that the less fortunate get their due. The point to explore in research on both the global Black middle class and other marginalized middle classes is that the “middle” is the place where the actual face-to-face work of both equality and inequality transpires.
This article originated as a keynote lecture for the 2019 Delhi Conference of the Research Committee 21 (RC21) on Sociology of Urban and Regional Development of the International Sociological Association. The author thanks Talja Blokland for the invitation and for the conference theme that inspired these ideas.
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Mary Pattillo, Northwestern University