Success Also Can Mean Anguish for Black Middle Class
From the 32nd floor of his doorman building with the two-story gym, Carl Horton’s view of Boston is a validation of his success. But all too often, the 27-year-old management consultant is looking inside.
One generation ago, Horton’s father grew up poor in rural Georgia. In contrast, Horton attended the exclusive Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C., where Chelsea Clinton is now a student, and went on to Yale and Harvard Business School.
It all sounds like the American Dream personified. But Horton is a black man, and success has not brought peace of mind.
``I agonize. Sometimes I wonder whether I should be chasing the dollar or creating a non-profit,″ he says. ``I think more blacks do wonder whether they should be in corporate America or out in the trenches. Are we forgetting who we are? The constant question is: Could I be doing more?″
The number of middle-class blacks has grown since the civil rights movement of the 1960s, which opened the doors of many professions that had been closed or merely ajar.
But, in some profound ways, life has not gotten easier for these success stories.
``The black middle class in many ways is unhappy,″ says Kimberly Robinson, a financial analyst who also wears a Harvard ring. ``Life doesn’t necessarily get better because you have money. Underprivileged blacks believe that whatever you’ve done, it’s very self-serving. Whites don’t think you’re good enough.″
For many, the trick is to straddle two worlds, trying to pursue success in mainstream America and still stay grounded in black culture.
If that sounds hard, it is.
Elijah Anderson, a sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania who spent 14 years studying race and class in two communities outside Philadelphia, divides the black middle class into ``Type A″ and ``Type B.″
For Type A, race is first and foremost. These blacks tend not to associate with whites unless it is necessary and are intolerant of blacks who do mix freely.
Type B blacks tend to make their way into the mainstream, and class and status might come before race in their dealings. They’re likely to have white friends, and they might move to the suburbs.
Angelou Chiles and James Ezeilo, married attorneys who live in Decatur, Ga., a black suburb of Atlanta, are definitely Type A.
Growing up in families with middle-class values and goals, Chiles and Ezeilo looked at the world around them and saw what they viewed as blacks crushed by racism, poverty and an unfair legal system.
Today, they run a budget legal center in a poor black Atlanta neighborhood. They don’t have white friends and, unless they go to court, they rarely even see white faces.
``We’re not anti-white. We’re just very pro-black,″ says Chiles, 25. ``I really want to do whatever I can to help liberate black people. It’s a way of life for us.″
``We’re realists,″ says Ezeilo, 29. ``The time for acceptance is long past. I think history has taught us that there won’t be true integration in the white corporate world or suburbs.
``That’s fine _ there’s just more stress there. So we will build our own institutions, and our own suburbs.″
One such enclave is St. Albans, a neighborhood of sturdy rowhouses and small businesses in the New York City borough of Queens. In 1990, median black household income there was $34,300, compared with $34,000 for white households. It was one of the few places nationwide where black household income exceeded that of whites, according to census figures.
On a recent Sunday in St. Albans, organ music punctuated by ``Amens″ welled up from the huge auditorium of the Allen AME Church. More than 1,000 parishioners filled the hall, with more on the second floor watching color television monitors as one of the church’s 16 ministers preached about the good life _ hard work and God.
Later, the Rev. C. Aldrena Mabry said blacks have concluded that their children must be raised around other blacks to develop a strong identity and self-confidence. ``You must be grounded or racism will tear you up,″ she said.
The minister spoke the truth, parishioner Joe Brown said. Brown, 53, came of age during the civil rights movement, when he couldn’t get the education or other opportunities available today. That seems to have left him less optimistic than his younger peers in the middle class _ and less tormented.
He has worked for 30 years to build a business cleaning homes. There was a time when a racial insult by a customer would have stopped him cold, he said with a laugh, but today he just does the job, gets paid and gets out.
Brown left St. Albans for suburban Long Island years ago, but now he and his wife want to return.
Parishoner Ada Chappell, a 45-year-old telephone company operator, also left the city for Long Island. But ``I always come back here, ″ she said. ``I am so comfortable. I don’t have to put on a facade.″
The national trend of middle-class blacks seeking out their own communities is a departure from the past, when moving up meant moving into a white neighborhood, said Jennifer Hochschild, a Princeton University professor and author of ``Facing Up to the American Dream: Race, Class and the Soul of the Nation.″
Hochschild said her work shows there are many tormented blacks in the middle class, doing better but feeling worse.
Robinson, the financial analyst, used to be one of them, but she has finally found a measure of peace.
``You must,″ she said. ``The anger will kill you.″
The 29-year-old woman grew up in a largely white middle-class Indianapolis neighborhood, where she had a few childhood encounters with racism. She received a scholarship to Florida A&M, but didn’t find acceptance at the historically black university. Her Midwestern wholesomeness, long hair and light skin all became negatives, and her ``blackness″ became suspect.
``An identity crisis really set in,″ Robinson said.
Last year, she graduated from Harvard Business School and is now an analyst in corporate finance and lending in New York City.
After spending days in a high-powered, high-rise office analyzing the finances of multimillion-dollar companies, Robinson takes the subway home to Prospect Heights, a predominantly black neighborhood in Brooklyn.
Her street is lined with modest brownstones and towering elm trees that blossom into a green canopy in the spring. But it’s a neighborhood on the edge _ two blocks away are boarded-up buildings and scruffy streets where drug dealers and their patrons hang out.
Despite that, Robinson is comfortable.
She doesn’t worry about people peeking out their windows when her black boyfriend visits. She doesn’t worry about how loud she plays her soul or rap music. And when a bunch of blacks show up in jeans and T-shirts for a party, she doesn’t worry about neighbors assuming they’ll cause trouble.
Robinson’s airy apartment is decorated with African wood carvings, and she has built a library of black history and literature _ with a couple of business books from her Harvard days thrown in for good measure.
``I have a sense of pride living in my neighborhood,″ she said one recent Sunday morning, her CD player spinning a disc by the late Phyllis Hyman. ``I feel like I set an example and I see many other successes. I also see all the work that still needs to be done. I never want to disconnect myself from that struggle.″