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The death by slow torture of the Black middle class


Imagine a well-dressed African American man and woman driving through Death Valley on the way to Vegas to party with some of their disposable income. They are chatty, enjoying each other’s company, and hurrying to get through the Mars-like landscape of the California desert. Abruptly, there is an awful moan from under the hood of their automobile, and the engine of their expensive foreign car simply quits, the car rolling to a stop on the side of the road. Not having expected trouble on this path taken many times before, the couple is minimally prepared, trusting their smart phones and iPads for emergencies.

Unfortunately, neither device works, because they are out of range, stuck in an in-between-and-betwixt zone.

The male is not mechanically inclined, having always depended on others to maintain whatever ride he used or owned, and he simply opens the hood to survey the damage but is hapless to do anything to fix whatever the problem is. The female is more concerned about the suddenly blazing heat coming from both the car and the sun, with the air conditioner gone and her hair frizzing up.

They just look at each other in frustration, shrug their combined shoulders and keep pressing their apps, buttons, and dials. But, for the time being, these technical marvels of post-modernity are paralyzed and useless to them.

The GPS in the car doesn’t work either and no one had thought twice about getting a map, so without a word, they both start walking in the direction they had been driving moments before, each with a small plastic bottle of water from the now non-functional refrigeration unit in the car.

They last about a mile before their water is gone, their brown skin has turned deep chocolate, and they jointly feel exhausted and spent, unable to help either themselves or each other. The man’s coat and tie are gone, his expensive shirt unbuttoned and hanging out, and his feet are on fire through his $500 loafers. Her hair is everywhere, the blouse drooping and her feet are giving her some major blues as she tries to maneuver heels on pavement, side gravel and sand without twisting an ankle or breaking a leg.

Several other cars pass by, two even honking at them, but nobody stops to offer aid to the disheveled-looking Black couple on the road. The two of them just labor onward, hoping for relief of some sort, constantly amazed at this sudden and bizarre change of fate.

For awhile, they hold hands steadying each other when each tripped or stumbled, but their energy is now drained, as is their primary strength–a continuing belief that this cannot last, that this too shall pass, and that they will eventually be all right. Each step now darkens their mood and depresses their faith.

This parable references the plight of the Black middle class in California specifically and, in America, in general. Statewide and nationally, the “You can always get a job at the post office,” mantra which has been a mainstay and a dependable cultural marker for the Black middle class–like the expensive auto and communications system of our couple–has suspended operations for the time being. The Black bourgeoisie is getting left out on a desert road with no relief in sight.

Fully one-fifth of those unemployed Americans who are employable are Black folk, according to the most recent government labor statistics, and close to 22 percent in California, where African Americans are barely 7.5 percent of the state’s total population. More significant, perhaps, are the data concerning the public sector–those government jobs that the Black middle class has depended on in the country and in this state since at least the 1940s (Blacks have worked increasingly for the U.S. Post Office since 1868 and the citizenship amendment). In fact, by 2008, at least 23 percent of employed Blacks in the United States of America worked for the government–local, county, state or federal. It was the bedrock upon which we had laid our beds and homesteads.

So the unemployment challenges of the “Great Recession,” as it has been called, which have forced major government reductions in force, have severely undercut the foundation of the Black middle class in America. We have lost, and are continuing to lose daily, jobs in the public sector that are not coming back. We are too many of the teachers let go, too many of the post office workers, too many of the governmental support staff and management dismissed, and the public sector unions have not been able to stem the tide.

That means loss of pensions and employer-provided healthcare. That means disproportionately large numbers of Black folks losing their homes to outright foreclosures or resource depletions as the mortgage underwater situations deepens. That also means a sharp blow to the solar plexus of the Black American dream of equality and success in this country.

Thus far more than 400,000 public employees have already lost their jobs, with another 500,000 threatened this year, and many more have been forced to accept part-time status. Way too many of those are Black Americans between the ages of 35-60 who had depended on these career jobs for their economic status and security, and now the bottom has fallen out.

Even going back to school to get retrained in an adjacent or a completely different field has not produced the expected re-employment uptick for Blacks. It is now a sad truth that a large critical mass of Black Americans who have worked hard, gone to school, pushed for advancement as we have been taught to do, and even retooled, are simply not being hired or retained. When the best prepared of us are regularly being rejected in the work place, what hope exists for the rest of us? Do we all have to become ‘flash mobs?’

As goes the Black middle class, so goes the Black community. This is truly a test of Job-like proportions. What say you now? Is this widening economic sinkhole sign enough for us to re-ignite the Black entrepreneurial spirit that sustained us through the first 60 years of the 20th century?

The trekking couple in the desert needs some immediate prospects for relief, as do their kinsmen in the larger American milieu. Can we remember the survival skills of our parents and grandparents in time? Can we save ourselves? Stay tuned, but this is neither a soap opera nor a melodrama.

Professor David L. Horne is founder and executive director of PAPPEI, the Pan African Public Policy and Ethical Institute, which is a new 501(c)(3) pending community-based organization or Non-Governmental Organization (NGO). It is the step-parent organization for the California Black Think Tank which still operates and which meets every fourth Friday.

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