Why would someone not identify as middle class? Many high-income African American professional homeowners respond to pollsters who ask for class self-identification by not choosing “middle class” or “upper class,” the identities usually chosen by their white counterparts. Why?
University of Maryland professor Rashawn Ray explained some reasons in his plenary talk today at the Working Class Studies conference. He said the mainstream understanding of how the middle class works often doesn’t apply to black professionals. African Americans get less return for education, not just in income, but also in deference shown by others. Discrimination continues in the labor market.
Harkening back to W.E.B. DuBois’s “wages of whiteness,” Professor Ray described a “racialized middle class tax,” meaning the many ways that high socioeconomic status has fewer benefits for blacks. Subjective perceptions of class status are affected by daily indignities like not being able to flag down a cab. The youthful-looking Professor Ray, a first-generation college grad himself, revealed that he had been carded at a bar last night, with excessive scrutiny about whether his drivers license had expired.
Another factor is different community standards of how much money is shared, and with whom. Professor Ray laughingly said that unlike his white colleagues, he is expected to help not just his own kids, but all poor black people.
Given how racialized the American Dream is, it’s no surprise that black high-income professional homeowners claim the identity of “middle class” at only one-third the rate of whites with the same class advantages.