Black America Left Behind

If a group of people were enslaved, terrorized, and legally excluded from all routes to improvement and prosperity, how would they fare? If they somehow managed to better their lot but then lost jobs, and were incarcerated in high numbers would they succeed or would they fail? If those economic and social changes were accompanied by political and economic decisions that put more money in the hands of the wealthy, would it be possible for that group to emerge from its awful predicament? The answers are obvious. That group of people would move backwards economically, politically, culturally, and spiritually. The decline would be certain and it would be awful.

Of course the people in question are black Americans. The state of disarray and regression observed by anyone with common sense was proven recently by a Pew Charitable Trust study, Economic Mobility for Black and White Families. The study indicated that 45 % of black Americans whose parents were classified as “middle class” are now worse off than their parents. In other words, they are now poor.

The propaganda that America is always the land of opportunity is manifestly untrue and particularly damaging to black people. If America is good and perfect, then any who fail are themselves to blame for their plight. Black people are by these terrible definitions inherently more blameworthy than any other group. After all, they were grudgingly given a break or two in the Sixties and Seventies. Because America is great and good, the redress of centuries of injustice was seen as a favor, not as the righting of many great wrongs. If the undeserving group doesn’t thrive, then obviously that group is populated by lazy, ungrateful, inferior beings, entirely responsible for their plight.

The downward mobility trend is hardly mysterious. The term middle class is indeed relative, so much so that it is almost meaningless. White Americans, who have ten times the assets that black people do, would scarcely consider themselves middle class if, like black Americans, they depended almost solely on income to protect themselves from misfortune.

Every closed General Motors plant represents not just one, but two or more generations who fall out of what constitutes the middle class for black Americans.

Increases in college tuition that outpace inflation prevent an already vulnerable group from getting an additional leg up. The downward mobility of black Americans should not be treated as a mystery, yet the same academic researchers who saw the indisputable facts didn’t believe them. They claimed the statistics were “stunners” for which they “don’t have an explanation.” They were so shocked that they even reworked the numbers. It just couldn’t be true that America is not as wonderful as advertised.

If the data results are doubted by so-called experts, can there be any hope of redress? Sadly, too many black Americans are either themselves in denial or see the truth in their own families and communities but conclude that they are at fault. Bad news is inevitably greeted with worthless assessments that amount to little more than self hatred.

Those assessments never change, even as the economy changes for the worse. The usual routes to middle class-ness are being closed off one by one. The young people who manage to go to college instead of to jail graduate with massive amounts of debt. The sub-prime mortgage scam has destroyed what is essentially the only wealth black people manage to acquire, their homes.

While economic and political conditions worsen, the level of discourse is dumbed down as never before. Inevitably, discussion of the data revealed in this study will amount to little more than questions about “why we can’t get together,” “do right,” or which moral weaknesses are most to blame. There will be little mention if any of how powerful forces have created downward mobility in the land of opportunity.

So why can’t black people improve themselves? The answer is simple. They aren’t allowed to. If big business destroys entire industries that provide well paid employment, poverty is not far behind. If black people are targeted for prison, low marriage rates and lower incomes will be the result.

The truth is not so terrible after all. It is the lies that hold us back. Acknowledging truth does demand action, but it brings feelings of empowerment, compassion and understanding of what we really must do. There is little room for self-delusion when the truth, which makes one free, is acknowledged and embraced. That alone is enough reason for honesty.

MARGARET KIMBERLEY is an editor and senior columnist for the Black Agenda Report. Her Freedom Rider column appears weekly in BAR. Ms. Kimberley lives in New York City, and can be reached via e-Mail at




Margaret Kimberley writes the Freedom Rider column for Black Agenda Report, where this essay originally appeared.