A Short History of Class Antagonism in the Black Community
May 29, 2005
Bill Cosby spawned a cottage industry among opinion writers when he ascended a podium in Washington last year and harangued inner-city parents for doing too little to educate their children. He threw salt in the wound by saying those parents were spending too much on expensive sneakers and not enough on books.
Those brief remarks have continued to reverberate through the court of public opinion. Conservatives are hailing Mr. Cosby as the tough love truth teller of the moment. Liberals have come close to describing him as a race traitor, as Prof. Michael Eric Dyson of the University of Pennsylvania recently pointed out in his incendiary book, "Is Bill Cosby Right? Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?"
Professor Dyson, who is known for rhetorical pyrotechnics, is fiercely critical of Mr. Cosby for what he sees as unfairly attacking the poor. But Mr. Dyson doesn't stop there. He also reaches into the past, attacking earlier members of the black elite for doing the same thing.
Professor Dyson is at least aware that class conflict in the black community goes back to the very beginning. The most striking thing about the discussion that has followed the Cosby comments is the extent to which even well-educated Americans have been surprised to learn that class antagonism exists in the black community at all. This entrenched ignorance about black life was a long time in the making, and is only now being dislodged.
Americans no longer bat an eye when a black actor portrays a surgeon, a chief executive or even a president of the United States. It was not so long ago, however, that black actors who could find work at all were largely limited to playing criminals, servants and simpletons, roles that confirmed the doctrine of black inferiority. Sidney Poitier was the exception, in movies like the one that cast him as a learned psychiatrist treating white patients.
These movies were seen as groundbreaking, even in the North, because they offered black characters who were superior intellectually and in class terms to the whites they encountered on screen. But these glimpses of the black elite on film were not sufficient to counteract the race message that emanated from the American cultural apparatus through most of the 20th century.
That message portrayed black Americans almost exclusively as ill-educated and poor, and argued by omission that the black elites and intelligentsia did not exist. Thus misinformed, the nonblack world came to think of the black community as a socially homogenous zone where class antagonisms did not exist.
It should surprise no one that black elites pressed into close contact with the poor were often more class-obsessed and more condescending toward the commoners than their white counterparts. White elites, after all, could escape the poor by packing up and moving.
The black elite would make its getaway when the walls of segregation came down. But for the first half of the 20th century, black doctors, dentists, lawyers and teachers often had to carve out enclaves in the areas set aside for blacks in cities like Philadelphia, Washington and Baltimore.
Class was trickier in the black world, and not just because of physical proximity. The early black elite started and led the civil rights movement, which involved making common cause with the lower classes. But, as might be expected, the black upper classes took elaborate measures to insulate themselves from too much contact with "the wrong kind of people."
This meant attending the right churches and joining the right clubs, some of which judged potential members through a complex set of criteria that often included class, education and skin tone.
Black-against-black class barriers were particularly byzantine in Washington, which was the seat of a hypereducated black elite that was known as "the colored 400." As the historian Constance McLaughlin Green wrote in "The Secret City," her famous history of class-obsessed black Washington: "Whites [who were] prone to think Negro social distinctions absurd lost sight of the obvious truth that the cultivated Negro had no more in common with the lower-class black than the white society leader with the white ditchdigger."
The elites enrolled their children in tony schools, where possible, and in childhood social organizations like Jack and Jill, where they learned public service and encountered their peers. The elites summered in black enclaves in Oak Bluffs on Martha's Vineyard and Highland Beach, Md., where the poor could not easily follow. To avoid segregated hotels and second-class treatment, they lodged in one another's homes when they visited other cities.
This version of black life was shut out of the white press, which had little interest in black faces until they landed in a perp walk. The black community, however, kept tabs on the goings-on among those in the upper crust by voraciously reading the magazines and newspapers that made up the Negro press. The Pittsburgh Courier, The Baltimore Afro-American and The Chicago Defender offered black political news from Washington and abroad. But the Negro press specialized in society news that covered high-toned banquets and literary teas.
In these ways, the black elites served the same basic functions as their white counterparts. They produced the literary class, led social movements and provided life examples for the upwardly aspiring poor. But they were often ferociously intemperate toward the poor. Comments like Mr. Cosby's would not have been at all out of place in the salons of the black elite in the 1940's or 50's or even more recently. That some of these people also adopted frankly bigoted views of the poor may be distasteful, but it is indisputably true. That the truth is finally out represents an important signpost along the way to a realistic discussion of race.
Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company