I finished Is Bill Cosby Right? (Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?), by Michael Eric Dyson. In this post, I’ll talk about Dyson’s discussion of the economic situation of African-Americans.
Dyson acknowledges the economic improvements in the lives of many African-Americans, as more African-Americans become professionals, business-owners, and managers, and as the median household income for African-Americans rose between 1967 and 2003. Yet, problems persist, and in some cases have become worse. There was a 6 percent decline in median income for African-American households between 2000 and 2003. The African-American unemployment rate when Dyson was writing was 10.1 percent. The poverty rate for African-American households was over 24 percent. As the number of African-Americans with manufacturing jobs went down by 18 percent between 1992 and 2002, more African-Americans entered the service sector—-“including professions like data processing, advertising, and housekeeping—-which employs 43 percent of the black workforce” (page 63). These jobs, according to Dyson, “have shown weak growth and provide fewer benefits”, and thus only 52 percent of African-Americans have employer-sponsored health insurance, and less than 40 percent “have private pension plans” (page 63). Over half of African-American families “live in major metropolitan areas”, and over 12 percent of the African-American population depends on public transportation, the cost of which is rising. While there is an African-American middle class, Dyson argues, it “had a far less sure grasp of economic security” (page 62), and African-Americans on average lag behind whites in income and in how many receive employer-sponsored health insurance, while being ahead of whites in terms of poverty and employment in the service sector. Dyson says that disparities in wealth lead to disparities in the quality of education that children receive, in terms of resources, the skills of teachers, and the quality of curricula.
I find Dyson’s statistics to be realistic. Granted, most African-Americans are not poor, but it is far from rosy even for many who are not.
I should also say something about the second part of Dyson’s title, Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind? Dyson is rather critical of elements of the African-American middle class. On page 218, he states: “And many black folk who have climbed upward are morally and intellectually irresponsible when they benefit from affirmative action—-not because they lack talent, but because they possess it and have been historically denied the opportunity to exercise it—-and then blast the black poor who have not received the slightest benefit from this measure of compensatory justice.” More than once in this book, Dyson says that Cosby’s controversial “Pound Cake Speech” before the NAACP reflects the embarrassment of the middle and upper-economic class African-Americans at African-Americans among the lower economic classes, something that has existed for years.
A question that one can ask is: Does Dyson believe that African-Americans should conform more to white standards in order to advance? He acknowledges that the purpose of curricula that consider ebonics is to help African-American children to learn white American English, and he does not seem to me to deem that to be a bad thing. Dyson also praises Jesse Jackson for criticizing lyrics that demean women. At the same time, Dyson does appear to admire elements of African-American culture that turn off whites, and many middle-class and upper-economic-class African-Americans as well: rap, baggy pants, the hip-hop culture, unusual names, etc. Perhaps his hope is that these things can be preserved, even as poor African-Americans are given more opportunities for economic advancement.