What happens within the black community when the gap widens between the poor and the affluent? That’s one question raised by new census data showing well-off African-Americans leaving cities for the suburbs and the South while the ranks of the black poor grow larger.
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Over the past decade, the share of black households ranking among the poorest poor – those earning less than $15,000 – climbed from 20 percent to 26 percent, according to census figures released Thursday. Other racial and ethnic groups posted smaller increases. During the same period, the percentage of African-Americans making $200,000 or more a year was unchanged at 1.1 percent, even after the Great Recession.
Meanwhile, in a reversal of the Great Migration that once pushed blacks to flee Southern racism for economic opportunity in northern cities, many affluent blacks are returning to the South. Incomes and black populations have grown in the last decade in cities such as Atlanta, Dallas and Miami.
David Lamothe, associate general counsel for a major bank in Charlotte, grew up in New York City with parents who immigrated from Haitian poverty and climbed into the middle class. Now he is associate general counsel for a major bank in Charlotte, where he lives with his pediatrician wife and their three children, ages 8 to 14.
He is acutely aware of differences in the dynamic of today’s black community.
“Growing up, when we went to a party, it was all black kids, and we had no idea how much money their parents made. Everybody went to the same party. My best friend lived in the projects. My kids don’t have that,” said Lamothe. “There’s not much opportunity for them to see those kids (from low-income families). There’s more stratification.”
Despite some gains for middle-class blacks, African-Americans on average last year still had rising poverty and worsening economic situations compared with whites. The mostly suburban counties where blacks had growing and higher-than-average income make up about 19 percent of the black population. That’s compared with 45 percent of blacks who lived in urban counties and small towns where black incomes fell relative to whites.
Blacks were more likely than other groups to live in neighborhoods with poverty rates of 40 percent or more. Roughly one in nine of them did.
Lamothe’s response is to make sure his children recognize their humble roots.
“I stress to them, just because somebody pushes a broom doesn’t make you any better than them. You have family members on both sides who do that kind of job. You also have family who have been very fortunate professionally, but that doesn’t make us better than anybody else.”
Still, a gap remains between black families who live in different neighborhoods, attend different schools and live different lives.
“Other than skin color, they don’t really resemble you,” Lamothe said.
Yet there is still a psychic glue that bonds black people of all incomes together, said Blair L.M. Kelley, a history professor at North Carolina State University. The institution of the black church remains strong, she said, as does a shared sense of responsibility.
“There’s such a long-term ethos in African-American thought about giving back,” Kelley said.
“We all have someone who is struggling – a sister, a cousin,” she said. “As much as you are prospering, you are surely related to someone who needs a check from you. And you will give it to them. None of us are disconnected from government workers or the working poor or people struggling with the criminal justice system. You can be doing well, but you don’t forget it because it’s part of your everyday life.”
Roderick Harrison, a Howard University sociologist and former chief of racial statistics at the Census Bureau, said that the recent census data showing the success of some blacks could give ammunition to people who claim that black poverty is more a result of character flaws than societal structures that have been shaped by discrimination.
He said that among some segments of the population, discussion of racial disparities “quite often is characterized as playing the race card, when you should be working harder or staying in school longer or making better life choices.”
William H. Frey, a Brookings Institution demographer who did a broad analysis of the race and income data, said the changes could pose challenges to courting the traditional black vote.
Obama is pushing a re-election theme of middle-class renewal, painting Republican reluctance to raise taxes as protecting the wealthy at the expense of average families.
“The Democratic Party will surely gain consistent support from these new black suburbanites, but the active support for traditional black issues like civil rights may take a back seat,” Frey said, citing issues such as schools, housing and public safety that may eclipse civil rights.
Lamothe said he was elated when Barack Obama became the first black president, and things like universal health care appeal to him and his wife. But he dislikes some of Obama’s recent statements about the wealthy.
“It’s like now I’m the enemy,” said Lamothe, who describes himself as a social liberal and fiscal conservative.
“I’m OK with saying those who have more have a responsibility to help out those who need a hand. If I got to pay a little more in taxes I may not like it, but I’ll grin and bear it. What I don’t like it is, `They’re getting over and not paying their fair share.’”
“Somehow me working hard and being successful, I’ve gotten over? I got over because I worked hard for it.”
African-Americans have overwhelmingly supported liberal policies since Democratic President Lyndon Johnson pushed through civil rights legislation of the 1960s.
Could Lamothe see himself voting for a Republican?
“Oh, hell no,” he said.