Acton Institute Powerblog

Cities Need The Black Middle Class

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While overall crime rates are falling, in major U.S. cities the untold story is that crime is now more concentrated among the underclass. For example, the New York Times ran a cover story of the concentration of crime in the city of St. Louis to show the reality of this trend. St. Louis, like many other cities, is highly divided by race and class, demonstrated in the city’s crime statistics. The highest crime areas are also the areas that are predominantly black and lower-class. The story of how this decline came to be is quite complex, but one thing the Times story gets right is that these neighborhoods declined sharply when the middle class moved out to the suburbs. The article recounts the experience of one of the residents:

Ms. Gordon has seen a diverse middle-class neighborhood of white and black families transform into one of abandoned, overgrown lots and boarded-up houses. As in many downtrodden parts of St. Louis, the middle class fled for the suburbs, leaving behind those with less economic mobility and causing property values to drop, the education system to crumble and feeding a sense of desperation that leads people to sell drugs and steal.

The most stabilizing group of residents in inner-city communities has always been the black middle class. During the era of racial segregation, it was the black middle class that stabilized many of these communities as blacks migrated from the South to the northern cities after World War II. Many of these neighborhoods have had low-income residents for decades but they did not have the same social pathologies and economic degradation that we find in the northern sections of St. Louis. Without a resurgence of the black middle class, their virtues, and their values, it is unlikely that these neighborhoods will stabilize in the near future.

Beginning in the late 1960s through the early 1990s there was a massive departure of middle-class blacks to the suburbs to take advantage of new opportunities. Who can blame them? The best jobs and schools were no longer in their inner-city neighborhoods, so the black middle class did what anyone else would do: move. Unfortunately, when the black middle class left they took all of their socially-stabilizing institutions and presence with them. Many black churches moved to the suburbs or many middle-class church goers simply commuted into their old neighborhoods to attend church on Sunday. The best black teachers put their own children in suburban school districts and or in private schools (or pursued new employment opportunities in better school districts themselves) so the interest in the quality of education in urban districts declined. Black participation in organizations like the YMCA, the Boy Scouts, and various sportsmanship- and achievement-related organizations began to congregate in the suburbs. Black male and female role models were no longer in contact with disadvantaged kids, and a spirit of solidarity to overcome the legacies of systemic injustice left these neighborhoods. What remained, sadly, was the black underclass: an underclass that became increasingly fatherless, dependent on the social assistance state, and hopeless. An underclass with no vision for what it could be.

The black middle class infused these neighborhoods with the types of virtues and values–such as an emphasis on marriage and family as the birthplace of achievement and success–that are desperately needed today. The keys to success that catapulted the black middle class in the 1970s through the 1990s were faith, family, and opportunity. Without these three essentials, sections of St. Louis and other cities shackled by concentrated crime will remain mere isolated pockets where police and social workers manage social dysfunction. Without the requisite moral formation, high marriage rates, and employment opportunities, the black underclass will be a permanent reminder of the nation’s failure to free up society’s mediating institutions to do what they do best.

Anthony Bradley Anthony Bradley, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Theology and Ethics in the Public Service Program at The King's College in New York City and serves as a Research Fellow at the Acton Institute. Dr. Bradley lectures at colleges, universities, business organizations, conferences, and churches throughout the U.S. and abroad. His books include: Liberating Black Theology: The Bible and the Black Experience in America (2010),  Black and Tired: Essays on Race, Politics, Culture, and International Development (2011),  The Political Economy of Liberation: Thomas Sowell and James Cone of the Black Experience (2012), Keep Your Head Up: America's New Black Christian Leaders, Social Consciousness, and the Cosby Conversation (2012), Aliens in the Promised Land:  Why Minority Leadership Is Overlooked in White Christian Churches and Institutions (forthcoming, 2013). Dr. Bradley's writings on religious and cultural issues have been published in a variety of journals, including: the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Detroit News, and World Magazine. Dr. Bradley is called upon by members of the broadcast media for comment on current issues and has appeared C-SPAN, NPR, CNN/Headline News, and Fox News, among others. He studies and writes on issues of race in America, hip hop, youth culture, issues among African Americans, the American family, welfare, education, and modern slavery. From 2005-2009, Dr. Bradley was Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO where he also directed the Francis A. Schaeffer Institute.   Dr. Bradley holds Bachelor of Science in biological sciences from Clemson University, a Master of Divinity from Covenant Theological Seminary, and a Doctor of Philosophy degree from Westminster Theological Seminary.  Dr. Bradley also holds an M.A. in Ethics and Society at Fordham University.


  • Anthony,
    Certainly can’t disagree with what you wrote here. The real question is how to get the Black Middle Class to populate the cities especially with an economy that is oriented around the financial sector. In such an economy, middle class job opportunities are limited for people of all races. And the leaders of the financial sector have not only become untouchables with regard to criminal prosecution, they are appointed to key positions in the government and advise the gov’t on how those in the upper class can continue to consolidate wealth.

    We have an economic system that revolves around the maximization of profits and warmly embraces Ayn Rand. And unless we challenge that system by challenging the elites in the private sector who rule the system and the gov’t hacks who maintain the system, I’m afraid that what you rightly suggest here can only occur with a miraculous outbreak of altruism.

  • elbryant1226

    I think one of the things we must not confuse is people with middle-class values and those, who, as defined by their socioeconomic status, are “middle-class.” Having grown up in what might classified as a neighborhood that was not “middle-class,” one of the things I recall are the things people valued, even those who would be categorized as poor (po for those who couldn’t evean afford the final O and R). Admitedly, the exodus of Middle-Class Blacks to the ‘burbs is a major issue, but we must not assume that poor inner city blacks don’t have values or are incapable of holding to the same values as the more economically privileged.
    I would argue that maybe one of the things middle-class Blacks did not value highly enough was community. The communitarian in me is cmoing out a little here. If middle class black return to the depressed inner cities, how will they integrate? But I do think poor people can also hold the same values and virtues as middle class people.

  • Excellent analysis, Anthony. I grew up in a “diverse middle-class neighborhood of white and black families” in Pontiac, Mich., just as the disintegration took hold. The “black flight” was just as severe as the “white flight” and for all of the reasons that you outline. Yes, a complex social phenomenon. But the middle class flight was motivated on all sides by pretty much the same thing: A desire to escape the growing severity of crime, crumbling schools, and dysfunctional city government. Those who left are all deeply integrated into the suburbs now. Some still moving farther and farther out from the core city. This pattern was repeated in all of those Michigan factory towns.

    Before the disintegration you had black, white, Hispanic (Mexican as the preferred terminology was then) middle class families in my neighborhood. I cannot remember a household that did not have an intact family, although there were widows and retired people. Two dentists, small business owners, an undertaker, teachers, office workers, a police officer and lot of autoworkers and skilled trades. The biggest house on my block was owned by a black dentist. It was not some sort of urban idyll, and we had our problems, but it was a very functional neighborhood where people got up every morning and went off to work and school and took care of their property.

    Who was left behind? Those who didn’t have the means to leave. Who are the models now for young people?

    This is a huge problem for the culture and it won’t yield to quick fixes. Even in places, like Detroit, where there is some resettlement in the downtown, it’s mostly a tech, arts or young hipster crowd. What will they do when they have kids to send to school?

    Nolan Finley of the Detroit News did an interesting column recently about the backlash that has already started in Detroit:

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