Black Picket Fences

"An insightful look at the socio-economic experiences of the black middle class.…Through the prism of a South Side Chicago neighborhood, the author shows the distinctly different reality middle-class blacks face as opposed to middle-class whites."—Ebony

"A detailed and well-written account of one neighborhood's struggle to remain a haven of stability and prosperity in the midst of the cyclone that is the American economy."—Emerge

"The most insightful study I have read on the black middle class. Like no other author, Mary Pattillo-McCoy reveals the obstacles and pressures of black middle-class families. Readers of this clearly written and engaging book will understand why these experiences are unique, and why they produce social outcomes that often differ from those of the white middle class."—William Julius Wilson, author of When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor


An excerpt from
Black Picket Fences
Privilege and Peril among the Black Middle Class
by Mary Pattillo-McCoy


The goal of Black Picket Fences is to richly describe the neighborhood-based social life of a population that has received little scholarly or popular attention—the black middle class. The black middle class and their residential enclaves are nearly invisible to the nonblack public because of the intense (and mostly negative) attention given to poor urban ghettos. Post-civil rights optimism erased upwardly mobile African Americans from the slate of interesting groups to study. However, the sparse research that does exist unequivocally indicates the continuing economic, residential, occupational, wealth, and sociopsychological disparities between blacks and whites, even within the middle class. In this book I focus on one realm of the black middle-class experience—the neighborhood context—by investigating how racial segregation, changing economic structures, and disproportionate black poverty affect the residential experience of black middle-class families, and especially youth. To accomplish this goal, I report on over three years of research in Groveland, a black middle-class neighborhood on Chicago's South Side.

Even though America is obsessed with race, some policy makers and even more average citizens act as if race no longer matters. The sweeping assaults on affirmative action programs are prime examples. Not even forty years since separate water fountains—which, in the scheme of Jim Crow prohibitions, were much less onerous than the exclusion of African Americans from libraries, museums, schools, and jobs—many Americans would now like to proceed as if the slate is clean and the scale is balanced. African Americans must compete solely on what each individual has been able to accomplish, and how each has performed. Without being too sarcastic, it is as if racism and racial inequalities died just before Elvis, and those who still claim that racism exists are as misguided as someone who regularly spots the King. Even though the facts say differently, such perceptions partially rest on the visible progress that African Americans have made over the last half-century. The upward strides of many African Americans into the middle class have given the illusion that race cannot be the barrier that some make it out to be. The reality, however, is that even the black and white middle classes remain separate and unequal.

Much of the research and media attention on African Americans is on the black poor. Welfare debates, discussions of crime and safety, urban policy initiatives, and even the cultural uproar over things like rap music are focused on the situation of poor African Americans. With more than one in four African Americans living below the official poverty line (versus approximately one in nine whites), this is a reasonable and warranted bias. But rarely do we hear the stories of the other three-fourths, or the majority of African Americans, who may be the office secretary, the company's computer technician, a project manager down the hall, or the person who teaches our children. The growth of the black middle class has been hailed as one of the major triumphs of the civil rights movement, but if we have so little information on who makes up this group and what their lives are like, how can we be so sure that triumphant progress is the full story? The optimistic assumption of the 1970s and 1980s was that upwardly mobile African Americans were quietly integrating formerly all-white occupations, businesses, neighborhoods, and social clubs. Black middle- and working-class families were moving out of all-black urban neighborhoods and into the suburbs. With these suppositions, the black middle class dropped from under the scientific lens and off the policy agenda, even though basic evidence suggests that the public celebration of black middle-class ascendance has perhaps been too hasty.

We know, for example, that a more appropriate socioeconomic label for members of the black middle class is "lower middle class." The one black doctor who lives in an exclusive white suburb and the few African American lawyers who work at a large firm are not representative of the black middle class overall (but neither are their experiences identical to those of their white colleagues). And although most white Americans are also not doctors or lawyers, the lopsided distribution of occupations for whites does favor such professional and managerial jobs, whereas the black middle class is clustered in the sales and clerical fields. Because one's occupation affects one's income, African Americans have lower earnings. Yet the inequalities run even deeper than just income. Compound and exponentiate the current differences over a history of slavery and Jim Crow, and the nearly fourteenfold wealth advantage that whites enjoy over African Americans—regardless of income, education, or occupation—needs little explanation.

We also know that the black middle class faces housing segregation to the same extent as the black poor. African Americans are more segregated from whites than any other racial or ethnic group. In fact, the black middle class likely faces the most blatant racial discrimination, in that many in its ranks can actually afford to pay for housing in predominantly white areas. Real estate agents and apartment managers can easily turn away poor African Americans by simply quoting prohibitive home costs or high rents. It takes more purposive creativity, however, to consistently steer middle-class blacks into already established African American neighborhoods by such tactics as disingenuously asserting that an apartment has just been rented when the prospective renters who show up at the property manager's door are, to his or her surprise, black. Racial segregation means that racial inequalities in employment, education, income, and wealth are inscribed in space. Predominantly white neighborhoods benefit from the historically determined and contemporarily sustained edge that whites enjoy.

Finally, we know that middle-class African Americans do not perform as well as whites on standardized tests (in school or in employment); are more likely to be incarcerated for drug offenses; are less likely to marry, and more likely to have a child without being married; and are less likely to be working. Liberals bumble when addressing these realities because, unlike housing segregation or job discrimination, of which middle-class African Americans are the clear victims, earning low grades in school or getting pregnant without a husband can easily be attributed to the bad behaviors of blacks themselves. For middle-class blacks, who ostensibly do not face the daily disadvantages of poverty, it is even more difficult to explain why they do not measure up to whites. To resolve this quandary it is essential to continuously refer back to the ways in which the black middle class is not equal to the white middle class.

This book takes a micro-approach to these macro-realities of racial segregation, disproportionate poverty, and economic fragility. It focuses on the ecological context of black middle-class neighborhoods, which are characterized by more poverty, higher crime, worse schools, and fewer services than white middle-class neighborhoods. The questions that guide this research are: How does this context influence parents who are raising children, and adolescents and young adults who are growing up in such a neighborhood? What are the distinctive choices and transitions that black middle-class youth experience?

The lives of the families in Groveland provide some answers to these questions. Groveland's approximately ninety square blocks contain a population of just under twelve thousand residents, over 95 percent of whom are African American. The median annual family income in the neighborhood is nearly $40,000, while the comparable figure for Chicago as a whole is just over $30,000. More than 70 percent of Groveland families own their own homes. By income and occupational criteria, as well as the American dream of homeownership, Groveland qualifies as a "middle-class neighborhood."

Yet this sterile description does not at all capture the neighborhood's diversity, which is critical to correctly portraying the neighborhood context of the black middle class. Groveland's unemployment rate is 12 percent, which is higher than the citywide rate, but lower than the percentage of unemployed residents in the neighborhoods that border Groveland. Twelve percent of Groveland's families are poor, which again makes it a bit more advantaged than the surrounding areas, but worse off than most of Chicago's predominantly white neighborhoods. The geography of Groveland is typical of black middle-class areas, which often sit as a kind of buffer between core black poverty areas and whites. Contrary to popular discussion, the black middle class has not out-migrated to unnamed neighborhoods outside of the black community. Instead, they are an overlooked population still rooted in the contemporary "Black Belts" of cities across the country. Some of the questions about why middle-class blacks are not at parity with middle-class whites can be answered once this fact is recognized.

The mix of residents in Groveland and in Chicago's predominantly black South Side defines the experiences and exposures of black middle-class youth. Groveland residents like twenty-one-year-old Ray Gibbs most insightfully describe this heterogeneous environment.

If a family wanted to feel the different spectrum of life, I think this would probably be a' ideal place to raise children. I mean, you know, you go outside in the suburbs, it's la-di-da-di. Trouble, stuff like that, don't happen. If you want somebody to see probably everything that could happen, you'd move here. Some days you'll have your good days where everything'll be perfect. Then you might have your bad days when yo' kid might have a fight. You know, you'll get to see all the makings of all different type of people. That's to me, that's what this neighborhood is.

Ray Gibbs put a positive spin on the range of activities and incidents that characterize black middle-class neighborhoods. But parents who desire to shield their children from negative influences are less enamored by what Ray seems to think is exciting. Many parents actively attempt to curtail their children's attraction to the less savory aspects of neighborhood life—most significantly, the gangs and the drug dealing.

Privileges and Perils

By the end of my research tenure in Groveland, I had seen three groups of eighth-graders graduate to high school, high school kids go on to college, and college graduates start their careers. I also heard too many stories and read too many obituaries of the teenagers who were jailed or killed along the way. The son of a police detective in jail for murder. The grandson of a teacher shot while visiting his girlfriend's house. The daughter of a park supervisor living with a drug dealer who would later be killed at a fast-food restaurant. These events were jarring, and all-too-frequent, discontinuities in the daily routine of Groveland residents. Why were some Groveland youth following a path to success, while others had concocted a recipe for certain failure? After all, these are not the stories of poor youth caught in a trap of absent opportunities, low aspirations, and harsh environments. Instead, Groveland is a neighborhood of single-family homes, old stately churches, tree-lined streets, active political and civic organizations, and concerned parents trying to maintain a middle-class way of life. These black middle-class families are a hidden population in this country's urban fabric.

The evening news hour in every major American city is filled with reports of urban crime and violence. Newspapers fill in the gaps of the more sensational tragedies about which the television could provide only a few sound bites. Rounding out the flow of urban Armageddon stories are the gossip and hearsay passed informally between neighbors, church friends, and drinking buddies. For many middle-class white Americans, the incidents they hear about in distant and troubled inner cities provide a constant symbolic threat, but an infrequent reality. For the families who live on the corner of the crime scene—overwhelmingly black or Latino, and poor—daily life is organized to avoid victimization. In the middle of these two geographically and socially distant groups lives the black middle class.

African American social workers and teachers, secretaries and nurses, entrepreneurs and government bureaucrats are in many ways the buffer between the black poor and the white middle class. When neighborhoods are changing, white middle-class families may find themselves living near low-income black families, but one group is inevitably displaced. The neighborhood becomes, once again, racially homogeneous. More than thirty years after the civil rights movement, racial segregation remains a reality in most American cities. Middle-income black families fill the residential gap between the neighborhoods that house middle-class whites and the neighborhoods where poor African Americans live. Unlike most whites, middle-class black families must contend with the crime, dilapidated housing, and social disorder in the deteriorating poor neighborhoods that continue to grow in their direction. Residents attempt to fortify their neighborhoods against this encroachment, and limit their travel and associations to other middle-class neighborhoods in the city and suburbs. Yet even with these efforts, residents of black middle-class neighborhoods share schools, grocery stores, hospitals, nightclubs, and parks with their poorer neighbors, ensuring frequent interaction within and outside the neighborhood.

The in-between position of the black middle class sets up certain crossroads for its youth. This peculiar limbo begins to explain the disparate outcomes of otherwise similar young people in Groveland. The right and wrong paths are in easy reach of neighborhood youth. Working adults are models of success. Some parents even work two jobs, while still others combine work and school to increase their chances of on-the-job promotions. All of the positive knowledge, networking, and role-model benefits that accrue to working parents are operative for many families in Groveland. But at the same time the rebellious nature of adolescence inevitably makes the wrong path a strong temptation, and there is no shortage of showy drug dealers and cocky gang members who make dabbling in deviance look fun. Youth walk a fine line between preparing for success and youthful delinquent experimentation, the consequences of which can be especially serious for black youth. In the chapters that follow, I attempt to paint a picture of these choices and crossroads that Groveland youth face.

I focus on youth for two reasons. The first is pragmatic. A thorough analysis of the many facets of neighborhood life (e.g., schools, politics, leisure, economic health, religion) would be unmanageable. These other important spheres are discussed as they relate to the experiences of young people. The more substantive reason for focusing on youth is that they are a good indicator of the well-being of black middle-class families more generally. Parents want their children's lives to be better than their own, or at least comparable. Substantial downward mobility signals that there are systematic obstacles to ensuring this transfer of class status. While the three years of research in Groveland does not constitute a true longitudinal study of mobility, it was a sufficient time in which to document some of the positive and negative transitions through which youth and young adults passed. These transitions were circumscribed by economic contingencies, the neighborhood context, and cultural pressures. Focusing on the experiences of young people seems to be the best way to draw attention to the particularities of being black and middle class in a neighborhood like Groveland.

Close-to-Home Ethnography

There were rarely times during the research in Groveland when I was either an objective or a dispassionate observer. I hope this enriched my Groveland narrative, rather than stifled it. Either way, in the spirit of full disclosure, certain methodological issues merit discussion. (Appendix A contains an extended discussion of methods.)

I spent a total of three and a half years in Groveland. For the first two years, I was a part of the Comparative Neighborhood Study (CNS), which studied four ethnically distinct Chicago neighborhoods, focusing on racial discourse, culture, and social organization. The CNS aimed to match field workers and neighborhoods by race, and have a mixed-gender research team in each neighborhood. As a black female, I was paired with a black male to study Groveland, the black neighborhood. The goal was to conduct some degree of "insider" research, which can be especially fruitful because many of the initial obstacles to entry are minimized. From my first few encounters in the neighborhood, it was clear that Groveland was very similar to the black middle-class neighborhood in Milwaukee where I was raised. Not only did the people remind me of friends and family from home, but we also shared many people in common. There were often fewer than six degrees of separation between me and the residents of Groveland. With the black Catholics I shared knowledge of black Catholic leaders in the Midwest. I had mutual acquaintances with the young adults who had gone to college on the East Coast. And the neighborhood's political boss was my uncle's best friend. My research partner grew up in Chicago and thus had even more familiar connections. Comforted by this familiarity, I was actively involved in Groveland life. I directed the church choir; I joined the church's community action group; I stuffed envelopes for the alderman's reelection campaign; and I coached cheerleading at the local park, among a host of other activities and memberships. I started to see my Groveland friends at the grocery store, driving on the freeway, and at movie theaters throughout Chicago. I became a part of their lives and they of mine. For the third year of research I moved into Groveland and became even more embedded in neighborhood life.

At the same time, though, these connections and the relative ease of association had important repercussions, especially at the interpretive end. Such closeness to the community made it difficult to problematize certain behaviors, or question the logic behind people's statements. As a fellow African American I was supposed to know the answers to many questions that ethnographers must ask in order to go deeper than mere description. There was the constant danger of taking my own insider knowledge for granted, shirking away from probing the residents of Groveland for their own interpretations. Overall, being black facilitated entry and the formation of informal ties, but it was also necessary to consciously assume an outsider position.

I make no claim that the stories and opinions that people shared with me in interviews and in the course of daily conversations encompass the full range of feeling in Groveland. However, over thirty interviews, supplemented by more than three years of writing factual and impressionistic field notes on my every interaction in the neighborhood, further supplemented by my own experience growing up in a not-too-distant black middle-class neighborhood, all bolster my confidence in the claims I make throughout this book. In an effort to be most faithful to the data, the last chapters present two sustained, first-person narratives that hand the microphone over to Groveland residents to characterize their own lives. Their stories are lively illuminations of the processes that I describe in a somewhat more stoic tone. Of course, with the certain but unintended acts of editorial bias and misrepresentation on my part, I still have the final say throughout, even in these extended case studies.

One of the most salient issues in re-presenting the words of others is the issue of language itself. In the informal settings in which much of this research took place—such as the neighborhood park, people's homes, the church basement, or the grocery store checkout—many residents, if not most, used Black English, as did I. My practice in rendering field notes or interview quotes is to delete some of the verbal fillers (e.g., "um," "you know"), as well as false sentence starts that are common in speech. I do try to re-create the pronunciation of words through the use of contractions and notations that signal when the speaker dropped a syllable or sound (e.g., "sayin'" for "saying," "gon'" for "going to"). But I do not translate Black English into Standard English, a decision that requires some elaboration.

It seems obvious that an ethnographer who sets out to capture indigenous experiences would not significantly tamper with the way people talk. But concern for verity is only a partial motivation. The Black English so readily used in Groveland illuminates an empirical point that this book seeks to emphasize. Even though the African American bank receptionist may answer the phone in perfect Standard English, he or she may have a much different linguistic style when in the company of other African Americans. This concept of "code-switching"—i.e., speaking differently to different populations, one in Standard English and the other in the vernacular—can be broadened to characterize the black middle class more generally because it emphasizes the different worlds that whites and blacks inhabit, even African Americans with well-paying jobs or a college degree.

Black English was commonplace in the neighborhood setting, and innovative modifications of its basic rules were even valued among some groups. Speaking Black English while sitting around the kitchen table makes a Groveland teacher no less middle class, but it does illustrate the near completeness of racial segregation. It highlights the importance of race for cultural practices, connecting black middle-class people to the black poor, and differentiating them from whites. As many field excerpts will illustrate, Groveland residents use Black English when talking about the most middle-class of topics—going to college, planning for marriage and the future, working downtown, or owning a home. This might seem discordant to those who view Black English as an inferior language. It might even, perhaps, support a prejudice that middle-class African Americans are not equal to middle-class whites precisely because they do not possess the proper intellectual and behavioral dispositions.

The prevalence of Black English in Groveland has both pluses and drawbacks. As an innovative cultural construction shared among African Americans across class lines, Black English has unifying potential and performative value. It solidifies the cultural bonds between members of a heterogeneous African American population. However, Black English can also be an impediment to advancement in the predominantly white mainstream. Segregation produces an incubator within which Black English flourishes, but it does not always foster the sophisticated development of Standard English. Black middle-class youth have fewer opportunities to practice and master Standard English in such an environment. The use of Black English by Groveland residents is emblematic of the particular handicaps with which black middle-class youth grow up because of their neighborhood context. In essence, the practice of code-switching represents the linguistic negotiation of two worlds, just as the black middle-class individuals similarly maneuver both their racially marginal and their socioeconomically mainstream statuses in other realms.

Chapter 1 provides an overview of the economic and sociospatial position of the black middle class, and highlights what distinguishes members' situation from that of the white middle class. Chapter 1 and the neighborhood history in chapter 2 both describe the impact of broader social and economic processes on the character of Groveland. Groveland's history offers a microcosmic view of the forces that have affected neighborhood formation in Chicago and other similar industrial cities since World War II. Chapter 2 also describes some of the local sights and sounds that set the scenes of interaction.

To illuminate the various obstacles and pressures that black middle-class families and youth face, this book emphasizes the economic, spatial, and cultural contexts that influence decision-making, life transitions, and outcomes for Groveland residents, especially the youth. First, the post-1970s economy stunted the previously impressive growth of the black middle class. Disproportionate public-sector employment, clustering in lower-middle-class jobs, and economic fragility threaten the maintenance of Groveland's families. Chapter 3 discusses the role of a changing economy in the experiences of successive generations who have lived in Groveland, ending with contemporary youth. Groveland's first generation came of age during a period of sustained and rapid economic growth, fostering optimism for themselves, for their children, and for African Americans generally. The adolescents and young adults in today's Groveland—the second and third generations—are facing the uncertainties of changing technologies, stronger demands for an educated workforce, and the rising costs of higher education. There are myriad local effects of these broad economic shifts. Because of downward intergenerational mobility, housing maintenance suffers as inheritors lack the means to keep up their parents' investment. Older adolescents and young adults remain in their parents' homes well into their thirties in order to make ends meet, finish school, or sustain their youthful irresponsibility. And for some, the fast money promised by the ever-present underground economy is difficult to refuse when legitimate economic success is uncertain.

Second, the segregated geography of urban America has ramifications for the spatial context of the black middle class. Social ties across class lines, across lifestyles, and across the law exist partly because of the assignment of most African Americans to "the black side of town." These social ties are the subject of chapters 4 and 5. Groveland is a remarkably stable neighborhood with respect to housing tenure. Some families have four generations living within the neighborhood's boundaries, and others have developed kinlike relationships with their longtime neighbors. Chapter 4 illustrates how these networks promote easy access to both criminal and positive opportunities. The relationships between teachers and gang leaders, or preachers and drug dealers, highlight the appropriateness of the "crossroads" imagery in describing the neighborhood experiences of black middle-class youth. Chapter 5 focuses on three young people in Groveland to further elaborate on how youth steer through various peer networks, family situations, middle-class privileges, and criminal temptations.

Third, I explore the cultural realm through a focus on mass media and popular culture. Groveland youth are targets and consumers of, and active participants in, mass cultural styles that, while imaginative and entertaining, also provide a fashion and behavioral manual for deviance. In chapter 6, Groveland youth are placed within the very American cultural context of mass-media "gangstas." While there are autonomous cultural productions in Groveland, much of youth style—what is said, done, worn, and sung—is the local translation of mass cultural products received through magazines, television, movies, and radio. The popular cultural productions favored by Groveland's youth glamorize the hard life of poverty and scoff at the ordinariness of middle-classdom. Narrowing the scope from a consideration of popular culture and style generally to a focus on one particular fashion item, chapter 7 profiles the rise of the Nike brand to both global preeminence and local vogue. The expensive impulse to consume such fashion items is aroused with every billboard, magazine, commercial, and music video. Gangstas and drug dealers, both on-screen and across the street—with their tales of economic hardships, and their name-brand trinkets to show that they have now mastered the game—embody the messages proffered by the mass media.

To integrate these three realms, chapters 8 and 9 follow in the tradition of the sociological classic The Jack Roller, with its native informant, Stanley. To give character (literally and figuratively) to theory, Clifford Shaw presented Stanley's own rendition of his (delinquent) life story. The final two chapters of this book similarly contain life histories of young adults raised in Groveland. They have completed their adolescence in the neighborhood, and thus provide useful gauges of the impact of such an upbringing. Each weaves together employment concerns, the organization of families and neighborhood networks, and the performance of or resistance to mass cultural messages. Rendered in the first person, these narratives are funny, startling, thought-provoking, and frank, and they address the substantive points raised throughout this book. These two case studies are exemplary of the range of experiences and outcomes of Groveland youth and young adults.

Finally, my conclusion relates the issues confronting black middle-class families and youth to national discussions of race and class. The black middle class is connected to the black poor through friendship and kinship ties, as well as geographically. Policies that hurt the black poor will ultimately negatively affect the black middle class. At the same time, the black middle class sits at the doorstep of middle-class privilege. Continued affirmative action, access to higher education, a plan to create real family-wage jobs, and the alleviation of residential segregation should be at the forefront of policy initiatives to support the gains already made by the black middle class.


Copyright notice: Excerpted from pages 1-12 of Black Picket Fences by Mary Pattillo-McCoy, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©1999 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press.

Mary Pattillo-McCoy
Black Picket Fences: Privilege and Peril among the Black Middle Class
©1999, 288 pages
Cloth $25.00 ISBN: 978-0-226-64928-3
Paper $17.00 ISBN: 978-0-226-64929-0

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