In the South today, a golden age for the Black middle class

Let me offer my thesis statement for this post, which is:

Right now, today, times have never been better for the Black middle class.

And that golden age is centered in the former Confederacy. Black families are moving to the South in big numbers, where they are finding good jobs and presumably enjoying their lives.

Let me note right here that I am a White person who grew up in Idaho — so I’m not drawing from my experience here.

But I can draw conclusions from observable facts.

And if you know anything about American history or politics, you know that Black America is central to both. It doesn’t matter who you are or what your politics are, Black America is important to you. What affects Black America affects you. Truly.

Here on the Compass of Power, we say that if you want to understand where we are today in our politics, you just have to look at the map. 

What people think of as partisan warfare is actually the North fighting with the South, as most of the major political conflicts in American history have been. 

As we all –hopefully, please God –are aware, the South has a difficult relationship with Black America. Enslaved Africans were imported to the American south, just as they were throughout the Caribbean, as plantation labor.

This was not the case in the North, and things came to a head when the North and south could not agree on what would happen in the West. 

Civil War. Death untold. Slavery outlawed.

Now, Black people made up the majority of the population in many parts of the South, especially the Deep South. And for a moment, they went straight to electing leaders and participating in democracy. Black senators. Black representatives.

But — the White Southern elite is able to slowly reinstitute an apartheid system known as Jim Crow over the next two generations.

In the Deep South, especially, from the 1890s to the 1960s, the force of the law compelled Black people to sit in separate sections of the movie theater and go to separate schools. Which were, just so we are clear, uniformly inferior to the seats and schools offered to White people. Voting laws required you to pass tests, to which the main question was essentially, “are you white?” 

This was like bad wine with moldy, lethally toxic cheese, through a system of terror in which crimes against Black people — including murder — were not prosecuted. In fact, they were sometimes encouraged by government officials.

All of these facts are very well known to every good Northerner to this day. They are literally taught in public schools. 

In fact, my son who is in high school on the Left Coast, just joked the other day that “General Sherman burned Atlanta, and nothing of value was lost.”

Ha!

If a Northern White person wants to embody corruption, racism or rank stupidity, they adopt a Southern accent as part of the schtick.

“Gee, let’s git some guns and demand concessions on spending in exchange for agreeing to raise the national debt limit!”

Well, something like that.

Point is, to those of us White folks raised in what you can think of as the “northern alliance” of regions, the idea that Black folks would want to move to teh South — to return to the scene of the crime — is preposterous.

Who would do that?

Who would go down THERE?

Black people. 

Black middle-class people are moving there.

Stateline, a news outlet connected to the Pew Charitable Trust, just released an analysis of American Community Survey microdata provided by the University of Minnesota. 

I’ll put a link to the story in the show notes.

The headline is, “Migrating Professionals Grow Black Middle Class in the South and West.”

It reports that in most states, the Black middle class is continuing to grow. 

And in five states, the share of Black families who are middle class is approaching parity with the White share.

Those states are:

  • Georgia, 
  • Kentucky, 
  • Maryland, 
  • Texas and 
  • California.

If you are playing at home, four of those five are south of the Mason Dixon line.

Furthermore, Stateline released an interactive map with their report — which I will post on my blog — showing the states where the share of Black households in the middle class is approaching the White share.

Again — weighted to the South.

Although Massachusetts and New Jersey look OK there, they are just keeping pace with South Carolina, Arkansas and Florida.

Black Middle Class Makes Progress in Many States

In Maryland, half of Black families were in the middle class in 2021, the largest share of any state. 

Middle class, by the way, is here defined as two-thirds to twice the state’s median household annual income. That is between about $69,000 and $207,000 in Maryland.

From the report: 

“Many of the new Black arrivals in the South are young and college-educated and are moving to take professional jobs in cities. In contrast, many of the White people in those states live in rural areas that are struggling economically, said Mary Pattillo, a professor of sociology and African American studies at Northwestern University who studies the Black middle class.”

Stateline

There is a lot to unpack there. 

First, the North has a stronger tradition of education. The Puritans believed every person needed to be able to read the Bible for themselves if they were to be saved from Hell. In order to make sure their kids were literate, they established common schools. 

Puritan common schools became the basis for the American public school — which had to be forced on the South as part of Reconstruction. In the South, education was more reserved for the elite, and even when they had universal schooling — as we already mentioned — the schools open to Black students were short changed. 

To educate Puritan ministers for educated Puritan congregations, they established colleges. The first of these are the most elite universities in America today, at the top of the Ivy league.

So — we should expect that young people raised in the North, especially cities in the North, would be comparatively better educated than rural Southerners. 

That white people in the rural South — and the South has always been more rural than the North — would either not be qualified for the new jobs in cities or unwilling to move there is clearly a recipe for some trouble.

But here’s the thing — the South has a much longer experience with racial politics than the North. 

Even before the Civil War, Northerners visiting the South would be surprised by the Blackness of Southern society. Yes, there were people held as slaves. But there were free men who worked as Barbers, Black maids and nurses in wealthy White homes. 

At that time in the North, slavery was outlawed — but there were never many slaves. The Black population was sparse. 

Even in the most recent study by Pew, just 30 states have Black populations representing at least 5 percent of households. 

My home state — and most of the Dry West states — are not included in the study because there isn’t enough data to use.

But the South is home to  literally centuries of Black history — Black music, Black churches, Black businesses, Black colleges.

I know a couple — White man, Black lady — who grew up in Washington state, but spent some time in Texas. And the interesting thing the husband told me was life in Texas was in some ways easier. 

When you see a Confederate flag outside a shop in the South, you know what you are getting. 

But in the North, you can walk into a coffee shop and get hit with racism, no warning at all. 

Which is to say — from my understanding — there is something to be said for having your racial history out there in the open.

And you can see how young Black professionals see taking jobs in Houston or Atlanta as inviting possibilities.

For many White people in the North, moving to the South would be crossing a boundary your family has never crossed. 

There are literally genetic studies showing that the Mason-Dixon line was as strong a boundary as a mountain range in keeping populations separate. People from the North and the South did not mix it up in the sheets.

Today, for many Black people in the North, going South would be returning to ancestral places.

And frankly, it almost always comes down to jobs. 

We like to tell ourselves that people come to America for freedom, but I think there is very strong evidence showing that having work for immigrants is a major draw, too.

Both things — jobs and freedom — drew Black AND white people away from the South in the 20th Century. 

We call the movement of Blacks to places like Detroit, Chicago and New York the “Great Migration.”

But have you heard of the “Hillbilly highway?”

That was the line of folks from Applachia headed for manufacturing jobs in Michigan and elsewhere.

Those jobs have been disappearing for decades. The midwest, especially, has been losing its manufacturing and industrial base.

Where do they build cars in America? Not so much Detroit as Tenesee.

And where the jobs are — people go. 

One demographer from the Brookings Institution calls what we are seeing today a “New Great Migration.”

He called it  “a virtual evacuation from many northern areas.” Again we are talking largely by young, college-educated Black people, heading to Georgia, North Carolina and Texas.

Look, the Texas Legislature is coming back into session in Austin. One of the big questions is — should they maybe add exceptions for rape and incest to their abortion ban?

Or is it too lax? 

Maybe they should add provisions to go after companies that offer to help their employees find abortion services elsewhere.

If you are of a certain political stripe, you might say “No young woman in America is going to move to Texas NOW. I would move to South Dakota first! I’d live in Decatur!”

But can you guess where the demography geniuses at U-Haul say is the No. 1 destination for moves?

Texas!

The most popular one-way rental destination for U-Haul moving vans in 2022 was Texas. Now they have to figure how to get all those vans back to California so more people can move out.

(That’s a joke, see. California is very much on the opposite of Texas on abortion access. But it’s population is declining.)

Point is — jobs draw people. And the South has jobs.

Now, however, I feel like I’ve put myself in the position of locking down the rest of my point. 

Which, again, has little to do with me. I’m not Black. I don’t live in Texas, or Michigan for that matter.

So on what basis do I claim that now is the Golden Age of the Black middle class?

On the basis of another report from Pew, frankly.

Last year, Pew released a study looking at changes in the middle class from 1971 to 2021.

As you probably already know, that was not a great date range for the middle class in America. We went from being a strong majority at 61 percent of the population to just half — 50 percent of all adults were middle class in 2021.

Meanwhile, the upper and lower classes both grew. 

The biggest gainers — people who went up in income — were old folks. 

But No. 2, just behind old folks were Black folks, the percentage of whom are upper income went up by 14 points.

More importantly, I would say, is that the middle class shrank as a share of all Americans over the past 50 years — except for Black Americans.

From the report:

“Black adults are the only major racial and ethnic group that did not experience a decrease in its middle-class share, which stood at 47% in 2021, about the same as in 1971.”

Pew Center

So, my basis for declaring that the Golden Age of the Black Middle Class is right now, in the South is:

  1. Black adults have either held their own in the Middle Class or moved to the Upper Class over the past 50 years, unlike all other racial groups.
  2. The share of Black households who are middle class is increasing, and in a few states, nearing parity with White households — mostly in the South. 
  3. Demographers broadly agree that large numbers of young, educated Black people from the North are moving to the South to take new jobs, reversing the migration trends of the previous century.

Ipso facto — there’s never been so many, so well off Black American households anytime, anywhere, except today, in the South.

Ha ha!

That is something absolutely worthy of celebration.

We all — every American — should be proud of this kind of progress.

Now, for the “but’s.”

Coming “near to parity” with White households in five states is a long way from being able to say that “Black households are just as well off, and just as middle class as White folks.”

And White folks are not, no matter what the comparisons may imply, at the top of the American economic ladder.

A greater share of Asian households are upper class than you find among White households, Black households or Hispanic households.

I am obliged to remind everyone that being economically successful does not mean that Asian people are not attacked on the street because of their race.

It just means that the economic facts are that we have a great deal of variation between households of different races. 

For the record, I want an America where your race has NO bearing on your economic status. That’s my goal.

Furthermore, being in the middle class does not mean that a Black family will have the same experience as any other middle class family when they move into the neighborhood. 

You can read that article for some good thoughts on the experience of middle-class Blacks.

I want to bring it all home now for the Compass of Power.

I argue that the root of American polarization is the tipping of power away from the North to the South.

I say that, for the most part, people adopt the politics of where they are. When people move the South, their political views become more Southern — which is to say more conservative.

And that is why a shift in population from one region to another means a shift in our politics. 

So — why would I say that this growth in a Black middle class in the South be central to the future of liberalism?

Doesn’t this new migration mean more power for Southern Republicans?

I say not necessarily, because there is a long-established Black political culture in the South that opposes the elites. Ever since the passage of the 14th Amendment, Black people in the South have been organized and have competed with the White elite for power — especially in the Deep South.

So you can see this migration adding not to the Southern elite’s power, but to the power of the underclass — the people who are vying for control. 

Let’s go back to Sen. Raphael Warnock, who was just re-elected in Georgia. He comes from a long tradition of leadership through the Black church in the South. And he won a tough race. He is proof of the growing economic and political power of the underclass in the South.

That is why PResident Biden wants the Democratic presidential primaries to begin in South Carolina. If you want to win a national contest, you need to win over Southern voters and make things competitive there.

B just today in South Carolina, State Senator Mia McLeod announced she was leaving the Democratic Party because of the way it treats Black voters, especially Black women candidates. 

She was in the 2022  primary for the governor’s race, and among other complaints, she feels the Party takes Black votes for granted while it courts moderates.

It’s clear Democrats can not simply expect Blacks to help them out no matter who they run or what platform they run on. 

But — South Carolina Democrats haven’t won much. To win in Georgia, Warnock needed the support of the Black community, as well as Whites, Hispanics, business leaders and others. 

Stacy Abrahams was a strong Black candidate for statewide office in Georgia, but she lost to a White Republican. 

It is clear that some Georgia voters supported both Warnock and Republican Brian Kemp. They split their votes.

Democrats need more than race to win, they need more than purely liberal politics to win. 

Moreover, race is not destiny. 

I think that this is a problem Democrats have. They have been convinced for decades that more people of certain races — including Black people — automatically means more Democrats in the world.

Plenty of Black people in the modern South, who see themselves as part of the culture and the elite, have no problem being Republicans.

Rep. Byron Donalds of south Florida was mentioned as a candidate for Speaker of the House. He’s Black, he’s Republican.

Warnock narrowly beat another Black man, Hershel Walker, to win his election.

Donald Trump’s share of the Black vote in 2020 was higher than his share in 2016. And he darn near won Georgia — he came close enough that he thought he could just get them to fix the numbers for him.

We all should be grateful to Georgia’s elite Republicans that they did not cave to Trump.

Again, the locus of power in the United States is moving to the South. 

The bedrock of the opposition to conservative Southern elites comes from the liberal Black underclass who have lived there forever.

But to win, that bedrock of votes needs allies.

And every Democrat — Black or not — who moves from the Midwest to the South weakens the party in the North.

As always, national politics are very complex.

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