Sunday, June 28, 2009

An Endangered Class?

The New York Times Magazine has a must read piece about the impact of the economic downturn on middle class African Americans, focused on the auto industry. Here's a selection:

"The story of the rise of America’s black working and middle classes is inextricably bound up with that of Detroit and the Big Three. It is not a story with a simple upward trajectory. For a long time, blacks were relegated to the least desirable jobs in the plants and initially confined to a small ghetto on the East Side of the city. But slowly, haltingly, over the course of the 1950s and early ’60s, the plants became fully integrated and black workers spread across Detroit block by block, moving the city’s de facto color line as they went. “It wasn’t that long ago that Detroit was the home of the nation’s most affluent African-American population with the largest percentage of black homeowners and the highest comparative wages,” David Goldberg, an African-American Studies professor at Wayne State University, told me.

Autoworkers still make up much of what is left of Detroit’s black middle class, but their numbers are shrinking fast. Last year, 20,000 black autoworkers nationwide were either laid off or took buyouts from the Big Three. A disproportionate number of those workers were from Detroit and its environs. When those who remain lose their jobs, have their homes foreclosed — Detroit has one of the highest foreclosure rates in the nation — and have to move elsewhere in search of work, when they accept an early-retirement package and no longer have any reason to stick around, that will truly spell the end of the city.

We’ve been hearing this phrase — “the death of Detroit” — for years now, but this is what it’s going to look like, how it’s going to play out. There’s a perverse paradox here, one that I was reminded of every time I met a black autoworker in an Obama T-shirt or with an Obama bumper sticker adorning his or her car. We have just elected our first African-American president, and yet, at the same moment, a city and industry that together played a central role in the rise of the black middle class — that made possible lives like Marvin Powell’s — is being destroyed." (Read the whole thing here)

Ellis Cose once wrote of The Rage of a Privileged Class. Might he write today of the fears of an endangered class? The current economic crisis euphemistically referred to as a "downturn", is yet another reminder that the distribution of suffering during tough times in America is still influenced by the color-line. It's as if a hundred Katrinas came crashing into the African American middle class. If the class most symbolic of progress regarding racial equity is undermined, what will this mean for the prospects of continued progress during these early days of the 21st century?

As to racial prejudice, the corrosion of which...has bitten into the fiber, and attacked the whole social structure of American society, it should be regarded as constituting the most vital and challenging issue confronting the Bahá'í community at the present stage of its evolution. The ceaseless exertions which this issue of paramount importance calls for, the sacrifices it must impose, the care and vigilance it demands, the moral courage and fortitude it requires, the tact and sympathy it necessitates, invest this problem, which the American believers are still far from having satisfactorily resolved, with an urgency and importance that cannot be overestimated. (Shoghi Effendi, The Advent of Divine Justice, p. 33)