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In Part I of this essay ( April 7, 2005), my discussion reached back to the pre-Emancipation Era communities of Free Negroes in order to portray the historical depth of what I call the outreach-to-Black-masses-leadership pattern among the embryonic elite element among African-Americans. I also analyzed the historical growth – from the Emancipation Era through the  early 20th century decades – of the embryonic elite sector into a more viable Black elite that fashioned linkages with the lives of the Black masses.

The main analytical issue now is to discuss today’s Black elite’s outreach-to-Black-masses-leadership profile in regard to what I call the crisis-development fault line facing 40% of African-American households in the post-Civil Rights Movement period. We must first describe the general features of class patterns among African-Americans today.

Blacks’ Crisis-Development Fault Line in the 21st Century

We can classify today’s African-American social system into a two-tier African-American class system.   Accordingly,  I would categorize the upper-tier as a “mobile-stratum”, made up of middle-class, professional class, and capitalist class African-American households. And  I would categorize the lower-tier as a “static-stratum”, made up of weak working-class and poor African-American households.

Today, the upper-tier or “mobile-stratum” constitutes 60% of  all African-American households. On the other hand, the lower-tier or “static-stratum” constitutes 40% of all African-American households.

This “mobile-stratum”/”static-stratum” classification of today’s early 21st century African-American class system corresponds to an analysis by Andrew Billingsley of Black America’s social class pattern for the National Urban League’s 1990 annual volume – State of Black America 1990 ( 1990). 

TABLE V presents Billingsley’s data.

Table V




Click to view larger and printer friendly table

Source: Andrew Billingsley, “Understanding African American Family Diversity,” in Lee A. Daniels, ed., State of Black America 1990  (National Urban League,1990)

Billingsley’s top-three class categories: upper class (9%), middle class (27%), and working-class non-poor (34%) – approximate what I call today’s “mobile-stratum” among African-American households. His bottom-two categories – a combination of working-class poor and underclass (28%) – approximate what I call today’s “static-stratum” among African-American households.  Accordingly, in overall terms I would classify 40% of  today’s African-American households belonging to the “static-stratum,”  and 60% of African-American households belonging to the “mobile-stratum.”

We should mention, however, that the important advances during the post-Civil Rights Movement era in new middle-class and professional jobs for African-Americans have resulted in checkered advances in the Black/White income and wealth gap. As a major analyst of African-Americans’ income and wealth patterns, Professor Thomas Shapiro of Brandeis University, informs us in his important study The Hidden Cost of Being African American (2004):

”The black-white earnings gap narrowed considerably throughout the 1960s and 1970s. The earnings gap has [however] remained relatively stable since then, with inequality rising again in the 1980s and closing once more during tight labor markets in the 1990s. The average black family earned 55 cents for every dollar earned by the average white family in 1989; by 2000 it reached an all-time high of 64 cents on the dollar. For black men working full-time, the gains are more impressive, as their wages reached 67 percent of those of fully employed white men, up from 62 percent in 1989 and only 50 percent in 1960.” (p.7)

Furthermore,  Thomas Shapiro’s research found that job-market advancement for middle-class and professional African-Americans has produced only marginal changes in the overall Black/White wealth gap. This is the gap in overall assets held by Black families and White families.  At the dawn of the 21st century, Shapiro’s research found that:

”The average African American family holds 10 cents of wealth for every dollar that whites possess. Black and white professionals in the same occupation earning the same salary typically move through life with significantly unequal housing, residential, and educational prospects, which means that their children are not really on the same playing field.  …Connecting the thorny dots of racial inequality means no less than confronting our historical legacy of vast material inequality, massive residential segregation, and wide gaps in education conditions.” (pp. x, 182).

Thus, it is clear that it has been the new “mobile-stratum” African-American households that have benefited most from the overall advances for Blacks in the post-Civil Rights Movement era.  This means, in turn, that numerous problems continue to shackle the life conditions of “static-stratum” African-American families.

Problem-Spheres Facing Poor African-Americans  

We can identify three main problem-spheres that make up the substance of the crisis-development fault line among  40% of African-American households today:

  • Family structure/poverty problem-sphere.
  • Racist criminal justice system problem-sphere.
  • Education opportunity/performance problem sphere.

l) Family Structure/Poverty Problem-Sphere

Fundamental to the family structure/poverty problem-sphere faced by African-Americans in the “static-stratum” is the weak and sometimes non-existent job-market available to them. That’s been proved again and again – most recently in 1999-2000 when, as White unemployment fell to 4.2%, its lowest level in three decades, the Black unemployment rate sank to an historic low of 7%.  It reached that level because poor Blacks, and especially poor Black males, had rushed to take the low-wage service sector jobs which, thanks to the powerful dynamic of job-creation during the Clinton Administrations of the 1990s, had opened up to them.

That was confirmed by a national study of more than 300 metropolitan areas by the National Bureau of Economic Research, a Massachusetts-based  think tank. It found that because the nation’s long period of prosperity had opened up jobs at the bottom of the occupational ladder, Black males age 16 to 24 with a high school education or less, were working in greater numbers and earning bigger paychecks than ever before.

We must note, however, that the tragedy for Black America’s “static-stratum” is that such “good times” – let’s call them – are an anomaly. But for the 1999-2000 period, the overall unemployment rate for African-Americans since the 1960s has continually fluctuated between 8% and 12% - twice the national rate. Moreover,  Black youth faced unemployment  levels at least twice as high.  Today, the overall Black unemployment  rate is back in double digits – hovering between 10% and 11%. These high levels of unemployment have inevitably led to sizable rates of poverty, and a grinding pressure on African-Americans at the bottom of the social ladder.

The Black poverty rate was nothing short of massive as the Civil Rights Movement reached its height in the late 1960s – nearly 42% in 1966, compared to a national rate of 14.7%. Such “Great Society” policies of the Johnson Administration as job-training and affirmative action slowly helped mitigate Black poverty in the succeeding decade until the rate leveled off at 32% for much of the 1980s. The long period of a booming economy during the 1990s brought it down even further, and today the poverty rate stands at 24.4% of African-American households, compared to 29% Latino-American households and a national rate of 12.5%.

A U.S. Census Bureau occupation survey in 2002 reported that low-paying jobs at the bottom of the American occupational ladder (with the exception of “farming, forestry, fishing”) accounted for 4,163,000 Black workers or 28.2% of all employed African-Americans. The overarching disability faced by such “static-stratum” African-Americans is that of  weak family patterns.  Professor Andrew Billingsley’s study for the National Urban League’s State of Black America 1990 provided data showing that working-class poor Black households had a 67% single-parent rate and underclass Black households had 75% single-parent rate.  This fragile family pattern means, moreover, that over 60% of African-American children are being raised in economically distressed single-parent households.

These weak family patterns among the 40% “static-stratum” African-American households  appear even worse when they are contrasted with family patterns among “mobile-stratum” African-Americans. For instance, in the upper-class category in Billingsley’s study for the National Urban League, the 624,000 African-American families he placed in this category (9% of all Black families) had 96% husband/wife pattern. And the 2,000,000 African-American families Billingsley placed in the middle-class category (27% of all black families) had 83% husband/wife pattern.

Thus, there is no doubt about the burden of the family structure/poverty problem-sphere for the 40% “static-stratum” among African-Americans. Should anyone have any doubt, just note that according to a study released in June 2004 by Family USA, some 40% of African-Americans are without health insurance (60% for Latino-Americans) and most of these African-Americans inhabit the “static-stratum.” This predicament, by the way, exacerbates the dreadful health and medical circumstances the poorest African-Americans endure, such as the fact that African-American babies are likely to die at three-times the rate of White babies, and African-American and Latino children under five are hospitalized for asthma at more than three times the rate for White children under five.

A graphic view of the social deficiencies faced by poverty-level African American families was presented by the African-American columnist Eugene Robinson in the Washington Post (March 4, 2005), where he critiques the cynical use by President George W. Bush of death rates among Black males to defend the Republican party’s reactionary attack on Social Security. As Eugene Robinson observed:

”Black men in America, statistically, do die six years sooner than white men. [But] that’s irrelevant to the Social Security discussion, because most of those excess [black] deaths occur earlier in life, but its still a fact – white men live to 75 on average, black men to 69.

”So let’s fix it, Mr. President. According to health statistics your administration published last year, one big factor is that infant and neonatal mortality rates for black Americans nearly three times those for whites. A lot of black baby boys never make it out of the hospital. Let’s start with that.

”Why would infant mortality in black America be nearly twice as high as in impoverished,  repressed Cuba, to cite one comparison? For one thing, the mothers of those doomed black baby boys are twice as likely to be teenagers as the mothers of white baby boys, and too-young black mothers are twice as likely to have had no prenatal care. Blacks are less likely to have health insurance….

”Please, no lectures [from Bush] about personal responsibility and choice. …I agree we’re all responsible for our decisions, but nobody gets to choose his parents. Nor do black boys choose, in much larger numbers than whites, to grow up in single-mother households, often in desperate, violent, drug-ridden neighborhoods. …That’s the real reason we black men go to our reward so soon, Mr. Bush – poverty. According to your figures, 24.1 percent of black Americans live in poverty vs. 8 percent of whites.”

2) Racist Criminal Justice Problem-Sphere

If we can say that the weak job-market and unemployment dynamics over the past 30-odd years have stymied stable social patterns among African-Americans in the “static-stratum,” we must also say that the American racist criminal justice system has ravaged the lives of “static-stratum” African-Americans. Without a doubt,  the past four decades of a corrosive high unemployment rate among African-Americans – especially young males – created an extremely destructive dynamic whereby African-American society was beset by an abnormal number of crime-committers, many pushed into crime by their condition of social-economic-personal desperation.

This criminal dynamic in Black communities, in turn, provided a pretext for racist-inspired criminal justice elements to fashion a unique post-Civil Rights era American “crime-control system”.  Namely, one whose overwhelming concern has been to use America’s massive prison system – the largest in any democratic country – to harness working-class and poor African-American males (working-class and poor Latino-Americans as well), to render them quiescent or docile.  After three decades existence, this racist-inspired “crime-control system” has been reinforced by a massive prison-construction industry.

Inevitably,  the everyday operation of the post-Civil Rights era America “crime-control system” has ravaged the lives of working-class and poor African-Americans through widespread police  brutality and the execution of draconian drug laws, the latter involving fraudulent arrests and convictions. A survey of the attributes comprising the racist application of criminal justice to African-Americans by Professor Manning Marable of Columbia University reported that at the end of the 1990s there was an astronomical prison-incarceration for African-Americans. This meant that nearly 50% of prisoners in federal prisons were African-Americans. Marable observed that this incarceration rate “even surpassed that experienced by blacks who still lived under the apartheid regime in South Africa [by 1990].”

Moreover, the federal-level prison incarceration rate for African-Americans was replicated at the state level, especially in states with large Black populations. Marable used data on New York state, showing that “In New York, a state in which African Americans and Latinos comprise 25 percent of the total population, they represented 83  percent of all state prisoners by 1999….”  Marable especially identified the role of draconian drug laws as part of the explanation of the high incarceration rate for Blacks and Latinos in New York, noting that “94 percent of all individuals [were] convicted on drug offences.”

Marable concluded his discussion by relating the stark racist dynamics surrounding New York’s incarceration rate for African-Americans in particular. As Professor Marable put it: “The pattern of racial bias in these statistics is confirmed by the research of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which found that while African Americans today [2000] constitute only 14 percent of all drug users nationally, they are 35 percent of all drug arrests, 55 percent of all convictions, and 75% of all prison admissions for drug offences.”  Thus, it is patently clear, I think, that the U.S. criminal justice system’s so-called “drug war” facets alone render it a racist system. How else can the massively race-skewed arrest, conviction, and incarceration rates be explained? African-American opposition to the racist features of the criminal justice system must be raised to the level of a moral imperative. This means that a major African-American social movement challenge of today’s racist criminal justice system must be a political imperative of the 21st century Black elite.

3) Education Opportunity/Performance Problem-Sphere

There are two different sets of data that provide a stark outline of the education crisis confronting African-American children and youth in general, and those of weak-working class and poor African-American children in particular.  One set of data I have in mind – developed by the NAACP’s education researchers – shows that in typical public schools attended heavily by Black children around the country, disproportionate numbers of African-American children are herded into special education classes and denied access to gifted or talented classes.  Adding insult-to-injury, as it were, in typical public schools attended heavily by Black children, disproportionate numbers of these children are also slapped with suspensions.

Data in TABLE VI – developed by the NAACP State Data Sheets—Public Schools  (2004) – show a typical instance of these barriers to adequate education opportunity faced massively by African-American children around the country, highlighting the situation in  Alabama.  

Table VI




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NAACP Researchers’ Commentary:

"As the chart [Table] shows, 1 in 3 public school students in the state is African American. Yet according to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, almost 1 in 2 students in special education and almost 2 in 3 students suspended is African American. When it comes to high-level courses, white students are far more likely than African-American students to be placed in gifted and talented programs. These disparities block too many African American youth from the rigorous curriculum and high quality instruction that will close the achievement gap."            

Source: NAACP State Data Sheets—Public Schools (Baltimore: NAACP National Office, 2004) p. 1.

It should be noted, however, that the education opportunity-gap situation for African-American children in Alabama as of 2004 was not the worst.  The Alabama situation is actually average in comparison with other states, with Mississippi holding up the hind-post. And, of course,  in virtually no school system attended heavily by African-American children are adequate public funds provided, this being a core problem underlying the broader education-opportunity gap facing millions of African-American children.

In regard to the education-performance problem-sphere facing African-American children, another set of data can enlighten us on this issue. An overall national view of the education-performance problem-sphere was provided by data on nationwide proficiency tests released by the National Center for Education Statistics in November 2003 – the so-called Nation’s Report Card. It showed that while 41% of White public school pupils in the fourth and fifth grades were proficient in reading (up from 35% a decade earlier) only 13% of Black public school pupils in fourth and fifth grades were proficient in reading (up from 8% a decade earlier). As for Latino fourth and fifth graders, about 15% were proficient in reading, up from 13% in 1992.  

Bad as the education-performance problem facing African-American children is, keep in mind that the education-performance problem is bad nationally and requires a major national-level policy and resources response, as the education expert Diane Ravitch observed recently in The New York Times (March 15, 2005):

”…American student performance is appalling. Only a minority of students – whether in 4th, 8th or 12th grade – reach proficiency as measured by the Education Department’s National Assessment of Educational Progress. On a scale that has three levels – basic, proficient and advanced – most students score at the basic level or even below basic in every subject. American students also perform poorly when compared with their peers in other developed countries on tests of mathematics and science, and many other nations now have a higher proportion of their students completing high school.”

While solutions to the combined education-opportunity/education-performance problem-sphere facing African-American children do not lie around the corner, so to speak, guidelines for solutions to the education-performance problems are, I think, available.  Indeed, I suggest that potential guidelines in this regard are crying-out to be seized upon and fashioned as blueprints for nationwide application to schools heavily attended by African-American children.  These guidelines are suggested by selected instances of expanding viable education achievement for working-class and poor African-American children presented in the valuable NAACP State Data Sheets—Public Schools (2004). I summarize these selected instances in TABLE VII which shows data relating to seven elementary schools with all-Black or majority Black students, the vast majority of whom are from low-income families.

Table VII



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In five of these elementary schools, the Black students’ performance was – on the lowest side (Leland Elementary in Chicago) – better than 73% of  all elementary schools throughout Illinois, and – on the highest side (Horace Norton Elementary in Gary) – better then 96% of elementary schools in Indiana.  And in six of the elementary schools listed in TABLE VII, the Black students’ performance in reading tests was 80%-plus better than performance in reading tests throughout their respective states.

Black Children’s Achievement Breakthroughs: A Boston Example

Guidelines for solutions to the education-performance problem-sphere are also suggested by data on academic achievement in 2004 by African-American youth of low-income backgrounds who attend the Roxbury Preparatory Charter School in Boston, Massachusetts.  Shown in TABLE VIII, these data – reported in Boston’s weekly African-American newspaper, Bay State Banner – relate to a middle-school of 190 mainly African-American children, some 66% of whom qualify federal free and reduced price lunch program.

Table VIII



IN BOSTON, 2004*

Click to view larger and printer friendly table

Perhaps what was most spectacular  about this mainly African-American middle-school students’ 2004 tests achievements  was the three-sided comparative victory over (1) middle-school students in affluent suburbs (Belmont, Andover, Brookline, etc.), (2) the vast majority of middle-school students statewide, and (3) Boston public middle-school  students. As the Bay State Banner report on this three-sided comparative victory in test scores by Roxbury Preparatory Charter School students observed:

"More Roxbury Prep students scored [overall] advanced or proficient than students in[upper middle-class] Belmont (72%), Andover (71%), and Brookline (67%). Roxbury Prep outperformed 414 of the 447 schools in the state on the 8th grade math test. On 8th grade science test, Roxbury Prep had the highest percentage of students scoring advanced or proficient (45%)…of any public school in Boston with the exception of the [exam-based] Boston Latin School."

The foregoing spectacular data on the academic achievement in reading, math, and science by mainly African-American students of low-income background at Roxbury Preparatory School in Boston’s African-American community suggest, I think, a fundamental lesson for solutions to the education-opportunity and education-performance problem-sphere facing African-American children. Namely, that the pedagogical and education-regime processes that function successfully in Roxbury Preparatory School, along with those pedagogical and education-regime processes functioning in elementary schools reported in TABLE VII, should be translated into guideposts or blueprints for a nationwide academic-performance breakthrough in public schools attended by African-American children.  I might also add schools attended by Latino-American children and some working-class White children, too.

Translating the outstanding pedagogical and education-regime processes associated with successful schools like Central Park Elementary in Birmingham and Roxbury Preparatory Charter School in Boston requires that their processes be closely studied and then codified.  In so doing, these schools’ outstanding pedagogical and education-regime processes can become guideposts or blueprints for thousands of schools nationwide attended by African-American children. To this end, leading civil rights and education advocacy organizations (e.g., NAACP, National Urban League, National Council of Negro Women, Children’s Defense Fund) along with scholars at graduate teachers or education schools could launch studies to codify the successful pedagogical and education-regimes that function successfully in schools like Roxbury Preparatory School.  The scholars I have in mind who could undertake studies to codify these schools’ successful education-regimes include Linda Hammonds at Stanford University, Sara Lightfoot and Charles Willie at Harvard School of Education, and Vincent P. Franklin and George C. Bond at Columbia University’s Teachers College.

Concluding Note

We must note, however, that in order to find solutions to the education-opportunity and education-performance problem-sphere confronting African-American children, a major liberal reformation in the systemic interface between today’s American society and the African-American working-class and poor sector is necessary. The systemic transformation I have in mind will entail, in fact, a progressive reformation of today’s cynical plutocratic corporatist American economic processes, on the one hand, and the Republican-party dominated oligarchic federal governance, on the other hand.

No doubt some facet of the Democratic party – with African-Americans functioning as its most consistent liberal voter constituency – must initiate this liberal reformation. An idea of how important a liberal systemic reformation is to education-opportunity and education-performance advancement for African-American children is suggested in a recent observation by  Michael Males – a sociologist who studies American youth – that responded to Bill Cosby’s tirade against working-class African-American youth. As quoted in The New York Times (July 11, 2004), Michael Males observed that:

”Younger black America today is struggling admirably against massive disinvestments in schools, terrible unemployment, harsh policing and degrading prejudices…. They deserve respect, not grown-up tantrums.”

Dr. Martin Kilson is Frank G. Thomson Research Professor at Harvard University.

Part Three of this three-part series will appear on April 21, 2005.


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April 14 2005
Issue 134

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