By Tatyanna Carman
Introducing the American Dream
The idea that someone can go from poverty to the one percent, rags to riches, has been the pinnacle of American aspiration since the start of this country in 1776. The goal of the American Dream is secretly one that many Americans share, no matter how far off that dream may seem. This includes people of color, and even more specifically black people. We see it through the gaze of black football players making it to the NFL and black artists performing in sold out stadiums around the world, like Beyoncé. Although we acknowledge the hardships that Beyoncé faces as a black woman, we have to recognize that she did not come from rags. In fact according to a National Public Radio (NPR) article titled, “Beyoncé Is The 21st Century’s Master Of Leveling Up,” she grew up in a two-parent, upper-middle class household. It comes into question, how do the socioeconomic differences within the black community influence our experiences as black people?
According to Investopedia, lower class income is defined as being on average $24,792, middle class income is $81,950 and upper class income is $188,848. In addition, CNBC reported on a Pew Research Center study showing that household size impacts a family’s income range. It states that a household of one makes around $26,093 to $78,281, a household of two makes $36,902 to $110,706, a household of three makes $45,195 to $135,586, a household of four makes $52,187 to $156,561, and a household of five makes $58,347 to $175,041.
Let’s say that Beyoncé, instead of living in an affluent two-parent household, lived in a small apartment with an absent father and lived within the means of the working poor. Would we still know her as the Beyoncé we know her as now?
A Brief History Lesson
Now, this is a big topic with a lot of history behind it. And as the saying goes, if we don’t learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it. So, we must start with the past. We all know the history of American slavery, where colonialists captured Africans from West Africa and transported, traded and enslaved them throughout the Carribean, the Americas, and Europe. Although slavery was abolished in 1865 via the 13th Amendment, black people were still supressed by laws such as black codes, which required black people to sign yearly labor contracts; if they refused, they were either arrested, fined or forced into unpaid labor and sharecropping, according to History.com.
The black codes also fall under the Jim Crow Laws. These laws expanded at around 1880 and lasted until 1968 with the Fair Housing Act, according to History.com. However, there was no real guarantee for anti-racism laws to be implemented in the United States. The Jim Crow Laws restricted and segregated black people from certain “whites only” areas such as movie theaters, hotels, restaurants and even bathrooms. Despite the signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, voting was still a difficult right for black people to exercise, especially in the south as the Voting Rights Act was not enacted until 1965. This largely affected this community economically as well as culturally. I know what you’re thinking: How does this relate to socioeconomics? Well, just wait and see.
The next era coined phrase “Reaganomics” during the Reagan administration. While many applauded Reagan on his promotion of economic growth, he had a questionable reputation in the black community. In fact, he was the president that had the slogan “Let’s make America Great Again,” which according to PBS rubbed the black community the wrong way and seemed to be a way to take a few steps back from the Civil Rights Movement. His policies, however, did have consequences within inner cities, because of his cuts from federal programs, according to a PBS video, “Reagan’s Policies and Black America,” which directly impacted the working poor. Other policies from other administrations like the Clinton administration’s “War on Drugs” campaign and the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which resulted in mass incarceration, an issue that is still present today, , also were harmful to the poor, according to British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).
The last stop for this brief history lesson is the Great Recession of 2008. History.com defines this era as, “…a global economic downturn that devastated world financial markets as well as the banking and real estate industries. The crisis led to increases in home mortgage foreclosures worldwide and caused millions of people to lose their life savings, their jobs and their homes.” Many people lost everything, which of course included, you guessed it, the black community.
The Experiences of Young Black Adults
All of these events come together and influence the socioeconomic differences within the black community currently. Most importantly, this greatly impacts the lives and futures of black young adults.
Junior film, TV and radio major Jada Peterson said that she comes from a lower- middle class background in a single-parent household, which has influenced how she’s grown up. She described her hometown as suburban, but said that “everyone was kind of low-key with everything.” Peterson also shared how her socioeconomic status influenced how she viewed other classes. She explained that not until her mother introduced her to lower income areas was she aware of the areas and their issues.
“When I was in the suburbs, it wasn’t really talked about until my mom branched out and she showed me ‘Oh this is over here. This is how they live. You shouldn’t treat them any different than you are. They’re just people that are in different situations than you are [in],’” she said.
She also discussed that when she was in school students would ‘“flex” their possessions to transcend the socioeconomic barrier–people believed if you flashed expensive things that you were well off financially. I think this action is an effect of how black people are portrayed in society.
Communication Studies major and junior Regina Askew-Jones identified her socioeconomic status as lower-middle class and said that status has affected her adolescence and young adulthood by preventing her from going to the best school. In fact, she had to travel an hour away from her home to go to a boarding school in order to get a better education when she was entering her sophomore year of high school. Askew-Jones described how her socioeconomic status influenced her life growing up and her family’s dynamic.
“For my family, it was trying not to be a stereotypical black family based on our socioeconomic status. So my mom would always make sure that she would never take government assistance. She made sure that she went to work every day and she made sure that we didn’t look like what our status was. She was taking steps to be sure that she wouldn’t stay at the same level, but that she could climb the bar, whether that be through education, job opportunities; she was always leveling up.”
Askew-Jones also talked about how socioeconomic status is identifiable through certain aspects, which is comparable to when she went to boarding school.
“I think the people who are more well off at Rider, you can tell only based upon not only how they carry themselves but even the same thing with my public school, like the cars they drive,” Askew-Jones said. “These Rider students have fancy cars and you can tell that they have mommy-daddy money, while some people have ‘I’m grinding’ money.”
She also explained how she handles the differences in socioeconomic status within her friend group at Rider.
“You can tell by some of the conversations we have, like, ‘Oh she’s about to drop $500 into your account. Ok cool, I see that.’ Or you may not be able to go out to dinner one night and they’ll be like, ‘Oh, why not?’ Because I’m broke. So just the small differences,” said Askew-Jones.
Alyssa Darden, Rider junior psychology major, explained how her growing in a working poor background influenced her present. She said that her socioeconomic status has caused her to “grow up a little faster” in terms of responsibilities including paying her parents bills in certain instances. Darden transferred to Rider after going to Raritan Valley Community College. Like Askew-Jones, Darden also explained how she felt like she was contributing to the stereotype of being poor and black as well.
“I feel like I’ve had to pretend like I’m more wealthy than I actually am just to keep up the standards and there’s a lot of shame in it, too. I see that a lot in my mom,” Darden said.
She explored deeper into the idea of stereotypes and how they influence the perception of black people.
“Because we’re black, people expect us to fit a certain stereotype and expect us to have certain behavior because that’s just what they see,” said Darden. “We can’t blame them, that’s what they’ve experienced in the past… But I think black people have more of a pressure to change the way that they act between different types of people, especially races just to fit in and feel accepted.”
She lastly reflected on how socioeconomic differences can influence different people’s versions of their own black experience and related it to the people she sees in her city.
“I see the same people as me from Phillipsburg who are struggling and so it just makes me reflect on ‘wow I’m black too and that could’ve been me.’” she said.
As a black woman who grew up in the suburbs from a lower middle-class family, I noticed in my school how black kids from lower income families were treated by middle class black students. I noticed that more affluent black kids in my high school took pride that they were black and were connected to urban culture, but made fun of the kids who grew up in section 8 housing. However, I also noticed black kids making fun of other black kids, like me, who didn’t have a strong connection to the urban culture within black culture. Peterson related to this aspect of the black experience.
“If you haven’t struggled they don’t really count you. If you haven’t had this problem, if you haven’t done this,” said Peterson. “My friends would be like, ‘Oh, if you haven’t eaten this food when times are struggling, did you really ever struggle? If you haven’t experienced this in your life then you didn’t struggle.’ So that makes you lesser in the [African-American] community, so people don’t really respect you as much as someone who went through it.”
She did also say however that this ties into a larger issue that comes from poverty, issues within the education system and institutional racism.
This is all derived from larger isms, like colorism and hairism, and discrimination that dates all the way back to slavery. People that looked or appeared white, received more privileges, therefore, today when kids see someone that “talks white,” it makes them feel self conscious about their lack of “whiteness” that is held so high up on a pedestal.
History is a large part of what influences the present and the future. We can clearly see that through black history and how it has shaped the various socioeconomic classes and statuses within the black community. It was agreed among the people that I interviewed that there are advantages to being more financially comfortable which also can positively influence a person’s black experience. In general, what makes the black community unified is, sadly, the culture behind the constant discrimination we face. Even though some of us haven’t faced the severity of financial troubles that others have faced, it is clear that the black experience is multifaceted yet unifying because of our history. At the end of the day, we’re still black.