Study Finds Racial Disparities Even Within Middle Class

Tiarra Medley

By Tiarra MedleyThe Daily Northwestern

Despite progress in civil rights over the past decades, there are still notable differences between the races, especially when it comes to the fragility of the black middle class, according to a study co-authored by Northwestern sociology Prof. Mary Pattillo.

The study – titled “Poverty in the Family: Race, Siblings and Socioeconomic Heterogeneity” and co-written by University of Kentucky professor Colleen Heflin – was published in a December issue of the journal Social Science Research. It examines the effect of having siblings in different socioeconomic groups.

The study concludes that middle-class blacks are two-and-a-half times more likely than their white counterparts to have a sibling in the lower-income bracket.

“To be white in the middle class is different than to be black in the middle class,” Pattillo said. “It means that race still matters, even for blacks who otherwise look as if they have ‘made it’ by dint of their jobs or educations.”

Blacks in the lower middle class are four times more likely than whites to have grown up poor and to have ties to siblings who still live in poverty. The sense of obligation to poorer family members contributes to the insecurity of the black middle class, Pattillo said.

This is the latest chapter in Pattillo’s research into the black middle class. Her previous research established that middle-class blacks are more likely to have come from lower-class families and are more greatly affected by living near poor neighborhoods.

This study expands upon literature that makes claims of inconsistencies between members of different races, even those in similar socioeconomic conditions.

Pattillo said strides still need to be made to advance blacks to the economic levels of whites in America.

“Programs like affirmative action are still necessary, even for people who appear to be middle class,” she said. “But more broadly, the only way to equalize the family networks of middle class is to improve the situation of the black poor through educational initiatives, investments in job training and better wages.”

NU students said they could see in their lives the phenomenon Pattillo observes.

“At NU, I have come in contact (with) and befriended many individuals from different socioeconomic backgrounds,” said Ayanna Berry, a Weinberg freshman and president of the Freshman Advisory Board of African American Student Affairs. “Due to race and the fragility in the African American middle class, initiatives such as affirmative action are still needed to allow them the best opportunity to succeed.”

Zachary Parker, a member of the executive board of For Members Only, NU’s black student alliance, said recognizing the disparities is only the first step.

“I agree with everything Pattillo said, but I believe there needs to be an ‘awakening’ in the black community,” said Parker, a Communication sophomore. “I do not believe that enough black people are aware of the problems that affect us … what needs to happen and why, or where our future lies.”

Reach Tiarra Medley at [email protected]