On The Root today, author and contributing editor Natalie Hopkinson goes in on those who accuse the black middle class of "abandoning" poorer black Americans by relaying the experience of Washington, D.C.'s black middle class members who remained in the city, even after the 80s crack epidemic opened up around them. Hopkinson was responding to a recent Washington City Paper story that cited the abandonment of the city by the black middle class as slowing progress in fixing city school districts.
Long after whites had fled to white-only suburbs, the black middle class remained in black neighborhoods, quietly doing the job without fanfare. Its members worked quietly and without recognition to set up beautification committees. They organized safety walks. My late LeDroit Park neighbor Barbara Best used to say that when she and the old-timers would hear about all these "new" ideas for cleaning up the neighborhood, they'd just laugh: "Everything they are doing, we already did."
Long before teachers were lionized in documentaries, or D.C. superintendents were hailed as heroes on Oprah, it was black middle-class teachers and administrators who were doing the unsung work of educating society's most vulnerable students. It was black middle-class parents who accepted the burden of integrating schools by sending their children across town to white neighborhood schools because they valued diversity. It is almost unheard of for white families to do the same.
During D.C.'s murder-capital days especially, when white faces were scarce, black administrators kept the doors to raggedy school buildings open all over the city. All of this while knowing that whatever privilege they might have earned for their children could collapse at any moment in a hail of gunfire. Where is their gold star?
Class warfare in the black community is always kind of odd, in the sense that many black people who are middle or upper class still have strong ties to the urban or rural communities they originally came from as they often still have friends and family living there. In the case of my childhood, I grew up in mostly black suburbs in North St. Louis County where an opinion on what were lazy suburban neighborhoods to me, shifted depending on how someone felt about living in a predominately black neighborhood -- no matter how educated or affluent that neighborhood was.
Somehow, even if your block is filled with ministers, school administrators and aerospace engineers someone will still call your neighborhood of manicured lawns and children playing in the street "the hood," while someone else living in another part of the city would call your neighborhood "uppity."
It's easy to get bogged down and focused on the few black upper middle class families who thought Florissant, Mo. was a "ghetto" wasteland, even if it's really more of a city of old people, chain restaurants and big box stores. Or to accuse a family who wants a better education for their children of "abandoning" the city in the middle of a crack epidemic, as if everyone should put their own family's needs and safety ahead of a chaotic neighborhood. We make the decisions we make for ourselves and our families for our own reasons.
And as Hopkinson points out, it's wrong to ignore the many African Americans who didn't leave their respective neighborhoods and cities, even during rough periods of the 80s. The black middle class isn't some monolithic thing, easily described and tossed away as "abandoning" people. It's a lot more complex than that. People are looking for better options and better opportunities for their families and in that we all have a choice to stay where we are and try to make a change, or move away and hope for a fresh start in a place with more prosperity and stability. Neither decision is necessarily good or bad or better. They're the personal compromises we all make in trying to grow and be successful.
You can't write off someone that easily.