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Mon, 04.01.1619

The American Black Bourgeoisie, a story

19th century cartoon

*The American Black Bourgeoisie is affirmed on this date in 1619.  They are America’s Black upper class based on financial income.  The Black Bourgeoisie consists of engineers, lawyers, accountants, doctors, politicians, business executives, venture capitalists, CEOs, celebrities, entertainers, entrepreneurs, and heirs who have annual incomes amounting to $200,000 or more. 

This social class, sometimes referred to as the Black upper class, the Black upper middle class or Black elite, represents less than one percent of the total Black population in the United States.   This group of Blacks has a history of organizations and activities that distinguish it from other classes within the Black community, as well as from the white-American upper class. Many of these traditions, which have persisted for several generations, are discussed in Lawrence Otis Graham’s 2000 book, Our Kind of People: Inside America’s Black Upper Class.  

When enslaved Africans were brought to the Americas in the 17th and 18th centuries, there began to be mixed-race children of Black African and white-European descent in the Americas. Then called "mulattoes," they were sometimes not enslaved by their white slave-holding fathers and comprised a large part of the free Black population in the Antebellum South. In addition, some Blacks escaped to freedom during the American Revolution. Others were manumitted by their enslavers. The free Black community in the US had therefore increased by 1800, and although most were very poor, some were able to own farmland or to learn mechanical or artistic trades.  Some people escaped slavery or served in the American Civil War (1861-1865) for the Union and after the war, Special Field Order, No. 15. Issued 40,000 former slaves to live on 400,000 acres of Georgia and South Carolina coastal land.   With each having a mule, which contributed to land ownership among Blacks following emancipation.

Other former slaves, often mixed-race house slaves who shared ancestry with their onetime owners and had acquired marketable skills such as cooking and tailoring, worked in domestic fields or were able to open small businesses such as restaurants and catering firms. Some free Blacks in the North also founded small businesses and even newspapers. They were able to get a head-start on Blacks who were essentially still enslaved by their lack of access to wealth accumulation, particularly when it came to owning land.  

Regarding education, Cheyney University, Lincoln University, PA founded in 1854, and Wilberforce University founded in 1856, were the only Black colleges (HBCU’s) operational prior to the American Civil War; these schools were located in the North. However, there had been a few predominantly white colleges, such as Oberlin College in Ohio and Berea College in Kentucky, that had accepted black students even before the war, and their black graduates had been given a head start on economic stability. During the War in the 1860s, organizations like the American Missionary Association, which had sponsored elementary schools for Southern blacks, established some of the first historically Black colleges and universities. These include Fisk University, Hampton University, Howard University, Tuskegee University, Spelman College and Morehouse College. Those who attended these schools, as well as such other Black colleges were able to acquire skills and academic knowledge that put them in a distinctly different class.  

Since the founding of these schools were often attended originally by the children of skilled former slaves who had been able to establish businesses or farms in the post-war period.  Thus, several generations of many families have often become alumni.  While today there are well over one hundred historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the US, these early institutions have consistently been the preferred for upper-class Blacks. In particular, Hampton University, Howard University, Tuskegee University, Spelman College and Morehouse College have historically been heavily favored by the Black intelligentsia due to their selectivity (cost included), academic rigor, name recognition, networking opportunities, strong funding, and Black cultural enrichment.  A small number of free Blacks during the 19th century were admitted into private, predominately white institutions such as Harvard, Amherst and Yale.  

However, since integration, many children of the Black Bourgeoisie have attended predominantly white colleges and universities. "In the first time period covered by the scholars, Black colleges were attracting significant numbers of students from professional, middle-class Black families [these people] are now the students who are cherry-picked by highly selective, prestigious institutions that weren’t looking for them in the 1970s", said Michael L. Lomax, president of the United Negro College Fund.  In 1904 Sigma Pi Phi fraternity, also known as "The Boulè," was established as the first Greek-letter society for African Americans, admitting mainly those Black men who had gained considerable respect within their chosen industries. That fraternity is not present as an undergraduate fraternity. Within a decade, African American undergraduate college students established fraternities and sororities as small, selective social groups that later developed an emphasis on scholarship and social activism. Occasionally, alumni members of an undergraduate fraternity are invited to join Sigma Pi Phi as mid-career adults. Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity at Cornell University in 1906 was established as the first African American intercollegiate fraternity.

Today there are a total of nine historically black sororities and fraternities that make up the National Pan-Hellenic Council, sometimes referred to as the "Divine Nine." These include Alpha Phi Alpha (1906), Alpha Kappa Alpha (1908), Kappa Alpha Psi (1911), Omega Psi Phi (1911), Delta Sigma Theta (1913), Phi Beta Sigma (1914), Zeta Phi Beta (1920), Sigma Gamma Rho (1922), and Iota Phi Theta (1963).  Some contend that historically Black Greek organizations differ from those that are traditionally all-white, because of their importance to Blacks long after they have left their respective colleges and universities. Graham said in his book Our Kind of People: Inside America’s Black Upper Class that these sororities and fraternities "are a lasting identity, a circle of lifetime friends, a base for future political and civic activism".  Other research on the Black elite from a sociological perspective is generally traced to E. Franklin Frazier's Black Bourgeoisie (first edition in English in 1957 translated from the 1955 French original).  

Apart from some classic Black bourgeois perspectives, Black conservative intellectuals also consistently demonstrate they have personally internalized negative stereotypes about poor Blacks and about African American culture. The evidence for this lies in the underlying assumptions of their written work, the descriptions of poor Blacks in that work, and their personal biographies. Here are a few observations about the black middle class:

*Homophobia and anti-gay attitudes are pervasive as seen by the fact that many black Americans are anti-gay marriage

*Affirmative action policies, though it helped many ascend to middle class status, are no longer needed

*Black politicians are needed to protect the economic status of the black middle class, not to speak about social justice

*Black liberals have no focus and can no longer speak for the burgeoning black middle class

*Intra racism has long been the standard among blacks of different shades of blackness

*Academic underachievement is the result of the black home, not institutional problems such as racism dating back to Jim Crow

The assent of the elite Black community in America has often intersected with white-America.  That has not always been to the overall benefit of middle-and lower-class Black communities.  In 2017, Ben Carson, a former pioneering brain surgeon became the Secretary of Housing with no prior administrative or government experience.   Over the years, many in the Black upper class have also founded numerous other organizations that allow them to socialize, build networks and get involved in communities.  One of the most notable is Jack and Jill of America, Inc.  Oprah Winfrey, Harry Belafonte, Denzel Washington come to mind while others make fewer impacting choices.  According to a 2007 estimate, 80 percent of upper-class Blacks own their own homes. This is compared to 66 percent of those earning more than $50,000 and 52 percent of those who earn between $30,000 and $49,999 in income.  Since around 1980, Black professional athletes have financially joined the Black Bourgeois.  They have had less in common with the Black middle and lower class accordingly, comments like “I am not a role model” and “Republicans buy gym shoes too” from Charles Barkley and Michael Jordan respectively are examples.  This seems to generalize that the Black bourgeoisie athlete’s primary loyalty is to the capitalist system.  In 2020, after the murder of George Floyd, professional athletes began to speak out more against police terror against the Black community in America.  The National Basketball Association (NBA) called off its playoff games for a few days.  Major League Baseball (MLB), the National Football League (NFL), Major League Soccer (MLS), individual tennis players, and even the National Hockey League (NHL) called off some games, matches, and practices.  The result was a mixture of grandstanding with no marketable change in law enforcement so far.  Barack Obama helped convince these NBA players to return to the court.  So, instead of a aggressive direct action, what we are left with is sports arenas being set up as voting centers for the 2020 national election.  The general public has seen is these locations used to address covid-19 as food and vaccine distribution centers in 2021.


Image: cartoon from 1828 by Philadelphia’s Edward Williams Clay

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