AN OFFICIAL PUBLICATION OF THE NATIONAL URBAN LEAGUE POLICY INSTITUTE
Perhaps no American accomplishment of the late 20th Century has symbolized our success more than the opening of the primary paths to economic stability to significant numbers of Americans, including racial minorities, immigrants and the descendants of working class families.
The expanding collective prosperity of African Americans is particularly emblematic of this era, in that the civil rights gains of the last 50 years forced open the door of full-fledged American prosperity to those who had been barred from its many comforts in decades past, either through economic, legislative, and racial apartheid, or some institutionalized combination of all the above.
In modern America, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness means widespread access to an education that affords one the ability to succeed in college, work and life, sustainable employment with benefits and a living wage, and safe, decent and affordable housing obtained on fair terms.
The Great Recession has earned its title. It has been dreadfully effective in erasing those economic gains most frequently identified with the American Century – the ability of a gainfully employed family to reasonably house, educate, and fend for itself under ordinary circumstances without external assistance, either public or private. Indeed, the Great Recession has proven ‘Great’ in that its destructive power has surpassed anything remotely familiar to Americans today. This is second only to the Great Depression of the 1930s, a national emergency that forced us to respond with a wholesale urgency typically reserved only for the most dire of foreign threats.
Working Americans were the most immediate beneficiaries. The idea of an open ladder of economic ascendancy was made increasingly real. Over the ensuing decades, these individual beneficiaries came to be collectively identified in the loosest sense as the American ‘middle class’.
This rather broad term has both economic and social connotations. In many ways, it means something very different to each person who uses it. Yet, most people commonly understand the group this term seeks to describe. It is in this sense that those African Americans whose social and economic lives were validated, if not directly improved as a result of the hard-fought victories of the last 50 years in the areas of education, housing, the workplace and the ballot box, might readily self-identify themselves as the ‘middle class’. These individuals and families do not view the middle class as a technical term. They see the middle class as an aspiration, if not their present actuality. They see its mere possibility as a validation of their hopes, their dreams, their daily toil, and in many ways, their lives.
It is for this reason that the middle class is so commonly referred to as evidence of America’s progress. It is also one reason why the health and ultimate survival of the black middle class is so singularly important. The black middle class serves as a very real measure of the viability of America as we would have it to be.
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