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April 2013

When A College Degree Isn’t A Ticket To The Middle Class For Black People

While over 80% of the people in the world are considered literate, literacy privilege coupled with educational privilege through formal education at a post-secondary institution includes only 1% of the world’s population. In America, roughly 30% of adults have bachelors degrees. Master’s degrees, doctoral degrees (ie Ph.D., Ed.D., Psy.D.) and professional degrees (i.e. J.D. or M.D.) are statistically less prevalent. It truly is a tiny club of people with formal post-secondary education despite recent rises in degree attainment. To be clear, a college education is not automatically indicative of intelligence (many people are intelligent and self-taught). Conversely, many with and without degrees aren’t that bright.

For some, it’s not automatically indicative of upward mobility. This is true for many Black people in America.

About 20% of Black adults in America have bachelors degrees. The recent history of education, from Black men’s increase in acquiring education post WWII to Black women gaining education and heavily filling public and government sector jobs (though since the recession, there has been a decline in public sector employment for Black women), has had a major class shift impact on Black individuals and Black families. The Black middle class grew through military, government jobs, some private sector work and entrepreneurship, plus home ownership. While this has afforded a smaller group (compared to the much larger working class of Black people and those in poverty) to experience upward mobility from one generation to the next, this experience is not truly indicative of the plethora of Black experiences with immigration, regional migration for employment and changing class/upward mobility, degree or not, in the last several decades.

Whites with degrees or without and Blacks without degrees often assume that with conferred literacy and educational privilege comes class privilege and socioeconomic status change by immediate upward class mobility, for anyone Black with a degree. True, this happens for some. But here are a few reasons why this is not a blanket common experience for Black people with a degree:

Being born in poverty. A full class change in one generation doesn’t always occurs for Black people. In fact, there’s been a post-housing market bubble decline across the board for Black people in generational wealth, income, and even the possibility of doing better than our parents. Climbing out of previous generations of poverty with that first person to get a degree and get a “middle class” job is not a magic trick.

Being a first-generation American. The expectation to financially help out family members in other countries through remittances as well as greater financial responsibilities than someone who just has to earn for themselves can be factors. When the parents’ generation is not wealthy and are immigrants to the U.S., a plethora of factors from not having aged networks and business contacts for opportunities to immigration-related concerns can impact ascension into the middle class.

Astronomical student loan debt coupled with underemployment or unemployment that makes home ownership, saving, and moving up from parents’ class impossible. Now, some will argue “don’t go to college” so that there is no debt yet CANNOT provide concrete alternatives for Black people who are not going to be goddamn Mark Zuckerberg, and need practical career solutions without formal education.

Higher unemployment than Whites with comparable resumes. The degree doesn’t make us any less Black and though we technically qualify for higher paying jobs (compared to some jobs that Blacks without degrees have, but with less pay than equally qualified Whites) that doesn’t change the fact that Blacks have double the unemployment rate of Whites and are often hired sparingly as tokens to higher paying jobs, told we are “overqualified” and rejected, or are completely ignored.

Black interest in uplifting Black people and other people of colour and a commitment to social justice means accepting low paid, high stress work even with a degree. Teaching, social work, child care management, mental health counseling, and nursing remain undervalued fields (and here’s why) where only a few reach the top, income-wise, to even come close to being a steady member of the middle class. Often the highest ranking positions in these already undervalued fields go to Whites. The turnover rate and later underemployment or unemployment are high in some of these fields (i.e. non-profit organizations).

Being a part of a class-mixed extended family. Many Black people (especially Black women, who earn 32% more bachelors degrees than Black men) can attest to supporting multiple children/unemployed adults and extended family members on what income (say 50K a year pre-tax) may seem like a lot to a non-degreed person but after taxes and used for multiple people is stretched thin. Add in theist expectations to “support” churches (almost everything in this area is placed on Black women’s shoulders), Western Union to family members and bail/care packages/attorneys for male family members suffering at the hands of Prison Industrial Complex and a theoretical “large” income vanishes often into debt.

Lower starting wealth. White families have 20X the wealth of Black families. Without generations of wealth in terms of investments, land, real estate, insurance policies and more, one illness, car accident or death can literally obliterate a Black person’s new entry into the middle class and with family members who are poor, working class or brand new entrants into the middle class themselves and unable to help and are actually relying on the aforementioned person for help, all bets are off.

The myth among Black people that Black + degree = White wealth is intraracially pervasive and nonsensical. Absolutely, Black people with literacy and educational privilege must check their privilege. Ways of doing this includes not disregarding Black voices without education (for example, I LOVE that Patricia Hill Collins included “uneducated” yet critical intellectual voices outside of the academe in her book Black Feminist Thought, including Black women like Sojourner Truth, domestic workers, adolescents and more), working for justice for poor Black people, rejecting intellectual/consumer elitism and classism (if it applies), and creating/supporting educational methods/tools/ideas outside of the academe. However, the assumption that Black + degree = middle class = evil Black person = disregard their lived experiences is unacceptable. My contention is that literacy and educational privilege does not come with the dollar signs and class privilege as automatic attachments for Black people.

Though there have been good times for me within the last 14 years since completing an associate’s degree, 12 years since completing a bachelors degree and 5 since completing a master’s degree, I’ve also known what it’s like to not know where I am going to live because of money. Not eating for 3 days at a time because I had no money for food. Thinking I entered the middle class for like an hour before 3 of my past jobs were sold off (via merger/acquisition) and my position erased or given to a White male in another state. (They’d often fly down for me to train them for the job that I was going to be losing.) Going from having enough to pay rent to facing eviction. Having the actual paper degrees be the most expensive things that I own while looking under the filing cabinet where I used to keep them for an extra quarter to buy a can of soup. Realizing that the myth of class ascension “beyond” my Jamaican immigrant parents (in poverty, without education beyond high school, who lovingly raised my 7 siblings and I) in one generation wouldn’t necessarily mean truly escaping poverty but more likely dipping my toe into the ocean of quasi-middle class for a year here or there and back to poverty or barely making working class wages here or there. So let’s be clear, just because I can read Foucault doesn’t mean that I have the money to pay the light bill so that I can see while I am reading Foucault.

At the same time, I knew that without an education, there were only fewer options for me than with an education. Where I grew up, we knew that the delusions of trying to be the late Steve Jobs, Jay-Z or Oprah, people who either didn’t start or finish a degree had NOTHING to do with the lived realities of MILLIONS of Black people in America. It is a false narrative that “most” people without degrees are wealthy. Television has clouded many people’s view. They really need to view income stratification in America. America has the most millionaires and billionaires; the problem with this is it actually obscures the real struggle as those high salaries and wealth skew average family income to make it appear more substantial than it really is. The reality is that many with or without degrees in America are “just making it” or struggling, especially if they are Black. And yes, “poverty” is relative. So while people will quickly name a country where average income is a fraction of what it is in America (and realize this comparison is a silencing tactic; people who do this do not care about Black people in America or elsewhere), they fail to realize that Black people who LIVE HERE in AMERICA have to afford to LIVE HERE. The comparison won’t provide them needs HERE. (Also, the belief that success without a degree is “easy” to attain is the type of advice that many Whites in the middle class give. Skip college they say. They don’t realize that even with a degree there are challenges and without one, there are even more challenges for Black people. Advice given to Black students needs NUANCE.)

Oh…and I know the inherent victim-blaming culture in America means that if I am not immediately rich upon degree conferral, I am to blame. I should have majored in something White men like a "useful" major (despite working in “tech” positions [which are worshiped] of “social science” or healthcare industries). If my job is sold away, I must have convinced all of the CEOs to do the merger or acquisition. If I face racism in the hiring process, I must have misunderstood. Believe me, I already heard all of the excuses so I am not interested in them today. 

Nuanced views of the Black educated class (which overlaps with the middle class though they aren’t concentric circles) are needed. Instead of Black people with college degrees viewing themselves as geniuses, automatic leaders and “better” than those without degrees and Black people without college degrees viewing Black people with degrees as all elitists with money for which any time a disagreement is had, it’s due to that person having a degree and no other factor, recognition and understanding of the variety of types of Black socioeconomic and educational experiences are needed…desperately.

The college degree is clearly no longer a magic ticket into the shrinking middle class for Americans. The difference is it never completely was that ticket for Black people.

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    About white men bragging about how “easy” it is to be a success without a degree: the tech fields are notorious for...
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