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An African American path to the middle class

By Kilolo Kijakazi

Jan 30, 2019

I am an African American woman from a middle-class family who has experienced upward economic mobility. Some might say that my family and I achieved the American dream; that an education and hard work are a ticket to the middle class. But this narrative ignores the systemic barriers that undermine the economic advancement of many African Americans.

African American families are much less likely to be middle class than white families, more likely to fall out of the middle class after achieving this status, and less likely to see their children reach the middle class. Some researchers and commentators attribute these outcomes to insufficient saving and investment by African American families — either due to a lack of knowledge or an unwillingness to save. Based on this view, the solution is to design policies to change their behavior.

This assessment of African Americans’ economic status uses the individual deficit model. In essence, the deficit model assigns the individual as the source of the problem. Therefore, the solution is to change individual behavior.

Research refutes this view and shows that even when African American families make all of the “right” choices — getting a college education, working full time, saving for a home, and living in two-parent families — they have substantially less wealth than white families. African Americans with a college degree have less wealth, on average, than white high-school dropouts. African Americans who work full time typically have less wealth than unemployed white workers. White homeowners possess $140,000 more in net worth than African American homeowners. And the net worth of two-parent African American families is less than that of single-parent white families.

My family’s history also refutes the individual deficit narrative. My maternal great-grandparents farmed, saved, bought land, built a two-story home, raised their children, and gave each of them land to start their own families. This intergenerational transfer of wealth has historically been more difficult for African American families than for white families.

My grandfather also farmed, saved, and built a two-story home that still stands. He married my grandmother, an African American woman who — just a few decades after emancipation — went to college and became a teacher. They worked, saved, bought more land, and raised their children in what is now a century-old home. In addition, they organized members of their African American community into The Penny Savers Club to raise money to help fund a school for African American children in the segregated school system.

My grandparents sold portions of their land to send their children, including my mother, to college. My parents met at Morgan State University, a historically Black university, which my father attended on a scholarship until he enlisted in World War II. He eventually graduated from Morgan State and went on to graduate school at New York University. Upon completing school, he moved with my mother to upstate New York for a job with the Veterans Administration. They bought a home, raised their children, and, as my mother would say, they “scrimped and saved” to send their children to college.

Again, some might say this sounds like the American Dream come true. But I know that it is a generations-long story of triumph in the face of great adversities.

African Americans with a college degree have less wealth, on average, than white high-school dropouts.

I know that my great-grandfather was born into human bondage and my grandfather endured white merchants paying less than a fair price for the crops he sold.

I know that my grandmother had to make extraordinary efforts to hold on to her teaching position. She walked the proverbial miles to the schools where she taught. She visited homes of African American families, telling the parents to send their children to school during harvest time, rather than keep the older children at home to care for the younger ones when the parents had to be in out in the fields. “Send your babies to school, too,” she would say, “and I will look after them.” She taught in one-room school houses to children of all ages while she watched over the babies, because if she did not have enough students in the school she would be out of a job.

I know that despite my father’s graduate degree, he was hired for a professional position at the salary of a high-school graduate. Though he worked every day for 40 years, he did not receive the promotions he deserved until he sued for discrimination.

These adversities were driven by structural racism — barriers constructed through policies, Supreme Court rulings, programs, and institutional practices that were designed to impede the economic advancement of African Americans and facilitate upward mobility for white people.

Systemic barriers, which prevented African Americans from having freedom, a quality education, rewarding employment, and economic security included the following:

  • Government policies that supported the bondage and sale of people of African descent for the enrichment of white people;
  • The government’s failure, after emancipation, to fully implement Reconstruction and provide land to compensate for African Americans’ enslavement;
  • Violent attacks by white people on African American families and communities that destroyed individual and community assets;
  • Black Codes that outlawed lucrative forms of entrepreneurship and skilled private-sector jobs for African Americans and severely restricted their employment in government jobs;
  • The requirement that African Americans pay taxes, even though they were forbidden to attend public schools, causing them to pay again to build and educate their children in private schools; and
  • The exclusion of African Americans from white colleges and universities, even though several of these institutions prospered from the bondage and sale of African American families.

When it came to buying homes, another set of public and private barriers hindered progress by African American families:

  • Redlining was used to limit loans to African American communities.
  • Restrictive racial covenants prevented African American families from buying white-owned homes.
  • Cities demolished African American neighborhoods for urban renewal without providing sufficient alternative housing.
  • The construction of highways bisecting African American neighborhoods destroyed economically self-sufficient communities.
  • More recently, African American families were targeted for subprime loans, even when they qualified for prime loans, contributing to a declinein African American homeownership steeper than for any other group over the last 15 years.

Equitable economic mobility and advancement into the middle class require solutions that reverse the impact of decades of unjust and damaging policies. These bold solutions include a federal job guarantee that provides employment with wages and benefits that could help families build economic stability. Another solution is to provide every newborn with a child trust fund, including much more substantial endowments for babies in low-wealth families, ensuring that every child begins adulthood with assets to facilitate upward economic mobility.

The argument that racial disparities in economic mobility can be eliminated with behavioral changes is fundamentally flawed. To eliminate these disparities and create an equitable pathway to the middle class for African Americans, we must adopt bold, impactful new policies.


Kilolo Kijakazi is an institute fellow at the Urban Institute, where she conducts research on economic security and structural racism, and supports the organization in becoming more inclusive in its staffing, content and communication of its research, and its audience. She was previously a program officer at the Ford Foundation, where she funded an initiative on the racial wealth gap.