THE SLOW BUT STEADY EXPANSION of the black middle class has led to the emergence of black privilege—a unique set of social experiences and entitlements that accompany middle-class status as blacks experience it. Black privilege refers to the experience of advantage, the benefits that accrue from having access to cultural and material capital, and the worldviews that result from the opportunities and experiences that generate such resources. But it also attends to a matrix of tastes and preferences, manifested in the habits, everyday practices, and leisure pursuits of modern middle-class blacks, that demonstrate their racial identities and allegiances.
As this book unfolds, I detail how black privilege develops and is deployed, revealing new insight that both sharpens and enriches our understanding of the black experience. The book draws from evidence collected in an interview-based study I conducted between 2009 and 2014 in the New York metropolitan area with fifty-four middle-class blacks. My analysis of the data derived from this study reveals the nature and character of black privilege and its constitutive elements—black cultural capital and cultural flexibility. What I learned illustrates the continued relevance of race in the lifestyles of black consumers who have cultural capital, credentials, and cash to spend, but still must contend with the subtle and not so subtle notions that blacks are culturally and socially inferior. From examining the daily lives of college-educated blacks, it becomes clear how, in more ways than one, they are privileged. However, being black has implications for how they experience the rewards and advantages that their middle-class status bestows.
Previous research focused on the black middle class has revealed the complexity of their lived experiences, as a consequence of both their class status and race.1 The findings of my study add to that literature, examining the ways that consumption is a critical tool modern middle-class blacks wield in achieving the bifurcated goals of challenging cultural racism and reveling in the world’s material comforts. For those who are black and privileged, born after the civil rights movement, their cultural consumption performs an essential role in the construction and display of both their race and their class identities.
Tasha, a 28-year-old attorney working in the cosmetics industry, is part of the emerging black middle class in New York City. I meet her one afternoon at a restaurant a few blocks from the brownstone where she lives in Harlem. She had agreed to tell me about her experience as a middle-class black woman living and working in New York. The restaurant Tasha chose offered a blend of Italian and Mediterranean cuisine, and its decor—modern and sophisticated, with cream-colored leather chairs and tumbled marble floors—hinted at her taste for finer things. Once we settle into a table, Tasha mentions that one of the restaurant’s owners is a black woman. Tasha’s choosing to meet at an aesthetically pleasing, upscale place that is also owned by a fellow black woman reflects the fact that her racial identity together with her class identity shapes her decisions about how and where to spend her money.
When Tasha leaves Harlem, heading to work each morning, she moves from a social environment in which black culture is celebrated and she feels part of a black community to a setting in which she is the exception, as one of just two black women at her company. This change in context requires cultural maneuvering. In settings like Tasha’s workplace, where white culture reigns, consumption uniquely enables middle-class blacks to seamlessly cross social and cultural boundaries. And they do so frequently throughout the course of their lives. Their consumption also serves as a useful tool to manage encounters with racial stigma and anti-black bias. Like Tasha, many of the middle-class blacks in my study inhabit social worlds that diverge in their social norms and requirements, social worlds that often stand in stark contrast to one another, some predominantly black and some predominantly white. While they espouse a love for the richness of black culture, they also realize that they must maintain diverse cultural repertoires, a capacity that requires familiarity with the dominant—white—culture.
Scholars have long attempted to grapple with blacks’ familiarity with and display of dominant culture and their simultaneous desire to maintain distinct black cultural practices and knowledge bases, even when black cultural practices are devalued and potentially stigmatizing. W.E.B. Du Bois famously described the fierce tension between blacks’ private and public identities, which resulted in a “two-ness.” He viewed blacks’ “double consciousness” as a gift and a curse.2 Mostly, though, it reflects the troublesome nature of race and the oppressive conditions that blacks face living in a racist society. For Du Bois, the internal conflict and strain that results from having to manage the disjuncture between how blacks view themselves and how they are perceived in society is a disagreeable aspect of black life that is a product of the prevailing racial order.
In more recent work, sociologist Karyn Lacy has grappled with the challenges black middle-class people face. She argues that a key aspect of the experience of being black and middle class is being able to strategically assimilate, which requires maintaining multiple public identities. For Lacy, middle-class blacks’ aptitude for multiplicity is less of an encumbrance and more of a resource—an ability or skill that can be put to use in advantageous ways.3 Similarly, Kathryn Neckerman, Prudence Carter, and Jennifer Lee describe cultural maneuvering as an attribute of minority cultures of mobility.4 In both cases, middle-class blacks are theorized to maintain an affinity for black spaces and to place a premium on interactions with other blacks, while often operating or residing in primarily white spaces.
Others scholars have documented the purposeful work of middle-class black parents to ensure that their children have both knowledge of “mainstream, majority white practices that will help them navigate social structures and systems and African American culture,” so that they can have a sense of racial pride and a connection to other blacks.5 This skill set is not innate but often the result of parental cultivation.
The term code-switching is often used to describe blacks’ management of their cultural duality or biculturalism. Sociolinguists define code-switching as a particular “verbal action,” a means of communicating that develops in response to membership in multiple speech communities.6 To use the term precisely is to refer to a linguistic capacity that entails shifting from one language, language variety, dialect, or style to another.7 Recognizing that standard English is promoted as culturally superior and that black language varieties, accents, and ways of speaking are stigmatized, and often considered unintelligible or unintelligent, blacks resignedly code-switch. Inherent in the concept of code-switching is the idea that the two language varieties involved can rarely coexist, and thus only in black social spheres or private settings can black English be fully engaged.
For modern middle-class blacks, a core aspect of their black privilege is their cultural flexibility, and demonstrations of cultural flexibility may draw on blacks’ capacity to code-switch; however, cultural flexibility is much broader in its application. Beyond the sphere of language, there are multitudes of ways in which middle-class blacks must read and respond to social and cultural cues to gain acceptance in different social situations. Using their diverse cultural repertoires, they draw upon and display, depending on the circumstances, different demeanors, behaviors, composures, knowledge bases, and even emotions, all with the goal of being understood and recognized. More than code-switching they are demonstrating an ability that relies on their cultural flexibility, and by doing so they are drawing on their black privilege.
Tasha is well-paid and well-versed when it comes to cultural knowledge. Both enable her to live a middle-class lifestyle. But for middle-class blacks, like Tasha, black privilege is also evident in their sense of obligation and connection to the community to which their race binds them. While they feel connected to other blacks, they also recognize that their lives are quite different from the lives of poor blacks, who not only struggle financially but often experience cumulative disadvantage.8 In contrast, middle-class blacks often benefit from having access to opportunities, social capital, and financial resources. Researchers have shown that blacks growing up in poor neighborhoods tend to experience poverty over successive generations. Poor blacks often inherit a “legacy of disadvantage,” a legacy that is almost impossible to overcome given the current political state.9 Being college educated certainly does not guarantee blacks freedom from financial peril or downward mobility; research has shown that blacks are more likely to experience downward mobility than similarly positioned whites.10 Nonetheless, having a college degree means that often middle-class blacks’ styles of life and taste differ from those of their poorer brethren, even when they reside in the same communities or neighborhoods that are quite similar.
Yet in comparison to white privilege, an invisible assortment of unearned entitlements enjoyed by whites, which in many instances they are unaware of and that are a consequence of their race,11 black privilege is restricted in terms of the rewards that are associated with it. Furthermore, most blacks who are privileged are cognizant of their relatively advantaged state, while also realizing that having both cash and credentials will not buffer them from experiences of stigmatization based on their race, nor will it always grant them preferential treatment. Unlike whites, no matter how high blacks climb, they continue to confront societal racial hierarchies that place blacks at the bottom, preventing them from capitalizing and cashing in on all the benefits that their credentials and class status should afford them.
The members of the black middle class in my study maintain lifestyle preferences that reveal and reflect their class status, while also being deeply imbued by their race. Black cultural capital and cultural flexibility, the requisite components of black privilege, enable middle-class blacks to navigate divergent cultural and social worlds, while also maintaining a consistent and coherent sense of self.
Black cultural capital has been theorized as cultural tastes and a sense of discernment that are specific to blacks. Sociologist Prudence Carter argues that it is visible in blacks’ stylistic choices in domains of culture such as language, music, and art, but also evident in how they engage in social interactions with fellow in-group members.12 Cultural knowledge and sensibilities beyond those prized by society’s dominant group prove useful for middle-class blacks, both a means of affirming their blackness and as a means of connecting them to other blacks in meaningful yet mundane ways.13 Black cultural capital functions as the glue that bonds middle-class blacks and allows them to forge relationships with blacks across class and ethnic lines.
Processes of racial socialization—the mechanisms through which blacks develop and cultivate their racial identities—are key to the forging of black cultural capital. Racial socialization informs the development of an orientation and understanding of black culture, what French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu describes as an aesthetic disposition, a capacity to read, make sense of, and partake in a cultural tradition or engage with a cultural artifact in way that others would perceive as legitimate.14 Cumulative experiences of being in and navigating black social spaces and the recurrent interactions that middle-class blacks have with different types of blacks—family members, friends, and strangers—over the course of their lives are generative of and help to reinforce black cultural capital.
Tasha grew up on a cul-de-sac in the suburbs, but she spent the weekends and summers of her youth in the city with her cousins. Formative experiences in black social settings and routine interactions with blacks—like hanging out with your cousins in the city, accompanying your grandmother to church, or going to the barbershop or beauty salon—are key to developing familiarity with various racialized rites and rituals—talking trash on the basketball court, learning to double dutch, picking up new ways to care for your hair, or becoming aware of the latest styles, songs, or slang. It is through these experiences and interpersonal connections that transpire across diverse social institutions of daily life, both in commercial and in deeply personal spaces, that middle-class blacks develop, cultivate, and refine their tastes and knowledge of their black cultural capital.
The middle-class black study participants demonstrate that black cultural capital is activated in their everyday consumption practices and aesthetic preferences—their hairstyles, wardrobe decisions, and leisure activities. Being black is not just a matter of asserting one’s racial identity; it is performed and displayed through a constellation of cultural consumption preferences and practices that serve to solidify what it means to be a member of the group. Black people are connected to one another, in part, through the aesthetic preferences and cultural practices that they share. For many of my respondents, black cultural capital is deeply embedded in their worldviews and lifestyles, and it informs their ideological commitments, particularly their racial pride and desire for racial uplift.
When I ask Brittany, a 28-year-old attorney, what it means to be black, she speaks at length, detailing how black people share a rich and vibrant culture, and how their achievements and contributions have impacted U.S. society and the world. Brittany perceives that blacks have maintained racially specific cultural knowledge and tastes, which connect them. She explains, “I’m from a white suburban town and somebody could be from some all-black neighborhood in another state, but there are still a lot of things that we’re going to have in common.” Brittany grew up attending all-white schools, but every Sunday she accompanied her grandmother to a predominantly black church; this was part of her racial socialization. Attending a predominantly black church is a practice that she continues today, though she does not go as frequently. Her church attendance, both then and now, reflects one way that her lifestyle is distinctively black, connected to black traditions. In this way she activates her black cultural capital to maintain connections to other blacks, not all of whom share her class status.
Darryl, a 28-year-old associate at a large investment bank, is the product of an inter-ethnic black union, the son of a Ghanaian immigrant and an African American. His experience and practice of black cultural capital is exemplified by the fact that he can be found on any given Saturday night deejaying at a hip-hop club. His deejaying and love of hip-hop culture demonstrates the bridging potential of black cultural capital, across not just class lines but ethnic lines as well. Blacks of diverse ethnic backgrounds express support for racialized ideological commitments, like patronizing black-owned businesses, admiring prominent African American cultural figures, and expressing racial pride, in addition to taking pride in their ethnic identity. Many of those I interviewed with parents who had immigrated from the Caribbean or Africa had black friends who were a mixture of various ethnic backgrounds, and several second-generation black immigrants reported being members of traditionally African American cultural institutions or social and fraternal organizations. Overall, I found support for what sociologist Onoso Imagene has argued is a multiethnic black middle class, in which social and cultural boundaries along ethnic lines are present, but incredibly permeable.15 For Darryl, black music is empowering. It is a cultural resource that he finds energizing and affirming. As he explains, each morning before heading to his corporate job, the first thing this hip-hop aficionado does is turn on his music: “It gets me into the office. Got the iPod; it is always charged.” Darryl also activates his black cultural capital as he keeps his shoe game tight and makes sure to be dressed to impress whenever he goes out. When he is not at work, his sense of style and how to carry himself is informed by black American culture.
Examples of the utility of black cultural capital to facilitate connections among blacks, across ethnic and class lines, emerged time and time again in my study. Others, however, have proposed that black cultural capital functions in an alternative fashion.16 Sociologist Derron Wallace argues that black cultural capital is a tool unique to the black middle class, and that this is evident in both the U.S. and British contexts. He argues that it is illustrated in displays of cultural tastes and knowledge that are simultaneously encoded with class and race. For example, when blacks articulate a sophisticated understanding of the music of a celebrated black composer or the work of a renowned black artist, they are demonstrating an affinity for high-status culture but also a familiarity with black culture and cultural producers. Rather than connecting middle-class blacks to other blacks across the class spectrum, black cultural capital is, in this conception, a means of asserting a black racial identity while simultaneously asserting one’s middle-class sensibilities. Similarly, Crystal Fleming and Lorraine Roses argue that “black cultural capitalists” among the early black elite were those who drew upon high-status, Eurocentric tastes and artistic and aesthetic standards and applied them to black cultural products and artists. Doing so was a means to combat pejorative views of blacks and to engage in racial uplift, but was exclusionary of the black working classes and poor. In this way, they aimed to define and to promote“‘good’ black ‘culture.’”17
In my study, I found that black cultural capital emerged most often as a tool to forge cross-class social connections among blacks, even though at times it was manifested in ways that merged people’s class and racial dispositions. For example, Tasha attended Spelman College and Harvard Law School. She describes these differing educational experiences as getting “the best of both” worlds because she has reaped the rewards of attending both types of institutions, in terms of status, pedigree, and racial prestige.
Having countless experiences with navigating both black and white social worlds, Tasha is an adroit cultural actor, who possesses not only black cultural capital but also a cultural repertoire that grants her access to and acceptance in a broader world that values and idealizes the dominant culture and mores. For middle-class blacks like Tasha, who can and do regularly and skillfully cross racial and cultural boundaries, maintaining a keen sense of when to display different kinds of cultural knowledge—cultural flexibility—has become a second, but no less critical, dimension of their black privilege.
By the time Tasha entered the workforce, she had a well-developed faculty for engaging dominant cultural schemas. She has also maintained a desire to represent her race well, and this is manifested, in part, in the things she wears and how she carries herself in white settings, such as her workplace. Being middle class and black, she recognizes that she cannot partake in black cultural traditions and rituals and express her deeply felt black pride in all contexts. In some settings they would simply be illegible; in other settings they might be stigmatizing. Her educational qualifications, especially her having attended one of the most prestigious law schools in the country, have helped refute negative stereotypes she might encounter as one of the few blacks in her majority white workplace, but Tasha understands that she also has to deftly deploy her knowledge of dominant culture to gain acceptance and to have her achievements recognized.
Although Darryl works as a DJ on the weekends, his primary job is as an associate at a prominent investment bank. His experience provides a telling example of how middle-class blacks often maintain black cultural capital while also demonstrating cultural flexibility. Darryl is careful and conscious not to discuss his musical tastes or his weekend pastime with his white colleagues. He curates his style and personal life to appear palatable at his majority white firm. He is confident that letting his coworkers know about his affinity for and deep knowledge of black culture and specifically hip-hop, which he personally finds uplifting and a source of profound pleasure, would undermine his professional image and could potentially put him at a disadvantage at work. At his firm, Darryl perceives that old white men—whether his superiors or prospective clients—make the rules and that they value cultural “commonalities.” As he explains:
Your boss is an older guy, probably white. So he is certainly conservative. He is not even accustomed to [hip-hop]: “What’s a DJ? What kind of music do you listen to?” He then immediately thinks you are not the same conservative guy that he thought. . . . Your boss is like, do I really want to put my black associate there [in front of clients], or should I take my white analyst and put them there because at least they have some type of commonalities.
Darryl brands his colleagues and superiors as “conservative.” Consequently, he believes that they are inclined to believe that his white peers, even if they have less work experience, are naturally a “better fit” for engaging with prospective clients because it is assumed that they share the clients’ cultural tastes, sensibilities, and leisure pursuits. As Darryl puts it, they “all went to the same academies and play at the same golf tournaments.” What Darryl references here is the idea that members of the white corporate elite often have well-established social bonds due to their participation in leisure and socializing institutions such as boarding schools and country clubs. Common institutional and organizational connections, combined with shared leisure activities (for example, golf), facilitate social solidarity and the development of shared values and worldviews.18 Being black, Darryl faces the undue burden of demonstrating that he, too, can fit in.
Darryl hopes that his presentation of self will render whites’ prejudiced and pejorative views of black men less salient. Analyzing how he strategically engages in consumption provides insight into how he works to overcome social barriers levied as a consequence of cultural racism. As opposed to explicit forms of racism, cultural racism subtly promotes racial hierarchies, based on the idea that blacks maintain distinct and often problematic cultural practices.19 Through the lens of cultural racism, racial inequality is justified due to cultural deficits racial minorities are imagined to maintain.20 Drawing on arguments that emphasize cultural differences, whites are able to reframe racist claims about blacks in ways that may not explicitly call out race.21 Modern forms of racism function subtly as symbolic minefields, requiring middle-class blacks to recognize the often coded rhetoric and to adopt strategies to negate the underlying racial stereotypes that they face. Many, like Darryl, do so in part through their consumption. Darryl quite consciously manages his appearance at work, always wearing a blazer and tie even though his workplace does not require it. He does so to make visible that he knows how to play by the majority’s rules.
During the workweek, Darryl does what he has to do to show that he understands the conservative culture of his workplace, but he maintains his love for black culture and displays his cultural appreciation through his work as a DJ on the weekends. The ability to judge the types of cultural knowledge and practices that are valued in particular contexts and adjust accordingly is a characteristic skill among the black middle-class participants in my study. Given the demands of cultural conformity in privileged places and the rise of cultural racism, it may very well be a skill that all non-white professionals must maintain.
Culture is often deployed strategically to respond to the demands of different social circumstances. Sociologist Prudence Carter contends that the concept of cultural flexibility refers to the cultural skills required to operate in multiple and distinct social and cultural settings.22 Research demonstrates that people of all races possess faculties for cross-cultural participation, and different social contexts can promote or constrain the development and deployment of cultural flexibility.23 Sociologist Shamus Khan argues that ease in navigating social spaces, a unique class privilege, is increasingly a defining characteristic of the American elite.24 He argues that this ability is procured in and rewarded by social experiences in elite circles and institutions and is embodied in the way members of the elite carry themselves. Thus whites, too, may develop a capacity for cultural flexibility, particularly when faced with the demands of straddling divergent social worlds. But what makes the modern black middle class unique is the ease with which they can meet the cultural requirements of racially divergent social spaces. Their cultural repertoires frequently reflect racially diverse sensibilities, yet knowing when to engage or disengage their black cultural capital, and recognizing when knowledge of dominant culture is most advantageously displayed, is a skill unto itself.
Renee, a 32-year-old digital marketing manager, realizes that she has developed an ability to go between social worlds: “Having diverse experiences growing up, I mean, I know how to play the Corporate America game. I know how to blend in. I know what to say and what not to do.” Renee’s mother made sure that, throughout her childhood, Renee had experiences across the race and class spectrum, because, according to Renee, “she wanted me to just have different friends from different backgrounds.” She grew up in the suburbs, but throughout her childhood, she attended a church in the inner-city neighborhood where her mom was raised. Renee had experiences that affirmed her racial identity and sense of black pride. She describes a program at her church that she participated in for teenagers transitioning to adulthood: it taught them lessons about “being an adult, being a black woman, celebrating your culture.” She went to summer camp at the “YMCA in the hood.” She went to an all-black, Baptist elementary school, then to a majority white, private middle school. She perceives that these early experiences have helped her to feel at ease, to “blend in” when in majority white corporate settings. A Florida A&M (FAMU) graduate and a member of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority and the Urban League, she also feels at ease in settings with other blacks, particularly those who share her class status. Today, Renee continues navigating both same-race spaces and contexts where she is the only black person.
Twenty-nine-year-old Damon, a legal associate and New York native with West Indian roots, maintains both a great deal of black pride and the valuable skill of engaging in a range of other contexts. “I’m black. I’m very proud of that. I feel like it gives me actually an advantage, more so than a disadvantage. I feel like I can maneuver in worlds or in places, where others can’t.” He continues, “I’ve seen upper echelons of both societies, white, black, whatever, Spanish, and I feel like I know how to navigate both extremes. I could talk to the rich. I could talk to the poor. I talk to black, white, Spanish, whatever, and I’m accepted.” Damon persuasively argues that he is capable of comfortably interacting with people across racial and class lines, and he does not believe this conflicts in any way with his sense of black pride. Also, it is important to note that his ethnic background does not supersede his racial pride, but rather they operate in tandem, facilitated in part by the fact that he sees being black as an advantage.
For Vanessa, a 29-year-old independent consultant, success for black professionals is possible only if they know how to “play the game.” As she ardently declares, “It is very important to play by the rules of the game until you can write the rules of the game. You have to play by the rules until you make the rules.” Vanessa believes that strategically adopting or adapting cultural displays is key: in some settings this means demonstrating cultural similarity in terms of class; in other settings it means demonstrating cultural similarity in terms of race. Like so many others, Vanessa is conscious of the cultural maneuvering that she performs. Cultural flexibility reflects pragmatism and an ability to work within the rules of a society where racism and anti-black bias is pervasive.
Black privilege, rather than being a sense of entitlement to unearned benefits, is a hard-earned ability to maintain a familiarity and intimacy with black cultural practices and institutions—black cultural capital—and also an ability to realize when black cultural capital is not valued. The challenge middle-class blacks face of having to forever evaluate social contexts to determine which circumstances might require them to “tone down” their blackness25 and when they might be unapologetically black exemplifies the truncated nature of their privilege.
1. Barnes 2015; Pattillo-McCoy 2000; Anderson 1999b; Jackson 2001; Taylor 2002; Banks 2006; Landry and Marsh 2011; Wingfield 2013; Landry 2018; Fleming and Roses 2007; Wilson 1980.
2. Du Bois 2004.
3. Lacy 2007, 1.
4. Neckerman, Carter, and Lee 1999.
5. Barnes 2015, 27; Banks 2012.
6. Auer 1988.
7. Young 2009.
8. Sharkey 2008.
9. Sharkey and Elwert 2011.
10. Pfeffer and Killewald 2019.
11. McIntosh 1989.
12. Carter 2003.
13. Carter 2003.
14. Bourdieu 2007; Fleming and Roses 2007.
15. Imoagene 2017.
16. Rollock et al. 2011; Rollock, Gillborn, and Vincent 2015; Wallace 2017.
17. Fleming and Roses 2007.
18. DiMaggio 1994.
19. Valluvan 2016.
20. Mukhopadhyay and Chua 2008.
21. Bonilla-Silva 2003.
22. Carter 2010.
23. Carter 2010.
24. Khan 2012.
25. Wingfield 2015.