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Is The Black Middle Class Disappearing?


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We've been talking a lot about the economy in the past couple of weeks. The issue was at the forefront of the two political conventions that just ended and put a further exclamation point on the debate over whether Barack Obama or Mitt Romney would be the best person to address the issue.

But long before Mitt Romney clinched the nomination, some of the harshest critics of the president's leadership on the economy were African-Americans, like the talk show host Tavis Smiley. He publicly complained that black Americans were, as he put it, being crushed in the downturn. Smiley was criticized for those remarks, but now journalist Steven Gray has written a poignant and provocative piece for Salon.com, where he says that even as the Obamas were moving into the White House, the wealth of the black middle class was vanishing and that, once unemployed, even the best educated are having trouble finding jobs.

And Steven Gray knows whereof he speaks because the one-time correspondent for Time is now unemployed and he's here with me now. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

STEVEN GRAY: Thank you very much, Michel.

MARTIN: You say that the American middle class is shrinking, but the black middle class is vanishing. Those are very strong words. Why do you say that?

GRAY: Well, you can see it in the numbers. I mean, it's clear that the American middle class has endured just a spectacular decline in wealth in the last decade or so, but among African-Americans, the decline has been even more shocking.

MARTIN: Well, I've got some numbers from your piece that I'll mention. You say that, between 2005 and 2009, which is when the recession officially ended, on average, black household wealth fell by more than half to just under $6,000. Now, that's even as their white peers held over $110,000 in assets. You say that nearly a fourth of African-Americans have no assets other than a car.

And, obviously, this is a complicated issue, but why do you think this is? Is this because whites tend to have more of a cushion to weather the storm? More savings, their houses are worth more, their parents have more money? What's your take on why this precipitous drop among African-Americans in the middle class?

GRAY: Yeah. I think there are a number of key reasons. One is some of the key sectors of the economy where African-Americans have managed to gain a foothold have been, you know, the sectors that have been most in decline. You see that in manufacturing. You see that in health care. You see that in education. You see that in government, especially at the state and local level.

It's important to keep in mind that nearly one in five black folks in this country work for government. Government has historically been a key entre into the middle class, but because of just severe budget cuts, you're seeing teachers, police officers, firefighters, postmen - you're seeing a lot of those jobs being cut, so it's just a really weird time in the job market for black folks right now.

MARTIN: And you think housing is also a big part of this. Tell us a little bit more about that.

GRAY: Yeah. You know, basically, in the late 1990s, early 2000s, we saw the rise of the subprime mortgage market, which fundamentally was intended to bring low income people, including many African-Americans, into home ownership. I mean, home ownership, after all, is a key part of the American dream.

But a study from the Center for Responsible Lending found that African-Americans who had credit scores at 660 or above were steered into mortgages that were far riskier than mortgages that their white counterparts with lower credit scores, in many cases, may have been steered toward.

MARTIN: So, on the employment piece, we have to talk about you. And you talk about you in this piece. You're pretty unsparing of yourself. I mean, you lay your own situation out there, pointing out that, despite a pretty strong track record as a reporter, once you were laid off from Time, you have not been able to find full time employment elsewhere. Why do you think that is?

GRAY: Well, I think journalism is in a state of flux, as you know. I mean, it's a very tricky moment in our industry. Thousands of super-talented journalists of many different backgrounds, you know, are looking for work right now or just doing a variety of things to continue practicing journalism. The space that I've been working in, the magazine world - it is hurting right now. And I think a key part of it has been financial, so you see magazines that are able to do some hiring are hiring much younger reporters who are, oftentimes, less expensive and I think that is a key part of what has happened to me.

MARTIN: But you also raise the question in the piece - and it's a provocative question - of whether it's - how can I put it this way? Is it racism or is it you? And you describe an anecdote where you found that your story pitches were not being as well received as you thought they would be, but there is a particular incident where an intern - a white intern, let's just say it...

GRAY: Sure.

MARTIN: ...was chosen over you to be on the election team and despite your assessment that this intern couldn't even articulate a story pitch properly. And you describe how you were so irritated at this that you walked out of a meeting. Now, people can look at that either way. They could say, you know, that's really messed up. You were being treated unfairly. Or they could say, you know what, Steven? You don't know how to play the game.

GRAY: Yeah.

MARTIN: So what do you want us to draw from that anecdote?

GRAY: Well, I would say first of all I, you know, I certainly played the game. I mean I came to Time magazine in 2007, covering the Midwest. I wrote about Barack Obama, produced video projects, covered gay marriage in Iowa, covered the debate over public boarding schools. And then in 2009, I was promoted to open up a companywide bureau in Detroit that eventually became one of the most successful projects for the company in 2009 and 2010. As a reward for that project, I was promoted by the editor-in-chief of the entire company to come to the Washington bureau to cover the intersection of business and politics. So very clearly, I had paid my dues and I'd proven myself to be a strong reporter and a strong writer for both the magazine and for the website.

The scale of projects that would've very quickly been improved in Chicago and Detroit once I got to Washington, simply didn't get an airing until a new reporter came along and pitched a similar idea and then it suddenly got a 45-minute airing with the bureau chief.

And let me be clear, like I respect many of my former colleagues at the magazine and it was a great privilege to work there. But, you know, when I look around the room and when I look around the newsroom and I look at who is being promoted, when I look at who is being hired first of all, I don't see people who look like me. And it's hard for me not to believe that race isn't a factor. As I said in the piece, we're not that post-racial, right?

MARTIN: And I should mention at this point, as you would imagine, we're journalists, too, and we reached out to Time to get their perspective on this, particularly the specific instances you describe. They would not address any of them. They said that they were not going to comment on personnel matters, and would not even comment on your assertion that you are, in fact, the last African-American correspondent for Time, wouldn't even comment on that. So that is what we learned.

And if you're just joining us, I'm speaking to journalist Steven Gray about his article in Salon.com. He makes the provocative assertion that the black middle class is in fact vanishing.

You also make the point in the piece that there isn't a lot of patience for this conversation. Why do you think that is?

GRAY: I think because...

MARTIN: And, well, first of all, what's your evidence that that is so, and why do you think that is?

GRAY: Well, I think you look at simply the employment numbers, first of all. I mean, yes, the unemployment rate for the country at large has gone down a little bit to around 8 percent, but it has remained spectacularly high for African-Americans. It's hard for me to look at a metric like that and not wonder why black folks are suffering. So I've been trying to do this story for the last three and a half years, when I was a bureau chief in Detroit, just sort of looking at all these anecdotes and statistics telling me that something was happening in black America. And essentially what I was told is that, you know, the country is hurting and let's think about the broader American issue, and I'm, like, it's hard for me to look at these statistics and not consider race as a factor. I mean, something's happening here, and I think simply as a good journalist it's our job to look at the statistics and think about why.

MARTIN: Can you talk a little bit about how your own life has changed?

GRAY: Hmm. So, yeah...


GRAY: In what way?

MARTIN: Is it painful to contemplate? I mean, you lay it out in the piece? Do you want me to go through it for you...

GRAY: No, it's OK.

MARTIN: ...or you just find it hard to talk about?

GRAY: Yeah, it's a tricky thing to talk about and it was a very tricky thing to write about. I mean, it took me a couple of months to write the piece because even to talk about the difficulty finding work. I mean, we're very - black folks, we're very prideful people, and it was - one of the most interesting things has been how many of my friends who are, you know, similarly very well-educated, similar backgrounds are struggling with the same things, but it's like we - no one's talking about it. It's a very weird, it's a very weird kind of thing.

MARTIN: So you've sublet your apartment to save on rent. You're basically crashing with friends...

GRAY: Friends and relatives.

MARTIN: ...and relatives.

GRAY: Yeah. Yeah.

MARTIN: Borrowing money from parents, which...

GRAY: As I can. And my mom is like, you know, that well is about to dry up.


GRAY: You know, and I and because they're not wealthy people. I mean, they're regular folks. They are...

MARTIN: And it's embarrassing for you at this stage of your life.

GRAY: It is, right? And I didn't think I would be in this situation ever. And neither did they. But they are still committed to me succeeding in journalism, that they are willing to do a lot of things to make it happen.

MARTIN: You mentioned that when you talked - that this was a hard piece to write because it was painful. But you also mentioned in the piece that there were a lot of people who didn't seem to want to hear it. There were a lot of people who thought that this was - when you even talked about this, that this was airing dirty laundry.

And indeed, it is worth mentioning that when Travis Smiley began talking about this issue, about the way African-Americans were being affected by the downturn, he was publicly criticized by a lot of people as being ego driven, as being a hater, as being, you know, inappropriately critical of the president.

And so, I have two questions here, which is why did you want to write this piece? And why do you think there is not as much conversation about this as you think there might be, given how bad the situation is, as it seems to be in the statistics?

GRAY: Yeah, I think some of it goes back to so many of us are too close to the crisis and we're not looking at it from a 50,000-foot view. I think some of it is pride and I think some of it is shame, and some of it is denial. And, yes, I do think that some of us are fearful of broaching the subject of what it means to be black in America on the watch of a black president.

MARTIN: Well, how about for you, if you don't mind? How do you feel about your own prospects? What's next?

GRAY: I'm conflicted, quite frankly, for a number of reasons. I have never seen myself doing anything but journalism, but, you know, one of my biggest fears is that journalism will become a hobby for me because I'm at an age where I did not get in journalism to become wealthy, clearly but, you know, I have to make a living and I have to be comfortable. I've got bills to pay. And so I'm thinking about lots of options - whether it's going back to school or lots of different things.

MARTIN: And overall, what do you think of the consequences of what you described here? I mean, for you to say that for most societies - advanced industrial societies - the middle class is fundamental to, you know, political stability, that the economy sort of functioning, the country sort of functioning - I mean, that's one of the things that we say that we are trying to promote around the world is the creation of a middle class. If you're saying that the black middle class in this country is vanishing, what are the consequences?

GRAY: Chaos. I think essentially it's chaos. I think the country cannot afford - the country needs a vibrant black middle class. You know, we, America cannot afford to have such a large subset of the population falling into the abyss. And the numbers show that's exactly what's happening and no one's really talking about it.

MARTIN: Steven Gray is a journalist. He's written for Time magazine. His piece for Salon.com is called "Can the Black Middle Class Survive?" And he was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios to talk about it.

Steven Gray, thank you.

GRAY: Thank you.

MARTIN: Best wishes to you.

GRAY: Thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.