Our kind of people: … America’s black upper class and Black Lives Matter

The United States is also home to the biggest group of highly successful black folk in the world

United States Aug 22nd 2020 edition – The Economist

Lawrence Otis Graham recalls where he first met Kamala Harris, last summer, in Martha’s Vineyard. It was at the holiday home of Spike Lee, a film director, who held a $1,500-a-head fundraiser for the woman who is now number two on the Democratic ticket. “She is the new Barack Obama for us,” says the thrilled Mr Graham, an author and property lawyer from New York. By “us” Mr Graham means African-Americans, and in particular the glitziest end of African-American high society.           

He knows of whom he speaks. He made a name in 1999 by publishing “Our Kind of People”, a sympathetic insider account of the habits, clubs and lifestyles of America’s wealthiest black families. Early on the book, now in its 37th printing, proved controversial. Some whites were ignorant of how black millionaires had thrived, a few of them since the 1870s. “People often don’t think of blacks having different socioeconomic classes,” he says. Some fumed at being publicly named as part of a black aristocracy; others were furious for being left out. Some poorer black readers, in turn, raged at the wealthy.

On average black Americans remain significantly less well-off than whites, including among the richest. Among the top 10% of black earners, for example, the median family has accumulated assets worth $343,160, said a Brookings Institution report in February. For the equivalent top 10% of white families it was more than five times higher, at $1,789,300. By one Federal Reserve measure, around 2% of black families have assets worth more than $1m; over 15% of white ones do.

Yet even if the African-American elite is not huge, it is influential, as a planned televised serialisation of Mr Graham’s book will show. The most prominent black families long formed invitation-only clubs where they socialised, created professional networks and presented their children at debutante balls. A prime example is Jack and Jill of America, founded in 1938, a society which claims 40,000 members in 247 chapters, and which is devoted to shaping children into future leaders in business, society and politics.

It continues to go strong. This week it held its 44th national convention—a four-day, virtual shindig. It is unabashedly for the most successful. Danielle Brown, its president, dislikes the word “elite”, but says 98% of members’ children attend university. (That matters: rising higher-education rates best explain why the earnings of top-paid African-Americans have kept climbing in the past half century, even as those of most black workers steadily fell.) Almost everyone goes on to thrive professionally. “They are pretty much at the top of wherever they go,” she says.

Her outfit, as any rich club must, does plenty of charity work. This year its members helped to pay for 247 needy students to finish college, she says. It also promotes civic duties, the virtue of voting and the benefits of a sound financial education. That is all worthy—but in contrast to the occasionally riotous efforts of Black Lives Matter (blm) activists, it can look terrifically staid. At its “cotillion” dances demure teenagers, in white Cinderella ball gowns, vie to deliver the deepest curtsy as pearl-wearing older ladies look on.

Not all alumni are relaxed talking of their past. Few politicians brag of belonging to an elite group. Cory Booker, a senator from New Jersey, rarely brings up his youthful time in Jack and Jill. Don’t expect Ms Harris, member of a similarly august group of women volunteers, The Links Inc, to mention it on the stump. Yet many of the most radical leaders or their children—including those of Malcolm x and of Mr Lee—had links to Jack and Jill or similar outfits.

How do high-society African-Americans respond to upheavals from the covid-19 pandemic, killings by police, and blm protests of recent months? For Mrs Brown, blm is “representative of the civil-rights movement, with a new name”. She praises protesters for their “vigilance” and for stirring public—including white—concern over matters that were previously ignored. But blm, in her view, is just one of a “wonderful plethora” of groups, clubs, sororities, voter-registration outfits and charities: “We need different people doing different things.”

Lerry Knox, a wealthy Chicagoan who runs an international infrastructure-investment fund, and Farissa Knox, who runs an ad agency, also in Chicago, see it in a similar light. The ongoing blm debate “over white supremacy” is welcome. “I support what blm is doing. It’s a narrative that needs to be spoken,” says Mrs Knox. But the couple prefer to invest their personal funds and time in local groups that educate black residents on the benefits of completing census forms, sitting for jury duty and, especially, registering to vote. Structural changes, they say, will come from institutions, including the companies they lead, or from judicial reform and getting new people elected to office. Rage voiced on the streets can dissipate fast.

Yet even the wealthiest align with street protesters in their fury over threats and harassment from police. Mr Knox is blunt about the risks any African-American man faces in public. Mr Graham recounts being stopped and hounded by a plainclothes policeman near his home, while collecting his daughter from school—even though he was the chairman of his county police board. He describes how rich black families, on moving into mostly white neighbourhoods, learn to visit local police stations to hand out photos of their families, in an effort to stave off trouble. “We have to be proactive,” he says. “It is absolutely demeaning to act in this way, but we have too many stories of what happens when you don’t. Don’t assume we’ve bought our way out of this treatment.”■

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Comments

  • C.S.D. Maraj  On August 24, 2020 at 12:31 pm

    My Friends,Yes I agree Black Lives do matter YES but we must never forget every single life matter in the eyes of God and in all humanity.Never forget that. Thank You.

  • kman  On August 24, 2020 at 12:31 pm

    Interesting. Rich and connected African Americans are more like white folks in their coming out parties. It seems that they are trying to copy rather than being themselves.

  • wic  On August 26, 2020 at 3:16 pm

    Blacks who are doing well in the US don’t need to apologize for their progress. No doubt for many generations, those families worked hard, the children stayed in school and graduated because parents set goals for the children, and rarely did children make children out of stable relationships.The latter is the curse of black people, a drain on all societies requiring more and more Govt. social housing; most fail to appreciate that if they don’t have moneyed parentage, then education and hard work (even if it in the entertainment field as a good rapper) will help them overcome most barriers and make economic progress.

    Had more black parents bought the Ebony magazine and encouraged their children to read it (I bought it for year when my children were in high school), they and their children would have seen thousands of black young people as role models who were successfully attending/graduating from various universities in the US either on scholarships or student loans and moving on to good professions and jobs.

    Perhaps it escaped the Economist, but not only blacks in the US have debutante functions, but being in Canada, I happen to know that here there are some Phillipinas who also have debutante functions for their children – my son attended quite a few when he was in high school.

    If more blacks were to to copy the educated white folk and not the lesser educated or unambitious folk, they would be better off in the US as the white folk will always be in the majority. Of course, they have an alternative: they can go to Africa from where their forefathers came and were sold into slavery by other Africans who had raided their villages- for its a lie to believe the white man went to Africa, cast a net as if fishing and then hauled them in as slaves for the US. plantations/ Beyond a language problem, another difficulty they would face is that most don’t have enough education to be accepted as immigrants

    Of course, there are many so-called educated blacks some even from Guyana who will disagree with me even though they enjoy the benefits of a good formal education, The fact is they are intellectually dishonest and won’t admit that the good basic education they got in Guyana was the difference between being allowed to emigrate to Canada and the US and they continued to self-improve until they are now earning good salaries and pensions wherever they now live.

    To sum it up, the need to stay in school, practice safe sex and avoid pregnancies where the fathers bail out, are the keys to upward social mobility. Ta! Ta!

  • wally n  On August 26, 2020 at 3:25 pm

    BINGO???

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