Justice  /  First Person

Black Success, White Backlash

Black prosperity has provoked white resentment that has led to the undoing of policies that have nurtured Black advancement.

All of this reinforced what slavery had originally established: the Black body’s place at the bottom of the social order. This racist positioning became institutionalized in innumerable ways, and it persists today.

I want to emphasize that across the decades, many white Americans have encouraged racial equality, albeit sometimes under duress. In response to the riots of the 1960s, the federal government—led by the former segregationist Lyndon B. Johnson—passed far-reaching legislation that finally extended the full rights of citizenship to Black people, while targeting segregation. These legislative reforms—and, especially, affirmative action, which was implemented via LBJ’s executive order in 1965—combined with years of economic expansion to produce a long period of what I call “racial incorporation,” which substantially elevated the income of many Black people and brought them into previously white spaces. Yes, a lot of affirmative-action efforts stopped at mere tokenism. Even so, many of these “tokens” managed to succeed, and the result is the largest Black middle class in American history.

Over the past 50 years, according to a study by the Pew Research Center, the proportion of Black people who are low-income (less than $52,000 a year for a household of three) has fallen seven points, from 48 to 41 percent. The proportion who are middle-income ($52,000 to $156,000 a year) has risen by one point, to 47 percent. The proportion who are high-income (more than $156,000 a year) has risen the most dramatically, from 5 to 12 percent. Overall, Black poverty remains egregiously disproportionate to that of white and Asian Americans. But fewer Black Americans are poor than 50 years ago, and more than twice as many are rich. Substantial numbers now attend the best schools, pursue professions of their choosing, and occupy positions of power and prestige. Affirmative action worked.

But that very success has inflamed the inevitable white backlash. Notably, the only racial group more likely to be low-income now than 50 years ago is whites—and the only group less likely to be low-income is Blacks.

For some white people displaced from their jobs by globalization and deindustrialization, the successful Black person with a good job is the embodiment of what’s wrong with America. The spectacle of Black doctors, CEOs, and college professors “out of their place” creates an uncomfortable dissonance, which white people deal with by mentally relegating successful Black people to the ghetto. That Black man who drives a new Lexus and sends his children to private school—he must be a drug kingpin, right?