Steven Gray’s article, Can the Black Middle Class Survive, has stuck with me. I remember his excellent work as a reporter on Detroit for TIME magazine. Yet after a painful layoff, he lays out the challenges that middle-class Blacks faced in the recent economic tremors of America:
the average black household’s wealth fell by more than half, to $5,677, even as their white peers held about $113,000 in assets . . . The African-American unemployment rate hovers around 14 percent, and according to a Pew report released in July, nearly 70 percent of blacks raised in families at the middle of the wealth ladder fall to the bottom two rungs as adults. . .
Gray notes that the mid-century jobs that lifted hardworking black families into the middle class — transport, local and national government work — are the very jobs being cut as we streamline our economy. I’d like to reflect on this a bit. Given the unconscious way in which we all tend to hang out with people “like us,” I suspect it’s true that many talented black applicants may struggle to form the strong social connections needed to find work.
For people of my generation, it’s striking to compare our challenges with the solid mid-century jobs our grandparents experienced. In a recent book on indie films, anthropologist Sherry Ortner frames this as a particular problem that GenXers face: the realization that more work and more degrees still gain us fewer rewards than our parents earned. Even top degrees and work experience can still result in long-term “precarity” (also known as contract / temp / adjunct / intern work).
But I can also see how minorities who come from “outside” of established networks — and all sorts of older people used to working at a steady pace — face extra challenges in the fired-hired-temped-fulltime-parttime-affluent-sick-impoverished maelstrom of our current economy. The temp economy, combined with human tendencies to prefer people “like us,” may make it just a little bit harder for minorities to be hired and rehired. And over time, these differences accumulate (c.f. Virginia Valian on similar issues for women).
Black vs. White Middle-Class Families
But as Gray suggests, it’s not just subtle bias; it’s also lower communal resources that can serve to put an individual minority at risk. If minority communities lacked access to capital in the past, they may not have what it takes to sail through wobbly, foundering economic times; this could drive talented people with some social or background disadvantage off the labor market more quickly than comparable people with more affluent connections.
I think of my own family; my middle-aged father was hit sharply by the recession, losing substantial income and investments. Once a prosperous business owner, he went through a rough patch, working l0w-wage volunteer jobs and on state assistance for healthcare and food.
But how did he survive this setback financially? He had property to sell or rent out, family to stay with, and social/work contacts that gave him potential opportunities to re-enter the job market. After years of earnest searching, he found a high-tech management job again. And even if age discrimination does one day force him out of the labor market, he’s passed along enough intangible benefits (knowledge, networks, and financial acumen) to his children that we will still have a decent chance in the future.
And knowing this, I sympathize with the Navajo families my parents have worked with, the lower-income white and black students I got to know in college. More at risk in this economy, they don’t quite ‘look the part’ when they go into the workforce; even speaking just of know-how and encouragement, they tend to inherit fewer resources than people from families like mine.
Sinking All Boats?
But I still find the black experience indicative of what it means when an economy turns down. Maybe a “rising tide lifts all boats,” but it also seems that economic storms can sink all boats; it’s just that some rowers were born into waterlogged boats, and sink faster. Those with more ports in the storm, more gear in the pack, more contacts on the radio, last just a bit longer. And sometimes that’s enough.
And Academic Boats, Too…
Of course my mind turns back to the academic world. I left a fully-funded Ph.D. program when I began to doubt that it was likely to result in a meaningful and decently-paid job. But I struggled with the decision — professor has more allure than librarian. So I ran a continuous poll of increasingly bored friends: “What do you think? Tell me the future of our economy! What should I do?”
I asked Dana,* one of the best scholars I know — brilliant writer and researcher, engaging teacher, fluently multilingual, and a new doctorate holder. Everything you’d want in… well, anyone. But s/he couldn’t find a job. By email, s/he advises me wryly:
If you want some unsolicited advice about going back for your PhD, here is mine: become a nurse. That is what I should have done.
Then I turn to Prof. Sarah, a professor safely tenured for over 20 years. She responds:
I know you’ve been anxious about what to do next for some time. Although I tend to be like you and want a linear path from one thing to the next, I advise you to take a risk and follow your passion, whatever that might be. If you’re really happy with what you’re doing, it shouldn’t matter as much that there isn’t a guaranteed path from point A to point B. . . . things do have a way of working out. And, for many, the unplanned Plan B is often a great option. Good luck, and have fun on your trip!
And Prof. Rose, whose also gotten tenure at a top university, chimes in:
I agree completely with Sarah. It’s not possible to know for sure how any plans will turn out. Even the route that seems “safest and surest” right now, may not be in 5 years or 10 years. Do what you love doing and you will be happy. . . Follow your passion!
While appreciating their thoughtfulness, I blew the responses off at first. Passion? Passion is no guarantee of anything in this economy; it’s the easy answer of what Barbara Ehrenreich calls the Bright Sided, as people told to be happy when they lose their jobs.
And Sarah and Rose both saw my first approach to fieldwork, which ran something like “try to do fifty things at once – interviews, blogs, articles, online courses, language tutoring, cultural immersion, best-friendships, working out, soul-searching — and then burst into tears wondering why you can’t get it all done!”
The internal problem, then, was that I had fifty passions, and not enough clarity on how exactly to know which partial and changing passion, out of fifty, was The One.
But the external issue was our economic situation: how should talented and educated young people react to the scramble for economic survival, especially when that reduction in middle-class starting incoming and opportunities was exactly what our economic players desired, in order for financial players to be competitive with Thailand and China?
Passion and Priorities
So in my mind, passion wasn’t enough in itself. In a precarious world, can we tell people to just follow what they love? My unemployed PhD and MLS graduate friends might tell you that love isn’t always enough.
Instead, we need something more. A clear eye to the future. Exposure to the practicalities of corporate capitalism. An understanding of how the world works, on the macro and the micro levels.
And then — then — I think there’s room for passion again. The drive to work together, to make life better for those around us. Work to restore a collective passion and priority on the things that make life good: caring for people, opportunities for everyone, well-connected (offline) families and communities, and a healthy, free, and supportive economy that exists for people as much as for wealth and increase.
This, I could say, is a Passion: with clear eyes, let love guide our priorities.