08.21.09

Obama and the Black Elite

As the first family departs for Martha’s Vineyard, Patricia Williams says the trip illuminates their delicate relationship with the black upper-class—a clubby world of debutantes and BMWs.

As the first family departs for Martha’s Vineyard, Patricia Williams says the trip illuminates their delicate relationship with the black upper class—a clubby world of debutantes and BMWs.

When President Barack Obama appointed Valerie Jarrett as his senior advisor and Desiree Rogers as White House social secretary, there was, among the mainstream media, a bit of muffled gasping about from where on earth such designer-clad doyennes might have emerged. In what hidden universe do black people exist who can actually distinguish a fish knife from a shoe horn? And are there more of them?

View Our Gallery of the Obamas on Vacation

The phenomenon of a black upper class has always been complicated, ambivalent. Often the descendents of “house slaves,” some significant percentage grew up imitating the manners, mores, and various condescensions of white plantation society—including setting up private clubs and exclusionary networks. More recently, the ranks of the black upper middle class have been increased with beneficiaries of the civil rights movement–with people such as Barack and Michelle Obama, who represent a generation able to take advantage of increased access to jobs and schools once off limits. This new mobility has not altogether erased some of the clubbishness and snob appeal of older black organizations, however. There are still fault lines and hidden hierarchies within black social life.

For those whose only exposure to upper class African American social organizations may be the black student organization on one’s college or grad school campus, well, brace yourselves: there’s a world of black debutantes out there, and they mean to do serious, social-climbing business, the wheels of their black BMWs and silver Mercedes Benzes sinking up to their plantinum hubcaps in the soft white sand of the beaches on Martha’s Vineyard, the North Fork of Long Island, and the islands off the coast of South Carolina.

Colson Whitehead’s novel, Sag Harbor, reveals a glimpse of this Cosby-inflected world of strivers, arrivistes and “black boys with summer houses.” These relatively well-off African Americans come largely from the ranks of what the novel’s narrator describes as “the magic seven”: doctors, dentists, lawyers, preachers, teachers, nurses, and undertakers. This is the world that those African Americans not part of such networks sometimes refer to, with a dismissive sad sigh, as “boogie, ” which is a class reference seemingly unknown to most white people. The New York Times, writing about Whitehead, spelled the word, with utter, and utterly cringe-worthy, uninitiated innocence: “bourgie.”

So, a little background for those terrified that the ship of state is about to be steered toward the shoals of Rush Limbaugh’s wildest fears: it may come as a surprise that the black middle class is just that, middle class. It is conformist, pleasantly centrist, relatively conservatively Christian, overweeningly upwardly mobile and generally better (if more anxiously) dressed than its white counterparts.

The media often speaks of “the black middle class” as though it were a solid singularity that includes any dark-skinned person with a job or an education—from bicycle messengers to Oprah Winfrey. Likewise, any black person without a permanent 9-5 job is tossed into “the underclass.” This is in stark contrast to the way “middle class” is applied to white citizens, where it connotes a specific income level lodged above the “temporarily unemployed” and the working class and just beneath the upper-middle class, with the wealthy and the super-rich above that. In other words, popular depictions frequently suppress the political presence of a large black working class, as well as a black upper-middle class, to say nothing of those wealthy African Americans who are bankers or industrialists or computer geeks rather than just movie stars or sports figures.

Hard as it might be to imagine if your head is filled with the Hollywood haze of Gone With the Wind, whatever Miss Scarlett yearned for, so did succeeding generations of her ex-slaves—who in real life were as resolute and deeply ambitious as she was. And so, after the Civil War, African Americans arranged themselves into all manner of self-help groups patterned upon the gilded hierarchies of Tara. Most Americans are at least aware of the role of the black church in this effort at uplift, as well as of the NAACP, of the Tuskegee Institute, and of the Urban League. Thanks to Spike Lee’s movie, School Daze, perhaps a few more are even aware of the contribution of historically black colleges—as well as the function of segregated Greek fraternities and sororities—in coalescing fairly conservative, life-long networking circles.

As with white fraternities, hazing rituals can be snobbish, or bullying. And as with white country clubs, exclusivity can have its ugly edge: some black social groups have the reputation of discriminating based on “connections” of ancestry or education or income, or, in the not-so-recent past, skin color (must be “lighter than a brown paper bag”) and texture of hair (a comb would have to move flowingly through smooth and therefore presumptively not-kinky hair). As for those debutante cotillions…well, what can I say?

Today, some of the largest of these organizations were set up to provide dating opportunities for the children of suburban black professionals—that is, teens living in nearly all-white neighborhoods and attending nearly all-white schools, environments that unconsciously or otherwise exclude them from social events or coming-of-age rituals. But most of these groups—Jack and Jill, The Links, The Girl Friends, The Coalition of a Hundred Black Women—are also philanthropic; they raise money for scholarships, public relief efforts, mentoring, and health care. Like Hadassah or the Junior League, the most vibrant and visible of them are matriarchies, serviced by well-educated, mostly married women whose husbands are well-to-do enough to allow them to engage in charitable work.

There are lots of men’s organizations too, of course, but they have historically been somewhat more secretive, with more rituals and even better hats. Like the Knights of Columbus or the Bohemian Club, they are all about bolstering manhood through mutual esteem, fine whisky, cigars, and purest nepotism. 100 Black Men of America. The Guardsmen. The Boule. These and a thousand other networks are the backbone of the black bourgeoisie.

Yet such organizations operate within a distinctly ambivalent theater of relationship: On one hand, there is all that philanthropy. On the other, it’s all funded by terribly effete events like golf tournaments, tennis meets sponsored by law firms and cigarette companies, gourmet get-togethers, Caribbean cruises, black-tie dinners, fashion shows, and bachelor auctions. Oh, and did I mention those cotillions…?

One of the most interesting aspects of the Obamas’ ascendency is that neither one of them is the product of this approval-dependent world of relentless obligation, prayerful duty and punishing well-scrubbed-ness. In the first place, Obama’s mother was white, and membership in organizations such as Jack and Jill depends on mama-geniture (mother must be African-descended; it’s not as important that one’s father be black). And since both of Michelle Obama’s parents were working class, it’s doubtful that they would have considered the hefty fees and consuming time commitments a priority, even assuming they’d have met the more social-climbing criteria that a number of such clubs emphasize. (As in: You will be dropped if you miss too many meetings—unless, of course, you’re a legacy. You are likely to be shamed out of the ranks if your kids have the kinds of learning disabilities that preclude their becoming—at least!—doctors, dentists or lawyers. You can buy back into the ranks if you have enough money, influence, or celebrity.)

A friend who declines to be identified describes his experience as a teenager in Jack and Jill: “You were taught to be an Adam Clayton Powell kind of black person. We had dances at the Copacabana. You learned how to dress up, and competed in memorizing long passages from Ellison’s Invisible Man or the Bible. You were judged for your diction. If you succeeded in acting white, you succeeded at being an acceptable kind of black person.”

Sigh. But maybe we’re poised for a new, more mixed up chapter in all this. Last year, Michele Obama was made an honorary member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha, one of the oldest black sororities. And, hallelujah, these days there are few social clubs in the world—of any race, religion, class, or ethnicity—that wouldn’t welcome the Obamas and their gloriously well-mannered children into the fold.

Better still, the Obamas have begun to model a new, more ecumenical kind of community service that welcomes the contributions of traditional organizations but depends less on the need for exclusivity. It was no accident that Rev. Lowry ended his inaugural benediction with words that every African American heard as a call for an end to old, internecine prejudices, and a new day when “black will not be asked to get in back, when brown can stick around, when yellow will be mellow, when the red man can get ahead, man, and when white will embrace what’s right.”

As president, moreover, Obama has consistently emphasized the need for a broad, unified dedication to national service and political engagement—not just military service, but charitable efforts both large and small. Service that all of us can render—old, young, rich, poor. Not just spending years in the Peace Corps, but small tasks that add up in the aggregate: reading to young children, repairing homes, planting gardens, volunteering at hospital, teaching computer skills, stuffing envelopes, picking up litter, organizing book exchanges, food banks, small business support. This less-narrowly bounded vision of who can be a resource for whom is democratizing, energizing, a welcome step forward toward a collective future of mutual regard.

Patricia J. Williams is the author of The Alchemy of Race and Rights; The Rooster's Egg; and Seeing a ColorBlind Future: The Paradox of Race. She is a also a columnist for The Nation.