chapter  10
17 Pages

Stop ‘blaming the man’: perceptions of inequality and opportunities for success in the Obama era among middle-class African Americans

WithJessica S. Welburn, Cassi L. Pittman

While the African American middle class has grown significantly since the mid-twentieth century (Wilson 1978; Patterson 1998; PattilloMcCoy 1999; Lacy 2007), members of this group are aware that social

mobility continues to be limited by racism and racial inequality (Feagin and Sikes 1995; Hochschild 1995; Lamont and Fleming 2005; Lacy 2007; Fleming, Lamont and Welburn in this issue). Despite gains in college, income and occupational attainment, middle-class African Americans are less likely than their less economically advantaged counterparts to believe that everyone has a fair chance to get ahead in the USA (Hochschild 1995, p. 92). Consequentially, middle-class African Americans are ‘succeeding more and enjoying it less’ (Hochschild 1995, p. 92). However, a growing number of studies show that while African

Americans believe that persistent racial inequality continues to have an impact on opportunities for members of their group, they are becoming more likely to believe that motivational and structural factors play a role in determining their position (e.g. Hunt 1996, 2004; Bobo et al. forthcoming).1 While Hunt (2007) argues that changing racial attitudes may be attributed to the expansion of the African American middle class, we have yet to gain full understanding of the factors that facilitate changing racial attitudes, including among blacks. In particular, we know little about how the destigmatization strategies of this group are connected to changing attitudes.2 Lamont and Fleming (2005) argue that middle-class African Americans often signal their competence to deter stereotypes. This strategy is highly individualistic and may lend support to motivational explanations for persistent inequality that emphasize a weak work ethic among less economically advantaged African Americans. Exploring how middle-class African Americans perceive their

opportunities in the USA is particularly important in the context of the 2008 election of Barack Obama. Obama overcame significant barriers to be elected the first African American president of the USA, gaining support from African Americans and whites (Bobo and Dawson 2009). However, Obama departed from the path of many past African American leaders. Instead of explicitly focusing on overcoming racial inequality and injustice, Obama’s platform emphasized the importance of hard work, determination and the pursuit of the American dream. Reed and Louis (2009) argue that this platform has made African Americans more optimistic about their opportunities in the USA and less likely to believe that racial discrimination is a significant barrier to achievement. Yet, limited work has been done to explore how middle-class African Americans perceive the impact of the 2008 election on their opportunities to get ahead. We draw upon 45 in-depth interviews with middle-class African

American men and women conducted between November 2008 and June 2010 to explore how members of this group perceive and manage the barriers that they face. We focus specifically on how they assess motivational and structural explanations for persistent inequality, the

destigmatization strategies they believe African Americans should use to get ahead, and the impact they believe the 2008 election of Barack Obama has had on their opportunities.