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  • The Black Middle Class: Social Mobility – and Vulnerability
  • Katrina Bell McDonald
The Black Middle Class: Social Mobility – and Vulnerability By Benjamin P. Bowser Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2007. 191 pages. $49.95 (cloth)

In his new book, Bowser joins a number of predecessors (whom he rightly acknowledges here and there) in sounding the alarm to warn the black middle class about the potentially bleak future in store for its children and grandchildren. The Black Middle Class: Social Mobility – and Vulnerability dutifully unfolds the complex history of this population – one with far less history and intergenerational fortitude than its white counterpart – and the social, political, economic and ideological forces that have determined its strengths and weaknesses over time. At the core of this history is the undeniable, unique and "continuing role of race and racism in the United States," which has inevitably undermined the security of the middle class at large. It is the "big picture" of class dynamics, Bowser argues, that can best correct the obscuring of black middle-class existence and reveal what is currently at the root of contemporary middle-class fragility for blacks and whites alike. [End Page 853]

A primary aim of The Black Middle Class is to examine "the presumption of comparability between the black and white middle classes" that Bowser believes has arrested our ability to grasp the enormity of black middle-class distress. This examination is organized into an introductory chapter and seven other sections. It begins by laying the foundation for a critique of classical class theory's ability to have predicted the trajectory of the black middle class's growth and socioeconomic power. A central analytical concern is whether Marxism or Weberianism holds the most promise for capturing the empirical realities of this black social class, or any other class for that matter. By extension, Bowser examines how best to qualify (rather than quantify) the boundaries and organization of the black social classes and for clearly distinguishing this class structure from that of the nation at large.

"Putting Class in Context" (Chapter 2) should prove to be quite valuable to those who have very limited historical knowledge of how class relations evolved for western European society and, therefore, of the kind of social milieu into which involuntary African immigrants were cast in colonial America. In particular, Bowser traces the meaning of middle-classness from the pre-modern period (roughly prior to the 15th century), through the early modern period, to the early 1800s. Bowser argues, "From 1680 on, it was very clear that the middle social stratum was a force to be reckoned with." And it is how Marx, Weber and world-systems theorists treat the significance of this class that motivates much of Bowser's later analysis. More importantly, however, is how the need for trade and the thirst for wealth in the Americas gave rise to African colonization and slavery and, eventually, the notion of both class and race as we know it in the United States today.

The next three chapters tell the story of how class hierarchy has been inextricably tied to race hierarchy since the antebellum period, and where Marxian and Weberian notions do and do not succeed in adequately describing this unique relationship. In particular, he notes the evolution of racialized class hierarchies. Granted, at varying times blacks (usually mulattoes) could enjoy some of the benefits of white middle-classness, such as in their "middle functionary" roles vis-à-vis slave owners as highly-skilled craftsmen and managers, and briefly during Reconstruction as landowners, voters and public officials. But before the Civil War, and later as Reconstruction gave way to Jim Crow, it was evident that the fullness of middle-classness for blacks was thwarted by their inability to "become white." It is this reality that rests at the heart of a qualitatively different class structure for blacks even today.

In the following two chapters, Bowser makes us keenly aware that middle-class success among blacks at any time in American history was [End Page 854] made possible only through "government regulation and intervention" – i.e., the Civil Rights Acts of 1866 and 1964 – and then only because the government could no longer withstand...


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