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Can the Black Middle Class Rebound?

The middle-class dream is getting a Motown makeover with down-and-out Detroiters reinventing themselves and rethinking the path to cash comfort.

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Struggling city

Amid that backdrop, Detroit has faced its own conundrum. This city’s estimated median household income fell from roughly $29,500 to $26,000 between 2000 and 2009; in the latter year, by comparison, the figures were $51,190 for the entire nation.

With a population of roughly 706,000—more than 80 percent of them are Black—Detroit lost 150,000 jobs between 2000 and 2008. That owed largely to ongoing upheaval in auto-manufacturing, the industry credited with creating the bulk of Detroit’s Black middle class, beginning in the 1950s.

The widespread ripple effect of car industry troubles has included a decade-long decline in Detroit’s population that recently began leveling off—and a precipitous fall in tax revenues that keep afloat all levels of government and play a vital role in developing and recruiting job-yielding businesses.

“Those Blacks who survive in Detroit will be the Blacks who, No. 1, are not so dependent on government jobs,” says Ronald Brown, a Wayne State University professor whose research has explored the intersection of race, religion and American politics. “The paradox is that most of us in this area, including myself, still work for state government, city government, federal government … “ he says. “My hope happens to be among younger African Americans who are in college right now. This may be the group that emerges five to seven years from now” as part of a resurgent Black middle class employed across the span of both the private and public sectors.

Moving forward

To be sure, observers say, any such resurgence will require some next-level collaborating, networking and innovating among Detroiters of all ages.

“My dad worked at Chrysler, where, as the saying went, you did your 30 years, got a pat on the back, a gold watch and a pension check for the rest of your life. Those days are history,” says financial adviser Muata Mahluli, 43. “Going forward, people will have to recalibrate in many ways, even as it concerns their age at retirement; how they make and manage their money leading up to retirement.

“One of the upsides of this crisis is that many people are recalibrating. They’re forced to take more initiative. They’re going into business for themselves, doing their own thing. That can be good for Detroit.” 

After suffering a small series of layoffs over the last several years, former journalist Anthony Neely, 53, a communications consultant and author, is among those carving their own path back to financial solvency. His trajectory is marked by, among other moneymakers, ghostwriting two upcoming biographies of prominent Black Detroiters who built multi-million-dollar businesses pretty much from scratch.

Their stories are instructive for these days, says Neely, who last fall got hired as press secretary to Detroit Mayor Dave Bing. His second stint as a mayoral staffer, it grants him a distinct view of what Detroit is up against and where its potential talents lays.

“The whole world knows that this recession was very tough on Detroit, but Detroiters are tough and resilient,” he says. “I’d say, in general, that the Black middle class is focused on the city’s revival and on doing what they can to make it happen. The people who are investing in Detroit right now—and that includes all ethnicities and every part of the globe—recognize the city’s potential.”

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