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The black middle class straddles the fence

Some books are exciting, some are important, some are both. "Black Picket Fences: Privilege and Peril among the Black Middle Class" fits in the middle category. Author Mary Pattillo-McCoy, an assistant professor at Northwestern University, pays close attention to an understudied group: the black middle class. As she points out, however, that's a bit of a misnomer. By socioeconomic standards, what passes for the middle class in the African-American community is actually the lower middle class, or, as one teenager in the study put it, the "upper poor" class.

"Fences" explodes myths and confirms truths. Among the myths is the notion that the black middle class has fled the black community. Not so. Racial discrimination, plain and simple, has prevented many of those blacks who could afford to live in predominantly white areas from buying into them. Pattillo-McCoy explains, "The black middle class has always attempted to leave poor [black] neighborhoods, but has never been able to get very far."

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In these attempted flights, the middle class gains a little distance from the city's poorest blacks, but the distance is never great enough to cut off interaction between the two. Instead, the black middle class winds up acting as "a kind of buffer between core black poverty areas and whites."

Inevitably, the poorer neighborhoods expand into the black middle-class ones, but the latter do not cross over into the neighboring white enclaves. What results, then, is a black neighborhood in which the more solidly middle class live alongside those of much lesser means - and alongside the unemployment and criminal employment that often accompany such meager means.

The most interesting truth that "Fences" confirms is one African-Americans know well: Code-switching is a fact of life. Code-switching is the practice of alternating between standard English and black vernacular. This practice is not, of course, exclusive to the black middle class. What's interesting about Pattillo-McCoy's exploration, however, is her use of code-switching to symbolize the buffer-zone status of middle-class blacks.

This buffer-zone status is the most significant difference between the black and the white middle class, and its effect is most pronounced on young blacks. Youths growing up in black middle-class urban areas are exposed to a wide range of role models in their neighborhoods, from government workers and teachers to drug dealers and gang members. Not surprisingly, the fast money and lifestyle undermine parents' efforts to instill traditional middle-class values. Pattillo-McCoy puts it simply, "The right and wrong paths are in easy reach of neighborhood youth."

White middle-class youths, on the other hand, have to travel some distance, both physically and culturally, to make that underground connection.

Few sociological studies are breathless page-turners, and "Fences" is no exception. Nevertheless, its conclusions need to be noted.

*Trudy C. Palmer taught African-American literature at Tufts University.

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(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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