“You see, there were two Harlems. There were those who lived in Sugar Hill and there was the Hollow, where we lived. There was a great divide between the black people on the Hill and us. I was just a ragged, funky black shoeshine boy and was afraid of the people on the Hill, who, for their part, didn’t want to have anything to do with me.”
– James Baldwin interviewed by Julius Lester, the New York Times Book Review, May 27, 1984
“You got 1 percent of the population in America who owns 41 percent of the wealth…but within the black community, the top 1 percent of black folk have over 70 percent of the wealth. So that means you got a lot of precious Jamals and Letitias who are told to live vicariously through the lives of black celebrities so that it’s all about ‘representation’ rather than substantive transformation… ‘you gotta black president, all y’all must be free.’”
– Cornel West interviewed by Joe Rogan, July 24, 2019
In the months following George Floyd’s murder, magazines and journals put forth dozens of “Black editions” and special issues to promote the work of their Black contributors. The streaming services—Netflix, Hulu, Disney+ and the like—assembled watchlists of Black movies and television. As a result, a series of excellent Black films received better promotion than they might have otherwise, such as Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, One Night in Miami, and Judas and the Black Messiah. The same paroxysm and transactional response also happened seven years ago, in the wake of Michael Brown’s murder. At that time, HBO, BAFTA, and other institutions of popular culture enacted diversity guidelines and launched in-house programs for creators of color. Into the Spiderverse, Black Panther, Soul, and the overall push by Disney to place Black characters in Star Wars and the MCU can be traced to 2014. Today, popular culture is the terrain most visibly altered by the pursuit of social justice: in the decade since Trayvon Martin was killed, movies have changed in positive ways for all people of color, much more so than public education, zoning, or the prison-industrial complex.
Of all the industries in desperate need of change, why has popular culture been prioritized? There is at least one generally statable reason, and it has to do with the fact that despite a falling share of the population, white Americans still outnumber Black Americans six-to-one. For every white American to have even one Black friend, every single Black American, including newborns, would need to have six white friends. This demographic constraint makes popular culture the primary medium through which white Americans engage with Black ones. This pop cultural experience is optional, and, in my experience, white folks usually do not pursue it to satisfy a broad and general curiosity about Black people. Rather, engagement is motivated by the belief that popular culture can connect white Americans to Black ones—and to the Black poor in particular—while, simultaneously, providing an arena for redressing the violence that white Americans have done to the Black poor.
If stripped bare, at base, we are hoping that imbibing pop cultural content like Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom will improve America’s regard for the humanity of George Floyd, instilling in the audience a compassion capable of deterring racial violence in the future. At the same time, Black creators are being financially remunerated for the loss of Floyd’s life via the granting of opportunities to work within popular culture’s most prominent and lucrative spaces. These transactions between white owned institutions and Black creators would not occur if Floyd were with his family right now.
As good as it sometimes feels to see our country embrace the artistry of Black Americans beyond the excellences of sports and music, representation must be a matter of particulars. I was born into Black poverty, and I will not forget that George Floyd was born into the same. For Floyd, the particulars of poverty were this: to be raised in the Cuney Homes projects, to endure years of deprivation, and to die violently in a manner common to our caste. Were Floyd still alive, or somehow reborn, he would not be hired to work within any of the institutions which now produce popular culture in his honor because he never obtained a bachelor’s degree. No matter how much Michael Brown or Breonna Taylor might have impacted a living Floyd, he would not be eligible to work at The Atlantic, at the New York Times, at HBO, or at Netflix.
A decade of unprecedented interest in Black arts and letters has now passed—the greater portion of it bought with footage of people possessing Floyd’s particulars lying dead on the tar—and still you cannot walk into a bookstore to find a shelf named for Black authors raised in poverty. That category of experience remains absent amidst the dozens of shelves now labeled for Black authors of every other identity and intersection. I accept that Floyd’s final suffering becomes a political currency for the many, but I struggle with the fact that it purchases opportunities for the Black middle- and upper- classes, without securing a pen or a publisher for the children of Cuney Homes, without an expectation that it should, and without condemnation that it doesn’t. Those born into better conditions owe it to the injured to at least recognize that participation in this wave of Black creativity, which is intended as recompense for the dead, requires that you first be employed by it—you do not gain a share of the payout otherwise.
Popular culture is, of course, an industry. It is made up of occupations. It has employees: people work at The New Yorker, at Random House, at Netflix. Our culture is not concocted in a spontaneously-arisen artist commune. Some of the employees create the objects that are sold, some manage the creators, and some decide what is to be created. The prerequisite for participation at each level of popular culture is a bachelor’s degree. But popular culture also houses many of the creative occupations, and this muddies the perceptual waters since these (writer, comedian, actor, artist) were among the last jobs to acquiesce to the formal systems of higher education and professional bureaucracy associated with, say, becoming a doctor or a lawyer. As a consequence, the public has been slow to incorporate into its myths the degree to which popular culture, including its most artistic and erratic expressions, is the product of workers who must be deemed qualified for the job before they can sell their work. No air is too rarefied for the banality of credentials.
Out of ten longlist nominees for the 2020 National Book Award for Fiction, all ten are college graduates. On average, the nominees attended universities with rejection rates above 80 percent (i.e., highly competitive). Five went to Ivy league schools or competitive equivalents, and winners tended to double up. Charles Yu, who won the 2020 award, attended Berkeley as an undergraduate and then went to Columbia for his JD. Susan Choi, who won in 2019, graduated from Yale and Cornell. Sigrid Nunez won in 2018; she’s a graduate of both Barnard and Columbia.
While there is no paper application to become a successful novelist, there are de facto requirements for the position which nobody who is serious about succeeding in literature can ignore. It’s usually not enough to be highly educated: you must become entrenched so as to become known within higher education. This means obtaining an MFA or a PhD. It means nominees work as college faculty. It means that while the New York Times may promote them as “new writers,” many nominees will have been publishing reviews and short stories in university-run literary journals several years before they win National Book Awards, Pulitzers, and Man Bookers.
Comedy offers another example. The findings here are more potent, I think, because the reality so sharply contradicts the populist vision of comedy. When people think of the comedy scene, they tend to imagine a sort of caricature of 1970s John Belushi: an underachieving cast-off from mainstream society plying his trade in dank bars, writing jokes and sketches while also pounding narcotics in one squalid bathroom stall after another.
There are three main divisions in comedy: writing, improv, and standup. Success in the first two effectively requires a college education indistinguishable from that of award-winning novelists. Michael Shur—Emmy award-winning writer from The Office and celebrated creator of The Good Place—graduated from Harvard University in 1997. Our most elite site of higher learning also happens to be one of the country’s oldest incubators of comedy writing. The Harvard Lampoon, the university’s longstanding humor magazine, permeates modern comedy via its former staff—Shur, for example, was president of the Lampoon.
Late-night hosts are usually former writers, and so emerge out of a narrow set of socioeconomic conditions. Conan O’Brien was president of the Lampoon during his time at Harvard; he was also a legacy of sorts since his father was a professor at Harvard Medical School. Stephen Colbert’s father was a medical professor as well, first at Yale and then Saint Louis University. Colbert graduated from Northwestern; Seth Meyers did the same about ten years later. Improv’s big stars are all college-educated too: Julia Louis-Dreyfus is another alumnus of Northwestern. Amy Poehler, founding member of legendary improv group Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB), graduated from Boston College. Tina Fey studied at the University of Virginia. Ilana Glazer graduated from New York University; Abbi Jacobson received a BFA from the Maryland Institute of Fine Arts. Glazer and Jacobson went on to create the cult favorite Broad City—the duo met while taking classes at Poehler’s UCB. John Mulaney, Nick Kroll, and Mike Birbiglia began jack-of-all trades comedy careers performing improv together while attending Georgetown University, the alma mater of Mulaney’s parents who attended alongside Bill Clinton. Ellie Kemper, favorite of The Office and star of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, was part of an improv troupe at Princeton which she attended prior to Oxford—Kemper’s paternal line is said to have owned railroads.
It would have been easy, upon meeting on the set of The Office, for people like Kemper and Shur to have bonded while joking about the Harvard-Princeton rivalry. Mulaney, O’Brien, and Colbert all know the pressures of having Ivy-educated parents. Poehler can reminisce with most of these individuals about the experience of doing improv on campus. Equally important, if Poehler finds someone she meets especially funny, she can recommend them for work across the network of UCB alumni. Forming relationships usually requires shared experiences, as does “fitting in” more broadly. It would be strange to expect the fundamentals of bonding to change simply because the person entering the scene is Black. Black people still need to fit in to succeed professionally.
In December 2014, Chris Rock said of Hollywood:
“It’s a white industry. Just as the NBA is a Black industry. I’m not even saying it’s a bad thing. It just is. And the Black people they do hire tend to be the same person. That person tends to be female and that person tends to be Ivy League.”
Rock published his thoughts as the second wave of protests was ending in Ferguson. By January, #OscarsSoWhite was issuing a clarion call for popular culture to do something, and six months later, the culture’s victories were being tabulated. Essence Magazine dedicated its May issue to five Black women who were said to be “changing the game” in Hollywood: Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy), Ava DuVernay (When They See Us, Selma), Debbie Allen (A Different World), Issa Rae (Insecure), and Mara Brock Akil (Girlfriends). Between them, at least three attended private high schools, at least three had parents with college degrees, and all of them attended college themselves—Stanford, Northwestern, Dartmouth, and UCLA are on the list . Had the Essence article come out a few years later, Courtney A. Kemp (Power) would have assuredly made an appearance; Kemp received her bachelor’s at Brown University and her master’s at Columbia, attending not one but two Ivy League schools.
To go back to the 2020 National Book Award nominees for a moment, three of the authors were Black and two were Black women. Deesha Philyaw graduated from Yale, and Brit Bennet from Stanford. Jesmyn Ward—a Black woman, and the only woman to twice win the NBA for fiction (2011, 2017)—attended Stanford and then the University of Michigan, the latter considered a sort of public Ivy. In 2020, The New Yorker had nine visibly Black contributors (of which seven are men). All nine graduated from four-year colleges, and more than half gained their credentials at elite universities . Based on publicly available biographies, compared to their non-Black peers, Black contributors had a higher rate of Ivy League attendance and were twice as likely to be college faculty.
Most of the time, the assumptions that can be made about the backgrounds of white creators can be safely applied to their Black counterparts. Any time an elite education appears in a Black creator’s biography, it is likely that it was preceded by exorbitant privilege. The writer Colson Whitehead—born Arch Colson Chipp Whitehead—was raised a wealthy Manhattanite. His family owned a home in the Hamptons, and he attended Trinity preparatory school which sends nearly half of its students into the Ivy League in exchange for a tuition of $58,500 annually. Whitehead graduated from Harvard in 1991 and went on to win a National Book Award before becoming the Pulitzer’s only back-to-back winner in fiction. Pop culture wunderkind Roxane Gay has written memoirs, New York Times Op-Eds, and Marvel Comics. Gay was, until her junior year, educated at Yale and attended Phillips Exeter before that; the latter is the kind of uber elite New England preparatory school fictionalized in Dead Poets Society. Tuition for students boarding at Phillips today is slightly less than $60,000 per year, though a deal of $44,960 per annum is offered to young persons content with life as mere—and lowly—day students.
Above-average privilege, particularly in terms of income, is the norm for successful creators both white and Black, but the ignorance that obscures the economic privilege of the latter group provides a bitter irony when you’re a formerly impoverished Black person operating in a highly educated milieu. The only time that someone recommends Colson Whitehead or Roxanne Gay to me—really, the only time any Black creator outside of music is recommended to me by a white person—is when the person I am talking to learns that I am from the Black underclass. Being Black and from poverty, I am what white Americans imagine they are learning about and “standing in solidarity” with when they imbibe popular culture’s Black offerings. But it never occurs to them that Whitehead and Gay come from a very different class to begin with, and are not necessarily standing in real solidarity with me.
I could easily go on, delineating the economics of popular culture one creator at a time, but bringing in a small amount of data from higher education makes it unnecessary. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, just one in ten low-income high school students will graduate from a four-year college. Applying this so that it means something on the ground:
- 4.1 million children entered the 9th grade in 2020.
- 15 percent of these children were Black.
- 34 percent of Black children have been living in poverty .
- 14 percent of low-income high school students eventually obtain a bachelor’s degree (i.e., about one in ten).
Using an elementary school level of arithmetic (Fact 1 x Fact 2 x Fact 3 x Fact 4) shows that 2020’s 9th grade cohort will produce approximately 29,274 bachelor’s degree holders from among the Black poor. Placing this number in context requires reference populations, which NCES provides:
- 1,980,644 bachelor’s degrees total were awarded in the U.S during the 2017-2018 school year.
- 195,014 bachelor’s degrees were awarded to Black students during the same period.
If what occurred with 9th graders in 2020 held approximately true during the years preceding the 2017-2018 school year, it would mean that Black students raised in poverty received about 15 percent of all bachelor’s degrees awarded to Black students that year. By extension, the other 85 percent of those degrees went to Black students raised in the middle- and upper- classes. In total, Black students from poor families received 1.4 percent of all the bachelor’s degrees handed out in 2020; the other 98.6 percent of those degrees went to students from other backgrounds.
I am using the “one in ten” statistic because it is memorable and because it is the one journalists use most often. However, from 1970 until around 2000, the rate of bachelor’s attainment among low-income students was closer to one in twenty. NCES also defines “low-income” to include families earning 25 percent above the federal poverty line (i.e., non-poor). If we were to measure the rate of bachelor’s attainment among poor children by looking exclusively at families living beneath the poverty line, the rate would likely be lower than one in ten or even one in twenty. Foster and homeless youth—my previous demographic—are more likely to be drawn entirely from poor families, and their attainment rate is estimated to be as low as 2 percent or one in fifty.
Regardless of whether you defer to one in ten or one in twenty or, most conservatively, one in fifty, the implications for you as a consumer and interpreter of popular culture are the same: if you assume every Black person with a bachelor’s degree grew up middle-class or better, you will be right at least 85 percent of the time. Every industry that relies on higher education is forced to import these class disparities into itself; there’s no avoiding the fact that the Black middle- and upper- classes produce nearly all of Black popular culture.
In 2015, during the height of interest in the topic, Ta-Nehisi Coates published The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration. Coates argues that mass incarceration has been a broadly pernicious response to social problems, and since its foundations were laid amidst the prevailing racism of the 20th century, the worst abuses have been concentrated on Black Americans. In the course of his argument, he notes that “four out of five criminal defendants qualify as indigent before the courts.” The interpretation is uncomplicated. 80 percent of Black people imprisoned in the U.S. hail from poverty, meaning that 8 out of every 10 Black prisoners in the U.S. are harvested from one class of Black Americans: the class that George Floyd belonged to. This also means that the Black middle- and upper- classes combined make up just 20 percent of Black prisoners. Nonetheless, when Coates summarizes these statistics for his reader, he says: “and should crime rates rise again, there is no reason to believe that Black people, Black communities, Black families will not be fed into the great maw again.” (Emphasis mine.)
If I were from a different community, pointing out the economic disparities in popular culture—let alone in prison—might yield some kind of intervention on our behalf or at least warrant a call for one. But I am from the Black poor. What afflicts us does not belong to us—it belongs to the race, to the class-free abstractions of “Black people,” “Black communities,” “Black families.” That is the only representation we receive, and so long as this is the framing, no exclusion, no oppression, no suffering endured by us will be understood as warranting a solution designed specifically for us.
The ease with which Coates transitions from naming forms of oppression that predominantly afflict the Black poor to making class-blind statements about “Black experience” is common everywhere. Speaking about his love for Serena Williams on the For Colored Nerds podcast in 2017, Vann Newkirk II—the most prominent Black journalist at The Atlantic since Ta-Nehisi Coates’ departure—said:
“She [Williams] to me is like Ali in that she provides that public voice that public excellence that we often need when we’re feeling down when we feel like you know maybe they won’t stop killing us, maybe they won’t stop marginalizing us and redlining us and putting us on the edge of cities and flood plains and lead poisoning us.”
If you accept the argument I’ve presented thus far, you might assume Newkirk’s place in popular culture via his job at The Atlantic means he has a bachelor’s degree. You might then assume that he was raised in the middle- or upper- class. The ethical thing to do, however, is to assume nothing and look him up. If you do that…you will find that Newkirk graduated from Morehouse and then UNC Chapel Hill. His mother was a public-school teacher, and his father is a Howard University PhD and the president of Fisk University, a position commanding $120,308 annually.
Newkirk says “us” and “we,” but it’s doubtful that he was actually raised in a redlined project with lead-lined walls and too many police. But he talks in a way that implies some biographical connection between himself and forms of oppression that, for the public, are bywords for poverty: dog whistles of a kind. This way of speaking, heavy in its use of first-person pronouns with regards to stereotypical oppressions, is how most middle- and upper- class Black people working in popular culture speak—not because it is the most accurate, but because it fosters the appearance of being real Black.
When I arrived at graduate school in 2014, I was twenty-six years old and in the midst of my twelfth year of abject poverty. I was choosing then between food, rent, clothing, and medical care, which—given my asthma— meant a grand dilemma between food and air. This was better than my life before eighteen. As a high school freshman, I lived in a crack den and subsisted by begging classmates for pocket change or else stealing childish food items like string cheese and Sunny D from Publix grocery. In between these wholesome adventures, I watched my mother desiccate at the end of a crack pipe alongside her boyfriend who pursued the same hobby—unless the opportunity to ensnare her in physical violence arose, in which case, crack could always wait.
The people who raised me are not the worst people I have known of, but they are the worst that I have known personally. The previous generation of my family—though small in number—includes murderers, rapists, drug enforcers, and practitioners of every form of abuse. A few confined themselves to bloodless activities like fraud, but these were not my immediate relatives. I remember being a child and my mother theorizing before me that the reason I was born asthmatic was because, when she was five or six, she smothered a neighbor’s newborn with a pillow. Assuming that karma skips a generation, it would be difficult to assign my faulty lungs to her alone, given that my father was incarcerated for strangling a friend to death while yacked out on meth. There is a pattern of taking air away in my family, repetitive in my mother’s case since her distrust of Western medicine meant that even if the state would have provided me with an inhaler, she wouldn’t have (and she didn’t).
Baldwin wrote, “[The Negro] is a social and not a personal or a human problem; to think of him is to think of statistics, slums, rapes, injustices, remote violence; it is to be confronted with an endless cataloguing of losses, gains, skirmishes…” Because my life conforms to this, what Baldwin called “the usual bleak fantasy,” I get to occupy what most people think of when they think of real Black. This means that I do not have to omit or embellish aspects of my life in order to convince society to view me as “Black” or, more to the point, to see me as “not white.” Light-skinned as I am, the more tragedy I share, the “Blacker” I become. Abject poverty is not normally an advantage, but it can become one if, for example, your livelihood depends upon audiences perceiving you as real Black.
John McWhorter once shared that he was, early in his career, afraid to publicly debate Michael Eric Dyson because Dyson could claim ghetto origins and speaks like a pastor (he is a pastor) while McWhorter was born middle-class and raised without a “blaccent.” McWhorter knows himself to be Black, but he feared audiences would perceive him as too far from real Black to be legitimate if juxtaposed against Dyson. Ijeoma Oluo, being half Nigerian and raised by a white single mother in a white neighborhood, expressed similar feelings:
“…we felt that difference between the expectations of the type of Black we were supposed to be, and the type of Black we were—which was Black nerds raised by a white woman in a poor white neighborhood. And when middle school came around and suddenly there were a few dozen Black kids—real Black kids—we compared outfits and attitudes and knew that we, my brother and I, just didn’t measure up. I stayed invisible to both Black and white kids while my brother was teased mercilessly for ‘acting white’ with his love of jazz music.”
In the 2015 film DOPE, Forest Whitaker describes how the Black nerds are constantly at risk of being ridiculed by their Compton peers for liking “white shit,” such as skateboards, manga, and Donald Glover. Glover’s 2010 Comedy Central set actually includes a joke about his first day at a white high school: when Glover is unable to tell the white kids which sneakers and rap songs are cool because he—in his own words—prefers the “soulful stylings” of The Cranberries to hip hop, the white kids beat him up for failing their expectations. The joke was pulled from life: in his early interviews, Glover frequently discussed being beat up and called homophobic slurs for dressing and acting white in high school.
According to the strictures of real Black, the Blackest you can be is a dark-skinned, poverty-raised, adherent of the Black subculture that achieved its current form after being filtered through the urban ghettos of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Illinois, and California during the 1980s and early 1990s. If you waver on the first two, you better project the third. Both of Glover’s parents worked; his father was a veteran and a postman while his mother was a daycare provider. The family rounded out standard middle-class bona fides with a strict religious faith and years spent fostering troubled youth. When given the chance to produce a passion project, Glover chose to make Atlanta. Discussing the show’s success, Glover said, “as a Black person, you have to sell the Black culture to succeed.” Atlanta draws heavily on poverty, policing, prison, violence, rap, and the culture of the Black poor. It’s not the environment Glover grew up in or the culture he practiced in high school or during his twenties, or thirties, but it is the one he sold to gain two Emmys and sold again to get a Grammy for This is America. It represents quite a reversal: from getting beat up by white audiences to being awarded by them.
In Black neighborhoods, kids scrutinize identity ruthlessly, a process conveyed accurately in the Kendrick Lamar chorus: “fuck who you know, where you from, my nigga? Where your grandma stay, huh, my nigga?” But—as seen with Glover—once you’re an adult operating in the public eye, people assume a history of poverty for Black skin. Any Black person can claim it, becoming real Black in the process, and there are personal and economic incentives for doing so (did I mention Glover’s Golden Globes?) In his 2018 special Equanimity, Dave Chappelle encapsulated the process:
“You know, when I was growing up, I was probably about eight years old, and at the time, we were living in Silver Spring. Yeah. Yes. Common misconception about me and DC, a lot of people think I’m from the ‘hood’. That’s not true. But I never bothered to correct anybody… because I wanted the streets to embrace me. As a matter of fact, I kept it up as a ruse. Like sometimes I’ll hang out with rappers like Nas and them, and these motherfuckers start talking about the projects. ‘Yo, it was wild in the PJs, yo.’ And I’ll be like, ‘Word, nigga, word.’ But I don’t know. I have no idea.”
In 1978, sociologist William Julius Wilson published his seminal work on the interactions between class structure and race entitled The Declining Significance of Race. Examining Black income mobility before and after the 1960s, Wilson found that the majority of Black families that had been living in poverty at the onset of civil rights remained in poverty years after its conclusion. The children of these families, the first poor Black children to live the majority of their lives post-civil rights, also remained in poverty. Wilson argued that civil rights had yielded measurable economic benefits for Black Americans in the aggregate, but those gains were concentrated upon the Black middle- and upper- classes. Government jobs and universities had to abide by civil rights legislation and affirmative action policies, but they were not legally obligated to admit the Black poor, so they chose not to, and instead overrepresented the Black middle- and upper- classes to meet their quotas.
Wilson himself grew up Black and poor in rural Pennsylvania during the last decades of Jim Crow. His father was a coal miner and a steel worker who died of lung disease at the age of thirty-nine, leaving Mrs. Wilson to support six children on a combination of welfare and whatever she could earn cleaning houses. Coming out of a degree of poverty that can scarcely be imagined, Wilson obtained a PhD and a teaching position at the University of Chicago. Six years later, Wilson delivered The Declining Significance of Race to an audience of Black and white academics who, being college educated, were almost entirely from the middle- and upper- classes. They rebuked him. As Wilson put it in 1980:
“Critics were so preoccupied with what I had to say about the improving conditions of the Black middle class that they virtually ignored my more important arguments about the deteriorating conditions of the Black underclass. The view was often expressed that since all Blacks are suffering, there is no need to single out the Black poor…”
In 2017, the Harvard-based economist Raj Chetty published a study examining the effect of higher education on the economic mobility of 48 million children born between 1980 to 1991, capturing in his sample nearly all the children born during that period. From 1999-2013, Chetty found only 3 percent of the students admitted to Harvard came from poverty. Despite the exclusion of the Black poor, Harvard achieved near perfect or greater than perfect Black representation throughout the 2010s: Black Americans make up 13 percent of the U.S. population, and they were 14.7 percent of the freshman admitted to the university last year.
Harvard achieved its diversity goals by overrepresenting the Black middle- and upper- classes. Henry Louis Gates Jr., director of African and African American studies at Harvard, has estimated that as many as two-thirds of the Black students at Harvard are first or second-generation immigrants from Africa or the West Indies, the wealthiest and most educated subgroup of Black Americans, and the one from which Kamala Harris and Barack Obama derive.
The situation at Harvard should be compared to Chetty’s findings regarding college attendance and incarceration among 28 million children born between 1978-1983: The chart on the left shows a generation of poor Black children rarely attending college, while the chart on the right shows the same class of children rapidly imprisoned by the age of thirty-two. Placed side by side, they offer a mirror image of disparity and privilege: you can trace the increase in opportunity and the decrease in oppression as the income of Black families rises.
Ignoring class divisions in Black America over the last forty years has allowed the benefits of racial progress to be concentrated upon the Black middle- and upper- classes while the Black poor have largely been excluded. Popular culture embodies the problem in the same way higher education does, which is a problem because inequity is always a problem. However, the centrality of popular culture to America’s understanding of Black people, and the fact that popular culture contains within itself all the best platforms for sharing stories about ourselves, imbues the situation with a particularly bleak and sinister air.
When the context is white people, we tend to be conscious not just of the influence that pop cultural objects have (movies, shows, etc.) over our understanding of the world but of the unchecked influence this can yield to creators; being permitted to fictionalize experiences which neither the audience nor the creators have direct knowledge of (so long as there is a budget and a market for it) is a tremendous power. Awareness of at least the possibility for abusing this power is one of the only sources of accountability that exists for popular culture. The Florida Project, a 2017 drama written largely from the point of view of three children living with their poor and transient families in motels just outside of Disney World, is one of the most poignant depictions of childhood poverty that I have seen. When DCF agents came to take the six-year old protagonist, Moonee, away from her mother, I experienced the first and only panic attack of my life. Despite all the truth I saw not just in that scene but throughout the film, it was written and directed by Sean Baker, someone who has never had those experiences. As Vanity Fair writer Cassie De Costa puts it, “ Baker isn’t a poor child…He’s a young, college-educated white male film director.” Costa’s appraisal of the film was rather different than mine; she wrote: “it seems that all of these characters are on screen because they’re interesting…not because Baker has genuine emotional insight on them or their circumstances.”
It is worth mentioning that Costa is a Black woman educated at Yale and the Ecole Normale Superieure (a French Ivy, basically). Although possible, it is highly unlikely that Costa’s life has prepared her any more than Baker’s has when it comes to recognizing authentic “emotional insight” into the experience of being poor. Neither one has likely lived that life. But the simple fact that Baker does not share the class of his subject opens his work to criticism, including from a (perhaps) similarly privileged critic. This kind of suspicion could be protective of all pop culture’s subjects, but it tends to be unevenly applied. A Black creator born and raised in the middle class can take from any aspect of the Black poor’s existence without risking charges of voyeurism, appropriation, or predation. It is an overwhelmingly common abuse of social power given how much of Black popular culture traffics in depictions of the Black poor (think Glover and Atlanta). But Black creatives are seen as so fully entitled to the suffering of the Black poor. that we do not even recognize popular culture made by the Black poor as special or, at a minimum, unusual. Moonlight is one of a miniscule number of successful Black films that not only depicts Black poverty, but was directed and written by Black men who grew up in poverty. That degree of authenticity should offer some distinction within the field of Black art, but people will compare Moonlight to other depictions of Black poverty without even mentioning the poverty of its creators as relevant to the appraisal of authenticity or representation. It is as if all Black creators are presumed to have equal insight.
The rarity of a film like Moonlight emphasizes what’s wrong with policies that aim to diversify race but not class. When HBO began its Access program in 2014, race, gender, and ethnicity were the only dimensions of diversity considered: poverty was not included as a dimension (and still is not) . BFI, which provided the BAFTA diversity guidelines, included “lower socioeconomic status” as desirable for employment but not a priority; it was optional to hire someone from a lower socioeconomic background, and BAFTA left it up to the filmmakers to provide their own justification for who was of lower socioeconomic status rather than deferring to any government thresholds regarding poverty. That was six years ago. Last year, the Academy Awards enacted diversity standards of their own: “poverty,” “low-income,” and “lower socioeconomic status” are not mentioned as dimensions of diversity.
There is a real need to diversify pop culture, but it has to happen on more than one axis of oppression. As it stands, popular culture has been prioritized as a site heavily in need of racial change: it is the first and often only industry we expect to respond immediately to the oppression of the Black poor. That these efforts at diversification have not resulted in the Black poor gaining the opportunity to represent themselves in popular culture is a gross perversion of the stated goals of representation. Worst of all, we seem to be gaining in complacency with the status quo. Ibram X. Kendi, the prevailing Black consciousness of white liberals, gave popular culture as is his official sanction in February of this year, writing: “We are living in the time of a new renaissance—what we are calling the Black Renaissance—the third great cultural revival of Black Americans.” Kendi names nearly every Black creator mentioned in this piece but only to cite their existence in popular culture as proof of a race-wide achievement. The exclusion of the Black poor is never mentioned . The day before issuing that rosy pronouncement, Kendi published Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019. According to Amazon:
“…this collection of diverse pieces from ninety different minds, reflecting ninety different perspectives, fundamentally deconstructs the idea that Africans in America are a monolith—instead it unlocks the startling range of experiences and ideas that have always existed within the community of Blackness.”
Out of ninety-one different Black writers (counting himself), ninety have bachelor’s degrees, forty-eight attended elite colleges, and sixty-one are college faculty. You might not be able to sell a community history of Black America without the continued suffering of the Black poor, but you can apparently write the history of the “Black community” without more than one or two of them.
Though obviously class-blind and constrained by racist stereotypes regarding poverty and Black identity, some portion of the racial progress that has occurred in popular culture over the last decade has been motivated, I hope, by a genuine empathy for the Black poor. There is still time to use that energy to direct popular culture towards policies that recognize class within race. But this will require that the privilege of acting as public representatives for all Black people be taken away from the Black middle- and upper- classes. Black Americans fortunate enough to be born outside of poverty need to establish identities that do not depend on erasing class differences or falsifying connections to poor black oppression. And white Americans will need to accept Black identities not based in poverty as perfectly “real” too—just not authoritative on Black poverty.