An examination of the black middle class in America, first published in 1957, but increasingly relevant as the division between prosperous blacks and an increasingly desperate underclass grows wider.
When it was first published in 1957, E. Franklin Frazier’s Black Bourgeoisie was simultaneously reviled and revered – revered for its skillful dissection of one of America’s most complex communities, reviled for daring to cast a critical eye on a section of black society that had achieved the trappings of the white, bourgeois ideal.
To read Black Bourgeoisie today is not only to experience one of the most important studies of African American life but also to realize how controversial and relevant Frazier’s revelations and challenges remain.
When it was first published in 1957, Black Bourgeoisie was simultaneously revered and reviled because it cast a critical eye on one of the cornerstones of the black American community—its middle class. In the 1950s, before the recent burgeoning of the black middle class, Frazier identified the problems that occur in the aftermath of “black-flight” from the inner cities and black communities of the rural South. The book’s relevance has only increased as over the years the divide between increasingly prosperous middle-class blacks and their increasingly desperate “underclass” brethren has grown into an almost uncrossable chasm.
By tracing the evolution of the black bourgeoisie, from the segregated South to the integrated North, Frazier shows how the blacks who comprised the middle class have lost their cohesion by moving out of black communities and attempting to integrate white communities. The result of this integration “is an anomalous bourgeois class with no identity, built on self-sustaining myths of black business and society, silently undermined by a collective, debilitating inferiority complex.” Frazier hoped to dispel the image of blacks as having thrown off the psychological and economical ravages of slavery to become economically powerful, because according to Frazier, it was a lie that was damaging the community.
Frazier, chairman of the Department of Sociology at Howard University and president of the International Society for the Scientific Study of Race Relations, hoped that Black Bourgeoisie would impel blacks to make changes that would empower their community. For the most part, those hoped-for changes have not occurred. Nevertheless, today, as many black people are calling into question the very existence and relevance of an autonomous “black community,” his book offers a fascinating perspective on the costs of that community’s dissolution.