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Searching for the middle: the disappearance of the black middle class

on December 10, 2015

Telegraph Avenue turns into a mile-long outdoor art bazaar on the first Friday of each month, and the scene was especially lively in November. People rushed through the entrance, pretending to ignore the large orange buckets along the gates, where organizers were collecting donations.

Jewelry designer T.K. Butler had nestled her booth among drummers, a fire twirler and a posh clothing boutique on wheels. She wore a multicolored African headscarf and patterned shawl. Every time someone would attempt to take a photo of her one-of-a-kind earrings, she’d jump in front of the table, using her body and shawl to shield her pieces from the flash. Butler didn’t want anyone to steal her designs.

Butler has never made the same earring twice. Made of cowrie shells, Pan-African colored beads and circular carved wood, each one represents an aspect of her experience as a displaced Oakland native, part of a growing African American outmigration.

On each earring, Butler paints a phrase she pulled from articles published in the East Bay Express: “It’s really daunting. Everyday I look at Craigslist, but there is nothing,” one reads. Another: “We’re just people falling through the cracks in the economy, and we have nowhere to go. ”

Butler describes her earrings as “a way to speak about issues that mattered to me.”

She was born in Oakland. She lived with her mother and three siblings in East Oakland until she was 10 years old. Her grandmother was the only relative on her mother’s side of the family to own a house. After her grandmother died, the family tried to hold on to the house. It wasn’t easy.

“We lived in her house for a little while without the electricity being on,” Butler said. “I was a little girl and we were lighting candles in that house, still trying to stay there.”

Butler’s mother had trouble raising three children without help from her mom. She lost the house, and when family had to move, lost even more.

“We lost that connection to keep the family together,” Butler said. “Eventually, when we moved to Treasure Island, we ended up being in foster homes, because everything got so chaotic for my mom. She had a mother to help be a child-care resource, and so when my big mama died, that opened up that displacement for the grandchildren.”

Butler went to stay with her father in Arkansas. She moved back to Oakland when she was 18. Though she was gone for eight years, she still considered Oakland her home, and she was surprised when her mother, siblings and nieces had moved to Stockton in order to afford housing and stay together.

Butler, now in her 30s, launched her jewelry business, True Fire Electric Production, in September. She wants to stay in Oakland because it’s a hub for artists. She couch-surfs among friends in Walnut Creek in order to afford the materials needed to produce her line of earrings. Every day, she catches the BART to the Lake Merritt station and then works inside local shops, which substitute as stable workspaces. She works on her earrings sitting outside by the lake, or at Noah’s Bagels. Butler sells her work at Oakland festivals: Hair festivals, dance festivals, any type of festival.

As the days get shorter and the nights colder, she reminisces about her grandmother’s home. “In order to be middle class, you have to have assets. In African American families, grandmothers bought their houses—that’s where the ‘Big Mama’s House’ came from,” said Butler. “When my big mama died, that’s a big example of how the displacement started.”

Butler’s story is not unique. After the great recession of 2008, inequality widened along racial lines as people lost their homes, often their only major asset. Earlier this month the Institute for Policy Studies, a Washington, D.C. think tank, reported in “Billionaire Bonanza: The Forbes 400 and the Rest of US,” that the average white family today has net assets of $141,900, compared with the $11,000 for African American families. This hollowing out of the African American family asset base is a nationwide phenomenon that can be explained by the shrinking African American middle class. It’s even more a factor in “strong market” regions like the Bay Area, where housing costs are soaring.

In the Bay Area, many factors are contributing to “black community shifts” of epic dimensions, according to Malo Andre Hutson, a professor in regional and city planning at the University of California at Berkeley. “Lots of jobs are being created,” he said, and “there’s a good, highly-educated workforce.” Still, entire neighborhoods of longtime residents are being squeezed out because good middle-class jobs—the kind that once offered an African American head of household health benefits and pensions—are vanishing.

Many African Americans cannot afford to stay in cities where they have raised their children and grandchildren. For today’s generation, it’s become hard to maintain the middle-class wealth of their parents, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center study that documented the spreading economic gap between races and ethnic groups after 2007. White households now have 13 times the wealth of black households, and the median wealth of non-Hispanic black households fell 33.7 percent, from $16,600 in 2010 to $11,000 in 2013.

During an interview, Rakesh Kochhar, co-author of the study, said no one is immune from the economic pressure. It’s just that some are hit harder than others. “All American households since the recovery have started to reduce their ownership of key assets, such as homes, stocks and business equity,” he said. “But the decrease in asset ownership tended to be proportionally greater among minority households.”

Javon Scott Lewis, an economic anthropologist from UC Berkeley’s African American studies department, said statistics alone don’t tell the story, and can even be misleading. “What [those statistics] show you is black failure. That’s what that stat [represents] and that’s not what is happening, not on the ground,” Lewis said. “On the ground, it’s not black failure, but wealth disparities among once well-established black neighborhoods like Richmond and Oakland.”

Since the 1940s, Oakland and Richmond have been home to the largest populations of African Americans in the Bay Area. Thousands of African Americans migrated to neighborhoods in West Oakland and Central and Northern Richmond during World War II to work at the Kaiser Richmond shipyards and Oakland Army Base. Between 1940 and 1950, 1.5 million African Americans left the economically depressed South to escape Jim Crow, according to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Although the center didn’t break the numbers down by city, altogether 339,000 African Americans moved to the western half of the country.

The U.S. Census shows between 1940 and 1950, the African American population in Oakland jumped from 8,500 residents to 83,600 residents. Much of Richmond’s new population was housed in temporary structures, part of a wartime building boom that produced new neighborhoods of “dormitories, demountable houses, and apartment buildings,” according to the city’s website. At least 60,000 people lived in public housing, and many of those “temporary” housing units remain standing today.

After the war, when wartime industries slowed down, many newcomers lost their jobs and homes. Research by Gretchen Lemke-Santangelo, a professor at Saint Mary’s College of California in Moraga, shows unemployment in the East Bay among nonwhites had soared to 29 percent by 1950, compared with 13 percent among whites.

Amid the decline in industrial production and plummeting need for blue-collar workers, public housing was torn down. “Shipyard ghettos” began to emerge near Moore Dry Dock and the Kaiser shipyards in Richmond and Oakland.

“The ‘L’,”—an imaginary L-shaped division of neighborhoods—“starts at North Richmond to the south side, and goes up to Cutting Boulevard to San Pablo. That’s where the city said blacks could live. And that’s where we lived,” said Charles Cavness, the founder of Richmond’s African American History Museum. “When they tore the projects down, there was nowhere to go. There were over 100,000 people looking for places.”

The Oakland Redevelopment Agency, known as the ORA, was established in 1956. Its first housing project involved demolishing 50 blocks of housing in West Oakland to make room for the Cypress Freeway, which was torn down following the Loma Prieta earthquake. Construction didn’t begin until five years after demolition, leaving a large housing gap in West Oakland.

“By the mid 60s, the demolition policies of the ORA would create deep scars in the black neighborhoods close to downtown,” according to Chris Romberg, the author of a 2007 book called No There There: Race, Class, and Political Community in Oakland.

A lack of home ownership and job opportunities in both cities brought increasing poverty and racial division. One repercussion was a rise in underground economic activity fueled by social ills, including the drug trade. Crack cocaine, for instance, spread quickly around the country, affecting disproportionate numbers of Hispanic and African American neighborhoods. According to the Harvard University report Measuring Crack Cocaine and Its Impact, published by economist Roland G. Fryer Jr., between 1985 and 2000, Oakland had the highest concentration of crack cocaine in the United States, while San Francisco was second worst.

The report adds that arrests and incarceration rates skyrocketed for males in low-income minority communities. Between 1980 and 2000, drug arrests for African Americans rose from 6.5 per 1,000 persons nationwide, while drug arrests for white people slightly increased from 3.5 to 4.6 per 1,000 persons nationwide. The Disparity By Geography report published by The Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy group involved with the US criminal justice system, adds that from 1980 to 2003, “African Americans were arrested for drug offenses at a rate that was 238% higher than whites, which translates into African Americans being 3.4 times more likely to be arrested for a drug offense than whites.”

During the ‘80s, ‘90s and 2000s, some African American families who had previously achieved homeownership sold their houses to stay afloat, which undermined family stability and left little cushion for the next big economic crisis. When the Great Recession hit in 2008, “We were [advocating] for black home ownership, because we saw that’s how wealth was created,” Hutson said.

“Black folks were taking out the loans, going online and seeing their equity go up, getting equity lines of credit, just like traditionally. And then the bottom dropped out and we found out it was predatory lending and it happened to be people who looked like us,” he said.

Researchers at the Center for Global Policy Solutions, a think tank based in Washington, D.C., found that 62 percent of African American wealth was in home equity as of 2013. The crash resulted in a “significant loss of wealth for a majority of African Americans due to falling housing market prices, higher rates of foreclosures, and low property values. For example, home equity decreased by half among African Americans, from $76,910 in 2005 to $59,000 in 2009,” according to their report.

Middle class status for African American families was “based upon equity in homes,” Lewis said, and the recovery in the housing market was slow following the recessionary crash. For people caught in this trap, he said, “you simply don’t have the capital to sustain.”

According to data from the National Association of Realtors in 2014, the average home sales price $737,600 in the Bay Area. The median income for someone to be considered middle class in California was $60,190 in 2013, according to a study by Pew researchers. And $60,000 does not buy an empty lot—let alone add up to a down payment in most Bay Area neighborhoods, so it’ll take years of saving to buy property here.

For a person or family earning between $50,000 and $75,000, “You put that same amount of money in Ohio, Texas and some other places, it’s not too bad, right? But in San Francisco, that’s nothing,” Hutson said. “Don’t think about having children in the city, because it’s like once you get done paying rent, once you buy food and don’t have a car, you have nothing left.”

A lack of homeownership and other family assets creates a wealth gap for young African Americans, making it hard for thirtysomethings like Butler to attain the middle class standard of living their parents and grandparents had. Candice Elder, an Oakland native and president of San Francisco’s Museum of the African Diaspora, said a big part of the problem is lack of financial literacy. People may not understand how to maintain financial assets, and haven’t considered the best way to ensure assets can be passed along to the next generation.

“Do our parents even know about the stock market, and do they invest in the stock market? A lot of us are a few paychecks from not being middle class,” Elder said. “The problem in African American communities is we don’t have a lot of wealth. We have rich people, we have affluent people, but we aren’t passing down houses like other races are doing.”

In the East Bay, people who had lost their homes and could no longer afford to rent began to move out of urban centers to more inland cities like Antioch, Stockton, Vallejo and Fairfield. Though both Richmond and Oakland continue to be centers of African American culture, according to the U.S. Census in 2010, only 26 percent of Richmond residents are African American, compared with 48 percent in the 1980s.

Oakland lost almost 50,000 African American residents between 1980 and 2010, a 19 percent decline, according to the same Census information. A study in 2015 by PolicyLink, a research institute in Oakland, found the city’s Latino, white, and Asian populations increased by 13 percent, 7.8 percent, and 7.8 percent respectively, from 2000 to 2010. The report adds: “Many city officials and community leaders are deeply concerned about the decline in African American residents.”

Richmond also lost half of its African American population. Now, only 22 percent of the population is African American compared to the 48 percent in 1980. The Census shows an 8 percent increase in the Asian population and a 30 percent increase in the Latino population over the same time period.

In Oakland and Richmond, a second dot-com boom is fueling further gentrification and rising rents . Neighborhoods that were once unattractive to white San Francisco city dwellers are now seen as more affordable and accessible with BART.

Last year the average price of a house in Richmond was $279,000; today, its $342,500. And in Oakland the average price rose from $440,000 to $532,500, according to a 2015 California home sale activity report by CoreLogic, a financial service organization and real estate group.

Today, the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment is $2,000 in Oakland and $1,870 in Richmond, according to the November 2015 Zumper National Rent Report.

Affordable housing is defined as a unit for which tenants pay no more than 30 percent of their total income, including rent or mortgage, insurance, taxes and utilities. In California, Hutson said, “there should be about 230,000 housing units built a year, but only about 100,000 to 120,000 are being built.” In Oakland, according to the 2015 PolicyLink reportOakland needed to build 14,629 units between 2007 and 2014 to maintain affordability, but the city only reached 25 percent of that target.

Richmond native Onna Alexander knows what happens when your family has to sell its house and you can no longer afford to rent in your hometown. Alexander, a clinical director at the Contra Costa Youth Service Bureau, supervises employees who travel the county to counsel young people and their families who suffer from mental and behavioral issues. Her parents moved to Richmond in the mid-1940s from Mississippi. Her large family includes eight brothers and sisters. “Our family lived in the same house over 50 years,” Alexander said.

A year and a half ago, Alexander’s mother died after having decreed that the family house be sold. Following her mother’s wishes, she began to search for a place to rent on her ownInstead, she found mainly frustration.

“I knew what the rents were, so when I started looking I couldn’t believe prices almost doubled and tripled. I was really shocked at the prices for the places that they were renting—little work done on them in neighborhoods that didn’t have a good history for safety, houses that were small,” Alexander said. “I looked every month, and the rents would go up. Every month. So I knew I had to make some decisions to where I was going to live.”

Now she resides in Vallejo and pays under $1,500 a month to rent a three-bedroom house, with a garage, front yard and backyard with a patio. “The pricing is what definitely pushed me out,” she said. “I didn’t want to leave Richmond. I had to.”

“You really can’t afford to live around the water anymore, so people are getting further out to live, because the rent is cheaper—they have no choice,” she continued.

T.K. Butler, the jewelry designer, has a similar story. Her entire family has moved to Stockton in the Central Valley, where they live in government-subsidized apartments. As she sits near Lake Merritt crafting her jewelry, Butler said some of her family members no longer even aspire to owning a home, like her grandmother did.

“They are victims of their environment. They’ve been comfortable with what they believe is a certain kind of wealth,” she said, adding that for some of her family, qualifying for rental subsidies now seems like enough. “My family thinks, ‘If I can get that and be able to live somewhere, then I’m OK. I don’t have a higher goal of owning a home.’”

She asks to pause the interview, closes her eyes and begins to cry. She puts her face in her hands, for moment, which brings her earring into view, and another headline: “Housing Crisis.”

Recovering, she said it wasn’t sadness that brought on the tears, but rather concern about her own displacement. It was cold outside that day, she said, and she felt like she was living on the streets. The cold had cut her jewelry-making time at the lake in half. She was staying indoors longer, because she was only wearing a few layers of clothing.

Butler considers her housing situation temporary. She began her entrepreneurial journey as a creative outlet, but she also is trying to escape the economics of her shrinking neighborhood, the “historical traps, forces or systems, that are against [African Americans] having more wealth.”

And she would like to own her own house one day. To her, owning a home is a powerful part of being middle class.

Her father’s relatives own homes in Arkansas, and she thinks that her dad has greatly influenced her leap into entrepreneurship. “I thanked my dad for being a homeowner, and that’s something in me. My father is part of my ancestry, so those same abilities are in me to do the things that he and my grandmother have done,” she said.


  1. Grace on December 10, 2015 at 10:42 am

    Thank you for this. It’s a powerful piece on why other blacks fall behind – it’s not racism per se, it’s not white oppression or police brutality. It’s missing out on the ways that wealth gets passed generationally, knowledge about wealth grows within a family…this country overemphasizes dramatic confrontations as root causes of issues concerning blacks…it’s NOT true. The generational effects of selling your home, not accruing assets is much, much more long lasting and the root cause of a lot of generational poverty

    • T.K. Butler on December 16, 2015 at 1:21 am

      Beautiful comments and insight.

  2. Grace on December 10, 2015 at 10:46 am

    I know it’s common for progressive – or any well meaning, impassioned white person – to want to fight the good fight on behalf of blacks…but they miss the whole story. If blacks can’t maintain strategies of keeping wealth, their children and grandchildren will be kept in poverty as price rises. We can restrict as many places to rent control as we want, demand affordable housing, schools with diverse students, etc etc., to try to counter this, but without family units protecting their own long term assets, we’re falling behind.

    Know what Chinese do when they get a paycheck? They don’t consume on durables like IKEA, movie tickets, etc…they save to make that down payment on any property, even in a ghetto…because over time, even that ghetto property rises in price

    • T.K. Butler on December 16, 2015 at 1:22 am

      So true. We can’t settle on being consumers but must become producers. Thank you for your thoughts.

  3. T.K. Butler on December 16, 2015 at 1:19 am

    Wow. Great job ladies. This is my first time viewing the video and reading the text. I learned alot through this piece you’ve composed- alot about myself, my creative journey, my story and my connection to a larger human context. The bigger picture is that I AM NOT ALONE no matter if it’s happiness or sadness that I am facing or whether it is displacement or security that I am experiencing. My grandma (father’s mom) is 92 and lives in the home she owns in Arkansas. It’s my mother’s mom who I mention as Big Mama in the article. My grandma (father’s mom) used to say when speaking about human shared life experiences: “You’re either heading to it or coming through it.” In this way we are all connected.

    I won’t say much about the things you’ve already covered in your article. I will say, “THANK YOU” for including me and my family as being apart of a record keeping process as it relates to so many changes taking place in all of our lives- those of us who were/are BORN & RAISED IN OAKLAND and The Bay Area. We appreciate this focus on our resiliency, creativity, ancestry and our legacy. One of my business mottos is the words of Einstein: “Creativity is contagious, pass it on.” Our grandparents passed on so much to us, may we all care to do the same for our descendants. Take care.

  4. Allen Sanford on December 21, 2015 at 11:37 am

    The City of Oakland has Wells Fargo in court now for predatory lending.
    This problem can resolved by requesting that Wells Fargo relinquish the profits that they have been allowed to keep from illegal transactions…Read Facebook pages titled, “Real Estate Crisis or Government Sanctioned Racketeering?”

  5. Allen Sanford on December 21, 2015 at 11:40 am

    The City of Oakland has Wells Fargo in court now for predatory lending.
    Read, Facebook pages titled “Real Estate Crisis or Government Sanctioned Racketeering?”

    • T. K. Butler on December 22, 2015 at 11:47 am

      Wow! Yes Allen, we must get to the ROOT of every cause of this displacement.

  6. V Stevens on February 5, 2016 at 12:32 pm

    Nailah:Thank you for an illuminating article. Would you consider an article on the African Americans newly arrived to Oakland? The influx is likely very small compared to the out migration; but the diversity, location and amenities of Oakland are a major draw for the many African Americans (and others) who have moved to Oakland over the past ten years or so.

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