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Consumer Culture and the Black Middle Class


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Chicago Consumer Culture Community (C4) Talk
April 5th, 2013

Published in: Business, Spiritual
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Consumer Culture and the Black Middle Class

  1. 1. Consumer Culture & the Black Middle Class David Crockett University of South Carolina
  2. 2. A Sign of Something People putting their clothes on Going on Wrong? backwards. Isn’t that a sign of something going on wrong? Are you not paying attention? People with their hat on backwards, pants down around the crack. Isn’t that a sign of something, or are you waiting for Jesus to pull his pants up? –Bill Cosby, 2004, NAACP Annual ConventionBlack Mental Health Allianceof Massachusetts (January,2013)
  3. 3. Research QuestionWhat is the roleof consumptionin forming racial and class identity among the Black Middle-Class?
  4. 4. Consumer Acculturation Research on Racial & Ethnic Identity • Culture and ethnicity are lived through (market-mediated) objects – Wallendorf and Reilly 1983; Bouchet 1995; Firat 1995 • The Post-Assimilationist Turn: boundary crossing – Oswald 1999; Penaloza 1994; Kjeldgaard, Arnould and Askegaard 2005
  5. 5. Limits of Consumer Acculturation Theory… [B]y suggesting migrant identityconstruction as being largelyvoluntary, by theorizingacculturation agents as under-complex and robust, and by focusingon single-sided ethnographicaccounts, these studies have not yetsufficiently investigated how and towhat extent consumer acculturationoccurs within reflexive and mutuallyinfluential networks of socio-culturaladaptation. – Luedicke (2011, p. 17)
  6. 6. Why Study the BlackMiddle-Class?
  7. 7. [Edward] Kingobserved, "a middle-class is graduallyspringing intoexistence, bridgingthe once impassablegulf between thehigh up and the lowdown, and some ofthe more intelligentand respectableNegroes are takingrank in this class."[…]
  8. 8. To white elite[s] inthe North and Southalike, the notion of afluid class structurewithout clear racialexclusivity was achilling prophecy.  Mullins (1990)
  9. 9. • How does “democracy of goods” mythology acculturate BMC consumers?• How do BMC consumers navigate multiple forms of inequality?
  10. 10. Methodology• Sample (ongoing): 13 BMC households – “Friend of friend” and snowball approach – Minimal screen for middle-class status • College and white-collar job or business to capture “core” vs. “elite” distinction (Lacy 2007) – National sample, urban and rural • Current: Southeastern US (i.e., Carolinas and Florida) – In-depth interviews (residence) + focus group (with all-male social group)
  11. 11. What Do We Already Know About the Black Middle-Class?1. Grown in size, affluence, distance Separate Worlds form BWC/poor •Wilson (1979) •Ogbu (1998, 2003)2. Intra-racial class conflict is more ‘unstable equilibrium’ Unstable Equilibrium than ‘separate • Anderson (1999) worlds’ • Johnson (2001)3. Complex relationship • Lacy (2007) to whites and other • Patillo (2010) minorities
  12. 12. What Do We AlreadyKnow About the Black Middle-Class? Current research privileges middle- class cultural capital Overstates BMC ability to dominate acculturation
  13. 13. Emergent Findings• Constructing Identity at the Nexus of Race and Class – Theme 1: Essentializiing Racial Sameness
  14. 14. Essentializing Racial SamenessBaxter: If you look at trend setting things in ourcountry. You start talking about fashion and othertrends—music—they come out of communities ofcolor. As soon as the black kids are running around—everybody [black] got a [black] G.I. Joe—and havingfun, then the white kids start, “I got to have one ofthose,” which helped boost their sales as well. Baxter’s articulates essentialized notions of blackness through his Black G.I. Joe collection
  15. 15. Essentializing Racial SamenessBaxter: They never made as many black ones as theydid white ones, but it really took [off] when at firstthe white G.I. Joe’s weren’t selling. Black families whowere looking for something for their kids to have, andthis is the only positive representation we got? Yeah.My mother made sure I had one. Consumption should be an indexical representation of blackness
  16. 16. Emergent Findings• Constructing Identity at the Nexus of Race and Class – Theme 2: Essentializing Status Distinctions
  17. 17. Essentializing Status Distinctions: A Race-Inflected Class CritiqueDee: …You know my parents worked hard all their lives.They never had anything. They raised their children. Iwould say we’re all successful. So, where did that [taste]come from? I see these other people doing it. I said, “Iwant that for my momma and daddy. I can do that. That’swhy I work everyday.” You have to have a hunger for thatwhich you have not had. You have to have a taste forreaching another plane. And, as Martin Luther King wouldsay, “You gotta keep your eyes on the prize.” So it’s thatkind of thing. Dee draws a moral boundary around high CC consumption
  18. 18. Essentializing Status Distinctions: A Race-Inflected Class CritiqueMale 4: My daughter [has] two sons. She buys the handheldGameboys and what-do-you-call-it... I don’t buy them. My[grandson’s school] was having an afterschool science programfor a week. He wanted to go, but she didn’t have the money forthat. We said “well, sign him up for it and we’ll pay for it.” ThatI’ll pay for, and I dont mind doing it, but… it was another issue.I think she used the money issue as [an excuse for] notwanting to do it. When we said we’ll pay for it, now she’scoming up with a different excuse… Moral boundary chastises low- status blacks’ consumption priorities
  19. 19. Essentializing Status Distinctions: A Race-Inflected Class CritiqueAdam: Because my sister…lives in the deep country… I’m in asubdivision in the country… [m]y sister and I talk about the waywe live and where we live, how it does remind us so much ofthe neighborhood and the country that I grew up in, and thesame style houses. And no negative reflection on my(other) siblings, but … they like living in your more upscaleneighborhoods. And I don’t know if they really go backand spend time in the community like my sister and I do.… It’s like, “[I] came from there, still have a fondness for it,and will always keep that connection, or ties with it.”
  20. 20. Emergent Insights• Exceptionalism Holds Race and Class in Dynamic Tension – It keeps “the middle” stable but fluid