“There are two types of Negroes in this country. There’s the bourgeois type who blinds himself to the condition of his people and who is satisfied with token solutions. He’s in the minority. He’s a handful. He’s usually the hand-picked Negro who benefits from token integration. But [it’s the] masses of Black people who really suffer the brunt of brutality and the conditions that exist in this country[.]” Malcolm X
Pre-covid, I met up with an old high school friend at a U street bar. A time when we were able to stand next to a stranger, open-mouth breathing without fear or violent thoughts. Upon arrival, her breath quickly made it evident that she had been there for a while. The alcohol pulsing through her veins had taken off any awkward edge or need for small talk. She leaped into a tirade swinging wildly between updates on her professional success and frustration with white liberals in her line of work. She told me that she is in the early stages of starting her own thing. In an abrupt transition, she zeroed in on me, asking if I had taken the bar exam. I happily shared I passed and had fallen in love with my work representing the most marginalized in D.C. I could barely get the name of my organization out before she interrupted to offer me a job. “Now is the time! Come back to Milwaukee and work for me! I could really use a Black queer woman,” she said presumptively.
I ignored the straight woman tokenizing my gayness for her benefit and tried to return to the love for my work. She again interrupted to assure me that whatever I had going on was far less valuable than what she could offer.
“I… charge… six… thousand… a month,” she whispered in slurred words as an enticement for the move.
While this from anyone else would have been cause to end the exchange, I was intrigued that a Black woman was using the exact same oppressive tactics of the white liberals she so often critiques. She complained that her white coworkers in meetings overtalked her, cut her off, and assumed that what she had to say was inherently less valuable than what they offered. But on this rooftop bar, in between misguided unsolicited advice, she offered me a demotion yet presented it as a favor.
It was not until she began updating me on the state of poor Black Milwaukeeans — the n***** as she called them — that I would decide to leave. I must note that I do not verbalize the n-word and believe that Black people — and Black people exclusively — should decide for themselves whether or not they want to use it. But when she used it, in the way she used it, to separate herself and by proxy separate me, from the Black folks she deemed ignorant or lost, the word on her lips hit my ear with the intensity of a white southern politician caught on tape circa 1981. When discussing the Black men dating pool in Milwaukee she stated, “Them n***** in Milwaukee ain’t going nowhere.” The words shot through me, and then I was done. All night I wrestled with discomfort reeling over her perception of poor Black people, confused by how one can understand the effects of systemic racism on their own lives but then critique the very people who are most affected by it. Sadly, she is not unique. She is one example of a larger problem that has existed for decades, the modern Black bourgeois.
Almost fifty years after Malcolm X defined the Black elite, Cornel West offers a description of the group in an interview with Chris Hedges — he describes them as self-promoting, risk-averse, lacking courage, highly conformist, and usually complacent in battle. West reminds us that there would be no Civil Rights without the poor and working-class Black folks’ rebellions. In 1965 it was the Watts Rebellion. In the long hot summer of 1967, uprisings sprung in working class and poor Black communities across the country — Newark, Detroit, Atlanta, Plainfield, Cairo, Milwaukee, Cambridge. In 2014, Ferguson; Baltimore in 2015; Milwaukee, again in 2016. In all these rebellions, the brunt and pain rested on the shoulders of poor Black folks. But, the progress that would yield from their sacrifice continues to be bestowed to the Black elite and risk-averse middle class. Cornel West’s analysis? “For the most part, that Black middle class, driven by ruthless ambition, became well-adjusted to injustice and well adapted to indifference.”
The modern Black bourgeois loves to talk about their successes. They often begin introductions with their affiliations, the ivy league schools they attended (or one of the four HBCU’s considered worthy of mentioning), their advanced degrees, and whatever elite career they have dedicated their lives to. They love to critique whiteness at brunch while blindly missing the irony of their own relative privilege when talking down about the ghetto Black people on the other side of the bridge. In impassioned speeches about gentrification, the modern Black elite will speak curses of the white elite but spend a great deal of their salary to live in those gentrified neighborhoods, avoiding by any means necessary the pre-gentrified Black spaces. The only time they speak of poorer, less successful Black people is to demean their existence or offer ill-informed advice. Except, of course, when that Black person evolves into their favorite entertainer, then they become gods transcending the confines of the hood, finally deserving of the modern Black bourgeois’s gaze.
The modern Black bourgeois has divorced itself from innercity black folk, most especially their ebonic-fluent cousins. Or if they are really lucky, they themselves are the descendants of the Black elite and have never had to brush shoulders with those they look down upon because of their ancestor’s intentional separation. Being a Black Northside Milwaukeean, the only time I would hear mention of elite Black social organizations would be reading the critiques from my favorite Black authors. They described affluent, privileged Black people who created organizations and social clubs to intentionally separate themselves from poor Black people over 100 years. Langston Hughes described Black elite spaces before the Black Power movement when colorism was so socially acceptable to be used in admission processes for elite Black schools and clubs –
“As long as I have been colored, I have heard of Washington’s society: the pink teas and passing; magnificent homes and distinguished families; grand manners and mouths that uttered sentences in frightfully correct English… Or perhaps I didn’t really meet the best society after all. I met only the snobs, and the high yellows, and the lovers of fur coats and automobiles and fraternity pins and A.B. degrees… Maybe those who said they were the best people had me fooled.”
Thankfully, color bag test and pink teas now only happen in the most discreet of settings, like college parties and Facebook groups. Nonetheless, I wouldn’t personally meet the descendants of the Black elite Hughes described until I left for college.
The modern Black bourgeois believes deeply in American capitalism. You can always spot them by their belief that building wealth outweighs social responsibility. Climbing the social and economic ladder of the western world outweighs doing the work that would lift those most suffering. Their dedication to their oppressor’s definition of success will keep them chasing the same thing that further disenfranchises the Black poor and working class.
The modern Black bourgeois, especially if young, will undoubtedly use the n-word. Likely not because they themselves grew up in a household that used it; not because they were exposed to it in their predominately Black inner-city communities. But because they can use the word to give themselves more of an edge, later in life, they will use it while getting drinks on patios to describe the people most oppressed by systemic racism. While they understand this system prevents access and has created the social hierarchy we see today, they bask in their place on that totem pole. The modern Black bourgeois focuses all their efforts on accessing whiteness and not building blackness. They will create protest against access to elite white spaces while their brethren struggle to find foods that won’t kill them. You will hear them make sweeping generalizations about poor Black people like -they don’t want better, they’ll never make it out, they gone end up in jail or dead. Or they may hold such patronizing views as to believe that poor Black folks can only be saved by the growth and success of the upper echelon (the modern Talented Tenth).
They will categorize the Black community’s poorest as violent, aggressive, lacking motivation, and accountability. Ironically parroting FOX news while simultaneously arguing that racism has kept them from climbing the corporate ladder at their six-figure job. They are eager to take prestigious jobs regardless of the systemic harm those organizations cause to the oppressed.
The modern Black bourgeois will capitalize on white people’s ignorance, posture themselves as severely oppressed, and refuse to acknowledge the extensive list of privileges they possess. There are no income limitations for this group, as the true essence comes from a state of mind. Still, they will be relatively more successful, by western standards, than the inner-city Black people they disdain. Some of them have acquired a significant amount of savings, some come from wealthy parents, and some just have degrees, but they will all ridicule things they deem regular, and will desperately crave the cool and new. They will share hood memes and gifs as reflections of themselves while ridiculing their kinfolk, who creates that very culture.
The modern Black bourgeois will struggle to address their role in classism as it relates to the Black community. They will fail to reflect on the social stratification that they benefit from. The modern Black elite learned young that they do not speak white they speak right! A phrase they are quick to say when ridiculed, with total lack of awareness that their pride in speaking the King’s English contributes to the social oppression that keeps Black people from academic and corporate rooms unless they possess the ability to codeswitch — meaning to strip themselves of the language that is native to their communities and adopt the tongue of their oppressor. The modern Black bourgeois will likely fail to appreciate Ebonics as a different, equally beautiful dialect because that would take away the one gift that most easily distinguishes them from the n*****.
Black thought leaders have criticized the Black bourgeois for decades– James Baldwin, Amiri Baraka, and Malcolm X were a few critics. I have lost patience for their lukewarm political stances and shallow analysis. As Black communities continue to suffer in the dark, we must rid ourselves of all things not contributing to total Black liberation. As police continue to run free to terrorize and harass poor Black neighborhoods, while the hoods continue to lack fresh fruits and vegetables, as they fill prisons with our children, parents, cousins, and uncles, it is the poor Blacks that bear the brunt of the oppression and that ignite the rebellion. And, it is the poor Blacks that receive the least from the movements they sprout.
Black people must challenge each other to sharpen each other. We must acknowledge our relative privilege intra-racially and uplift those who need it most if our goal is to dismantle systemic racism. We must do more if true liberation will ever exist.
In conclusion, I’ll end with the wisdom of Malcolm X.