By Cara Jepsen

Mary Pattillo-McCoy came to the University of Chicago in 1992 to study with William Julius Wilson, the noted sociologist and expert on the urban poor. Wilson and U. of C. professor Richard Taub were conducting a survey focusing on how economics affected racial animosity in a handful of the city’s ethnic enclaves (a book based on the study will be published later this year). Pattillo-McCoy signed on as a field researcher and was sent to conduct interviews in a south-side, middle-class African-American neighborhood she calls “Groveland.”

After a year she moved there. “I was following the steps of other sociologists doing a similar kind of work,” she says. “You don’t get the same feeling going there twice a week as you do living there–and you don’t get the same amount of legitimacy. Plus it was a lot cheaper than Hyde Park.” She joined the local church, where she became choir director, got involved in a political campaign, and attended CAPS meetings. She was upfront with the residents about her purpose from the start. “I’m black myself and middle-class and grew up in a neighborhood in Milwaukee very much like this one,” she says. “There weren’t many barriers to cross. I was a bit upper-middle-class [her father was a doctor and her mother a college professor] but my experience was very much like theirs. So it wasn’t difficult to get involved and form friendships and find people willing to participate and talk about their lives–even the bad parts.”

Encouraged by Wilson, Pattillo-McCoy was also gathering data for her dissertation on special difficulties faced by the black middle class. She had become interested in the subject after observing the experiences of her childhood friends from Milwaukee. “Some had children young, were sporadically employed, or were lured into the drug trade, while others had gone to college, or worked steady jobs and earned enough to start a family,” she later wrote in her book based on the dissertation, Black Picket Fences: Privilege and Peril Among the Black Middle Class. “We started pretty much at the same place, but we ended up running the full gamut of outcomes.” The research for Wilson’s study further convinced her that “there was a story to tell…about black middle-class kids like my friends, a story that was not simply about growing apart.”

Groveland, a neighborhood of brick bungalows on quiet streets, boasts an active community and a stable population that votes in much higher numbers than that of the city as a whole. “They understand the history behind the fight to get the ballot, and people who came up from the south are not going to throw that away,” says Pattillo-McCoy. “They understand the rewards of being politically involved.” Despite strong civic pride, however, she found that young residents faced serious difficulties and temptations. Two chapters of her book are devoted to personal stories–a man who flirted with gang membership and now works two jobs to make ends meet, and a young woman with a college degree who owns a catering business and lives at home. In another chapter, “Nike’s Reign,” Pattillo-McCoy analyzes the history and significance of clothing as a status symbol; she says after a while she found herself noticing people’s shoes as soon as she met them. In one passage, a woman compares her five-month-old infant’s Nike collection to that of a neighbor’s baby. “My friend Shauna, her boyfriend [is] not there for her. So she can’t really, she buy her baby gym shoes like once a month. [Whereas] Tim been here for five months and got seven pair of gym shoes….My friends, you know, they might buy they kids shoes once a month. I feel like, you know, some of ’em are under me, you know.” Other subjects talk frankly about selling drugs to be able to pay for shoes and expensive clothing.

But they rarely sell drugs in the neighborhood, reflecting their desire to keep Groveland safe. Pattillo-McCoy was surprised by the constant call for more police protection. “At police beat meetings there were quite explicit statements like ‘Let’s all round up the gangbangers and put them on some island somewhere.’ They kept saying they needed more police in the neighborhood, and made comparisons to white neighborhoods that get more protection. I found that interesting because of my understanding of the antagonism between the black community and the police….At the same time they wanted gangbangers and loiterers taken off the street, they didn’t want police harassing their sons and nephews.”

In general, though, the community’s troubles and strengths were not unlike those of her Milwaukee neighborhood, leading her to believe that Groveland is not unique.

In Black Picket Fences Pattillo-McCoy cites research showing that middle-class African-Americans generally live in segregated “buffer” neighborhoods between the black poor and more affluent whites; each time they try to move to a better neighborhood, it becomes segregated, and the poor soon follow in their wake. “Segregation often concentrates poverty, which makes for an inferior educational system. Preparation for the job market suffers….There also tends to be less familiarity with nonblacks, and nonblacks control a lot of the jobs. Once you get the job, you might not be as comfortable or facile with the interactive styles.” Proximity to crime-ridden neighborhoods also means that kids are more likely to be led astray than their white counterparts.

“This is not to say that the problem is as bad or in need of attention as it is for poor African-Americans,” she says. “The point is to show the continuing effect of being black–to show that race has not disappeared in being a factor for black middle-class America.”

Her findings contrast those in Wilson’s influential 1978 book, The Declining Significance of Race. He concluded that socioeconomics had at least as much to do with poverty as race, believing that middle-class African-Americans would soon enjoy economic and social parity with their white counterparts if they continued to make inroads in education and move to integrated neighborhoods. In subsequent years he came to place more importance on race. But according to Pattillo-McCoy, the damage had been done. “That really helped to turn social scientists’ attention away from that group, thinking that they were OK.”

The dismantling of university and professional affirmative-action programs has only made things worse, she adds, but she’s undecided about what the best solution is. “It’s clear to me that separating people is the easiest way to give one group poorer-quality service, like schools. Integration is less feasible than creating new programs, but I think it would have better results.”

Pattillo-McCoy, who will discuss Black Picket Fences next Thursday at the Borders in Beverly, now teaches sociology and African-American studies at Northwestern University. She’s been getting a lot of feedback about her book and says she’s achieved her goal of refocusing attention on the black middle class. Wilson, who now teaches at Harvard, provided a jacket blurb calling Black Picket Fences “the most insightful study I have read” on the subject.

And there may be more in the works. “Graduate students are now E-mailing me that they are working on the same topic,” says Pattillo-McCoy. “This is an issue that, especially with assaults on affirmative action, will become more and more important.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Machnik.