It’s Not Just About the Money: The Racial Coding of New York City’s Middle Class

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Talk about life in New York, and you talk about money. Because, really, what is all the incessant real estate chatter even about if not money? And then there’s that prototypical dinner party conversation-starter: “What do you do?” Finding out someone’s job is just another way of knowing how much they earn so you can see how you compare. We’re all so closely pressed up against each other in this city of ours, it’s impossible not to juxtapose our own experiences with those of our neighbors and the easiest way to do that is to get right down to the basics and analyze the numbers. Numbers don’t lie, after all, even if they don’t always tell the full truth.

But few people—even stereotypically brash New Yorkers who are just as comfortable asking what you pay in rent as what you want for dinner—talk with complete freedom about money qua money. No, money needs to be coded in some way in order to make it more palatable for small talk or, say, a trend piece in the New York Times. And what better way to make the topic of wealth more relatable than by making it into an issue about the middle class. Is there any group more praised by politicians and pundits and the press than the middle class? It sometimes seems like not a day goes by without some paean to this beleaguered group, whose attributes are thought to represent the quintessential American: hard-working, clean-living, aspirational while remaining grounded, and—as of late—struggling and even in danger of disappearing.

And so the question that frequently comes up is nothing less than a rallying cry—a plea for help. Who, the media ask, will save the middle class? This was the basis of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s campaign platform; it explored the idea of there being two cities—one of wealth and one of poverty—and nothing in between. And it is also the foundation of countless pieces in outlets like the New York Times, which has looked at the difficulties the middle class is having finding affordable rents in cities (including—and for our purposes, most notably—in New York), examined the closing of businesses that traditionally catered to the middle class, and sought to redefine what even qualifies as middle class in New York, before settling on a middle class income as being, well, $200,000/year.

Most recently, the Times covered the “middle class lament,” namely, the high cost of rent in New York City and the harsh reality that not everyone is going to be able to live the life they want to—the one they feel they were promised—in the five boroughs on a less than six-figure annual salary. And while it is beyond absurd (and could legitimately be called criminal!) that the most recent iteration of what passes for reality in New York means that people routinely pay half their salary in order to keep a roof over their heads, what is notable in most explorations of the decline of the middle class is a strange refusal to talk openly about what it has traditionally meant to be middle class, and how it actually has very little to do with money, and—at least in New York City—has a great deal to do with race and implicit segregation.

Because what does it mean, exactly, when we’re told that it is “impossible” to live in New York on salaries of less than $200,000 a year? It means only that it is impossible to live in certain parts of New York—the desirable parts, the neighborhoods where two-bedrooms rent for $4,000/month and where crime is statistically nonexistent. And those parts of New York are predominantly white. Even while many of the most currently sought-after areas of Brooklyn have historically had large African-American populations, as gentrification and rising rents have continued apace, these neighborhoods have lost many of their black residents, large numbers of whom have left the city entirely, while others have been forced to move further out into Brooklyn where rents remain cheaper—for now. And many of those longtime residents who have had to leave their neighborhoods behind could be considered middle class (see data from NYU’s Furman Center demonstrating that along with a decrease of black residents came a decrease in people earning a typically middle class income of $40-60k/year), but they are rarely—if ever—talked about as being middle class, and are instead classified as being displaced because of being low income and gentrification. But the truth is more complicated and should force a re-examination of what it means when we worry about the struggles of the middle class. Are we worried about the middle class? Or are we worried about keeping white people comfortable?

All of this leads to the question of who exactly we’re worried about when we worry about the disappearing middle class? Whose lifestyles are we so afraid of seeing vanish? It’s not really the people who were integral parts of the creation and maintenance of their neighborhoods for years, unless those people were white. All this media and political hand-wringing is mostly about those people who have just moved in and quickly find that they can’t afford rent and fancy furniture and nights out at trendy restaurants and bars. But there is only a limited outcry over the exodus of the black residents of this city, many of whom were an integral part of the economic middle ground of this city, even if they didn’t appear to be living the life of privilege that three 20-something-year-old New York transplants are living on the Upper East Side. The problem is that many of the behaviors and signifiers of what it means to be middle class have been so long coded as belonging to white people that even when black residents of this city have the economic power of members of the middle class (and, as Ta-Nahesi Coates mentions in his excellent “The Case for Reparations,” predominantly black neighborhoods are generally far more economically diverse than predominantly white ones) they are not thought of as being middle class because of where they live and what their purchasing patterns are and, well, the color of their skin.

The next time a piece about the middle class is published in the Times—or almost anywhere else—or a politician starts ranting about the injustices the middle class faces in New York, just replace “white people” with “middle class” and see if the tone is any different. The real middle class in New York isn’t just composed of young white women who think this city owes them something and get discouraged by their inability to conquer it by affording rent and a daily latte. The real middle class in this city is as diverse as the population itself and deserves more than to be represented as a bunch of overly privileged people to whom the Times wants to sell things—being middle class isn’t just about buying power and racial signifiers, and it’s time to stop portraying it that way.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen

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