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Some of the most fascinating conversations about class anxiety aren’t happening on cable news networks these days but on a more unexpected place on television: shows like “Atlanta,” “black-ish” and “Insecure,” which have explored a profound, if largely ignored, economic issue — black downward mobility.
On “black-ish,” the Johnson family is led by Dre, a marketing executive, and Bow, a doctor. They have four children in private school and a house in an affluent, predominantly white neighborhood in Los Angeles. They took a vacation to Disney World estimated to cost more than $20,000. But despite the family’s seeming stability, “black-ish” is largely about class tension. A central dilemma is Dre’s battle between his financial aspirations and racial authenticity, his moving-on-up and his loyalty to his working-class roots.
One of the best episodes this season, “Jack of All Trades,” opens with Dre (Anthony Anderson) and Bow (Tracee Ellis Ross) learning of their young twins’ career test results: Diane (Marsai Martin) might be in a “position of power in a political organization,” while Jack (Miles Brown) is likely to be “a member of a unionized group of skilled laborers.” Despite Jack’s obvious excitement about, and talent for, the manual trades, his parents become obsessed with redirecting his career trajectory, worried that he will be pigeonholed, like Dre’s live-in father, Pops (Laurence Fishburne), in a blue-collar job for the rest of his life.
As Pop’s presence reminds us, while Dre’s parents worked hard to provide him with an education, Dre did not inherit wealth, making his upper-middle-class status both new and fragile.
This is a legitimate worry because more and more members of the African-American middle class are finding themselves in an economic downslide, with little hope that the next generation will earn more than the one before. In 2015, the Pew Research Center released a report detailing that the number of American households earning a middle-class income had reached its lowest point in over 40 years. And the gap between the wealth of white and black families has widened to its highest level since 1989, according to a Pew report from 2014.
Black male children raised in middle-class households in the late 1970s and early ’80s have fallen out of the middle class at particularly higher rates than white male children after becoming adults, another Pew report found.
On shows like Donald Glover’s “Atlanta” on FX and Issa Rae’s “Insecure” on HBO, both about a group of late-20-somethings professionally striving and financially struggling (and both, along with “black-ish,” nominated for Golden Globes), the theme of black downward mobility is put into high relief.
“Comedy in the black community is almost always about struggle,” said Mary Pattillo, author of “Black Picket Fences: Privilege and Peril Among the Black Middle Class.” “And while exploring class differences is not new for black sitcoms, it is important that these themes are reproduced and restaged for each generation. The specifics might be different, but every generation returns to this theme because the precarity of the black middle class has not disappeared.”
On “Atlanta,” we meet Earn, a Princeton dropout who grew up in a middle-class family and who works at an airport kiosk. He quits that job to manage his cousin, an up-and-coming rapper named Alfred Miles, known as Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry), who has a song on the radio but makes a living as a drug dealer. Earn’s economic instability is exacerbated when his on-and-off girlfriend and his daughter’s mother, Van (Zazie Beetz), loses her job as an elementary schoolteacher because it was the only constant source of income for the family.
“‘Atlanta’ offers up a realistic portrait of the vulnerability that the black middle class faces today,” said Jessica S. Welburn, a sociologist at the University of Iowa who researches African-American downward mobility. “While the election of the first African-American president gives many a sense of progress, racial disparities have also intensified and limited what has typically been a pathway to the middle class for African-Americans, like a college degree or a government job. Knowing this, African-Americans still try to break through these barriers with obviously mixed results.”
“The Jacket,” the season finale of “Atlanta,” offers up one of the most pointed critiques of structural racism that I have seen on television this year: Neither Earn’s middle-class childhood nor his Princeton education can protect him from the constraints that he and his friends find themselves under. After Earn wakes up in a strange house in a strange bed without his jacket, we follow him on an increasingly desperate search in increasingly dangerous situations. He finally arrives outside the home of the Uber driver who has his jacket, only to witness him being shot by the police.
As extraordinary as that trauma might be for most Americans, the show portrays the sort of everyday violence to which African-Americans and Latinos, of various classes, are vulnerable.
If race is intimately tied to class, so is gender, as Ms. Rae’s “Insecure” so poignantly reminds us. The main conflict on the series is its female protagonists, Issa and her best friend, Molly (Yvonne Orji), navigating the muddy waters of millennial dating. We first meet Issa, who works at a nonprofit, and her live-in, long-term boyfriend, Lawrence (Jay Ellis), on shaky ground. Despite his Georgetown degree, Lawrence is an entrepreneur unable to finalize his business plan or find a corporate job. He settles on working at Best Buy, and later, with encouragement from Issa, sets aside his dream of developing an app to take a gig at a tech start-up. And while the season concludes with a cheating-related breakup, their relationship was perhaps doomed from the beginning, by his inertia, his unemployment and their economic insecurity.
Through Molly, a lawyer who brilliantly code-switches between corporate and colloquial vernacular, the show explores how class mobility often differs for African-American women and men.
After a string of disappointing romantic encounters, Molly ends up dating Jared (Langston Kerman), a witty, caring guy whom Issa jokingly calls “Rent-a-Boo” because he works at Enterprise. Molly ends their relationship (the first of two times) after she and her friends find out he did not attend college.
Averil Y. Clarke, author of “Inequalities of Love: College-Educated Black Women and the Barriers to Romance and Family,” said: “Middle-class black women are plagued by a very common racial problem. They, like most women, are encouraged to pursue the middle-class script: Go to college, get a good job and get married and have kids.” She added, “But, when it comes to dating, black women’s class aspirations are more likely to be unfulfilled than white women, their femininity and sense of value more likely to feel under assault.”
Historically, whether it was the striving of “The Jeffersons” or “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” or the working-class settings of shows like “Sanford and Son,” “Roc” or “Thea,” class differences have dominated black sitcoms in the post-civil-rights era.
That these three recent shows are all created by African-Americans (Kenya Barris created “black-ish”) might enable them to attend differently to these nuances of African-American lives.
Ms. Rae said in an interview with Vox, “This isn’t a show exclusively about, like, the struggle of being black.” Instead, “It’s just regular black people living life.” By setting her show in South Los Angeles, she is able to reveal the spectrum of African-American class diversity, as she noted in an interview with The Daily Beast: “Yes, there’s poverty there, there are gang members there, but there’s also affluence, there’s middle class, and everybody meshes together.”
Likewise, Mr. Glover said in an interview with Vulture, “I wanted to show white people, you don’t know everything about black culture.” In that same interview, he underscores that one key difference is how he depicts class diversity. When Mr. Glover heard a suggestion that Paper Boi live in a run-down, “traplike” home, he refused. “We were like: ‘No, he’s a drug dealer, he makes enough money to live in a regular apartment.’” He added, “There were some things so subtle and black that people had no idea what we were talking about.”
Taken together, these sitcoms remind us of the centrality of race, not just to our conversations but to policies around income inequality. That the coming years may yield a hiring freeze on the federal work force, the continuing decline of unions, and more suffering for both middle-class and working-class African-Americans is no laughing matter. But, as the adage goes: Sometimes we simply have to laugh to keep from crying.
Salamishah Tillet is an associate professor of English and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania. She is a co-founder of the nonprofit A Long Walk Home.