Navigating race and injustice in America’s middle class

Jennifer M. Silva and Tiffany N. Ford

Photo by cottonbro on

he United States of America is a race-plural nation – the American middle class is no different. If we define the middle class as those in the middle 60 percent of the household income distribution, with annual household incomes between $40,000 and $154,000, then 59 percent of the middle class is white, 12 percent of the group is Black, 18 percent is Hispanic, and 6 percent is Asian.

Given the racial make-up of this group, this current period of civil unrest, and the looming presidential election, it is more important than ever for those of us concerned with the well-being of the American middle class to understand the attitudes of different racial groups within the middle class. In a Brookings study begun in late 2019, in which we conducted focus groups and personal interviews with a broad range of middle-class Americans, we were able to have real discussions about race, racism, identity, and injustice. To promote comfort and honesty, we stratified our focus groups by race and gender, which allowed different middle-class race-gender groups to talk openly about their experiences in their workplaces, with their families, communities, and in their everyday lives. Below, we present what members of the American middle class had to say about racial injustice, both in the months leading up to the first identified case and in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Navigating Injustice  

Summer 2020 witnessed national uprisings against racism and police brutality, with deeply rooted tensions concerning power, identity, injustice, and belonging that erupted into protests, riots, and lethal violence. These tensions were already brewing in our conversations about identity and respect in our focus groups in the fall of 2019.  For the Black and Hispanic people in the focus groups, experiences of disrespect and discrimination in the workplace were prevalent. Black women described how they had to restrain their emotions and opinions out of fear of retaliation or conflict, while also working harder to be given a fair chance. As Patricia, a Black woman who works in IT, describes: “I got to work harder. I have to work hard. I have to bust my kneecaps and ankles, just for somebody to give me a chance. I have to not respond the way someone would expect for me to respond so that they can respect me. Nobody respects women, and especially a Black woman.”    

Black and Hispanic individuals attested to racism in their everyday lives, whether stereotyping by their co-workers, discrimination in higher education, or racial profiling in the criminal justice system.

Black and Hispanic individuals attested to racism in their everyday lives, whether stereotyping by their co-workers, discrimination in higher education, or racial profiling in the criminal justice system. Justin, a Hispanic man in a Las Vegas, Nevada, focus group, shared his experience, “I’ve never had a positive association or positive experience with a cop pulling me over.  I got to a point where being Hispanic and being behind the wheel at night, it was almost a no-go for me.”  In Prince George’s County, Maryland, Black men described being “trolled for speeding” when they ventured into suburban areas and getting “pulled over because you ‘fit the description’” when they were wearing dreads, driving a nice car, or simply having a laundry bag in their backseat. One man said soberly, “In most of our movies, the person dies. A lot of these movies conditioned us to not prepare for a long life, not prepare for marriage. We figure we get to twenty-one, man, I’m blessed.”  

“I’ve never had a positive association or positive experience with a cop pulling me over.”

In Houston, Texas, Black men referred to the “injustice system,” documenting their fears of their children “getting railroaded for something petty” while wealthy people “get a slap on the wrist, two to three years’ probation for something petty,  while they just violated my child and mess them up for life.” One man tied crime to economic inequality and racism, explaining, “Just because I can’t get a job, the bills don’t stop coming. I can’t get a job. My child’s stomach’s not going to stop rumbling.” Another man chimed in, “It’s more profitable to keep us locked up and to keep this system rolling because you’re rented out as free labor, you’re rented out for for-profit prisons, and there is a quota the police and system has to make to keep those facilities rented.  My biggest thing is to keep my children out of their facilities.”[1]  Men and women in the Black and Hispanic focus groups attempted to acknowledge and fight against injustice,  but also tried to protect themselves from exhaustion and despair.  As a Black woman in Wichita, Kansas, noted, “I can switch it off real quick if I see stuff, like even with the police officers killing a lot of Black men, and women too, I can tune in and tune out.  I don’t want to see that, I don’t want to watch that, because all it does is bring my spirit down. So, I’m an optimist on life in general, and just knowing that the future is going to be as bright as you make it, it’s up to us to make our future bright.”   

Brian, a 57-year-old Black man from Detroit, Michigan, moved to Texas when the automobile factories were closing, leaving behind “a post-apocalyptic world.” In Houston, he moved into the technology field, performing computer upgrades and technical assistance on government contracts.  Brian has not had steady benefits such as health insurance or retirement contributions as a contract worker, yet has invested substantially in his own career advancement, most recently in a $7,500 online course on data security. Since COVID-19 hit, he has been “trying to get two certifications, maybe three, between now and Labor Day weekend, because right now it’s just very hard to get a job because the work source is gone. The unemployment office, they’re closed. You can’t go online because the website just keeps crashing if you get on there.”  He has been getting some help from SNAP.  Brian reflects, “I think that if you want the American Dream, if you’re a minority, you have to work so much harder. I mean, you can get it, but you’ve just got to work a lot harder. There have been times when I’ve been down here where I think that race played a part in me getting the job, because when you’re the only Black person and everybody else is white, you kind of figure you’re probably the token guy that they kind of had to hire, to keep the government off of them. I’ve had a couple of jobs like that. I think there’s just a lot more opportunities, if I were lighter-skinned or white.” He continues: “I mean, plus what’s going on in Detroit right now. I mean, they’ve got the highest COVID cases in the country, and like I said. Detroit is 80% Black, so, like I said. That’s one reason why I’m glad I’m not there.”  

Nostalgia and Resentment  

For some of the white people we spoke with, we heard anger toward perceived “quota-filling” hiring practices or attacks from the “left.” Some white participants resented being put into a racial category at all, while others feared they were on their way to becoming a “minority” in America. Leslie, a white woman from Las Vegas, described her experiences: “The culture has definitely shifted. Because in the [19]80’s, I think being a white working American woman, a lot of people strived for that, and now we are definitely the minority. I feel like we’re the minority and [we’re] discriminated against, especially in the workplace.” Other white people believed that race had become too politicized in recent years, fueling unnecessary conflict between Americans of different racial groups. Jake, a white pastor from Pennsylvania, put it, “There’s this bizarre focus on race. And granted there are racists, there’s always been racists, there’s always going to be racists. But it seemed like the country went from this, we’re all in this together mentality, to we’ve literally been carved out. They’ve carved us out into groups now.  I don’t understand why we’re now white people. It just feels like we were people. When I was in New York, we were people. Some of my best friends were the people I worked with who were all different shades of different stuff.”  

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