Professor Wolff at The Philosopher’s Stone decodes a bit of pol-speak for us, in his ongoing web tutorial on Afro-American studies:
One might imagine that this contrast died with the abolition of slavery, but nothing could be further from the truth. During more than a century after the end of the Civil War, the contrast between bondage and freedom was encoded in the Jim Crow laws that separated the races and condemned people of color to a second class citizenship. When those barriers to freedom fell, a new language was devised to mark the distinction between bondage and freedom. “Ghetto” and “underclass” communicated the same division, and once again, Whites defined themselves by their contrast with people of color, this time by identifying themselves as “Middle Class.”
American political rhetoric these days is obsessed with the needs, the interests, the concerns of “Middle Class Americans.” Now, taken as an economic, or socio-economic, term of art, “Middle Class American” is utterly incoherent. Households making anywhere from forty thousand to four hundred thousand dollars a year are routinely referred to as “middle class.” There is no longer the slightest suggestion that “middle class” identifies people who are, in some measurable sense, “in the middle.”
It takes very little sensitivity to language to grasp that “middle class” now means “not living in the ghetto,” “not living in the inner city,” Not Black. Now that the “strivers”, as Black professionals and entrepreneurs used to be called, have moved from the inner city to the suburbs, it has become acceptable to acknowledge the existence of a Black “middle class,” although the election of a Black President triggered deep-rooted anxieties so powerful as to reveal the continued presence in America of this identification-by-contrast rooted in the nation’s past.
It is worth reflecting for a moment on the real meaning of the outpouring of hysteria prompted by the election of Obama. It was not, in the ordinary sense, an expression of prejudice. Rather, it was a cry of desperation. Since my freedom is defined in contrast to their bondage, if they throw off all the chains of that bondage by appropriating what is ritually conceived as the most elevated position in the nation, then I am no longer free!