Last week, sociologist Karyn Lacy came to Emory to do a talk on racial socialization in middle class Black families and communities. She presented her pioneering theory, Strategic Assimilation Theory, which stresses the idea that Black middle-class individuals’ socialization in American society is deliberate limited incorporation into the mainstream. She created this theory out of the dearth of research surrounding the socialization patterns of Blacks who do not fit the mold of the classic models of socialization of people of color: lower class, urban Black model or the immigrant model of socialization. Her research situates middle-class Blacks in society and gives them a visibility that has been previously ignored.
The idea that middle class Black families navigate a racial hierarchy that virtually renders them invisible permeates her discussion of middle-class Blacks. Marginalized from distinctions of “white” upper class positioning, Lacy highlights how “middle-class blacks maintained their own exclusive, black spaces because they had been denied full access to white institutions” where many informal barriers still remain. The biggest revelation lies in what happens to race as people ascend the class ladder, specifically in Black communities. The simultaneous process of double consciousness—a process in which Blacks perform different versions of themselves based on the social environment—and strategic assimilation creates a unique socialization pattern for middle-class Blacks. To understand this unique process, Lacy compares two groups of middle-class Blacks: Blacks living in predominately white suburbs and Blacks living in predominately Black suburbs. One interesting link between the two groups was the fact that they were members of an organization designed to provide a space for well-to-do Blacks: Jack and Jill. For both groups, there is a belief in the importance of socializing with other Blacks in order to construct and maintain a positive Black identity. So, Jack and Jill is positioned to help in the process of developing a middle-class Black identity. The transmission of Black identity from parent to child occurs in an organizational context with Jack and Jill. The process puts an emphasis on maintaining strong ties to other Blacks and embracing Black culture.
Personally, this lecture spoke directly to my experience as a Black middle-class individual. Blacks who don’t grow up around other Blacks are considered missing an ingredient of Blackness and are reduced to status of outsiders. This is essentially how I felt growing up in predominately white suburban areas. In my social interaction with the few other Blacks in these areas, there were often disconnections between us primarily due to class differences. Even though I grew up in a household that promoted a positive Black identity, I felt like I had more in common with the white children around me because of the spaces I had access to. If I had been apart of social organizations like Jack and Jill, I would have had more opportunities to interact with other Black children who had similar experiences in society as I had. One of the biggest takeaways from the Lacy lecture was the importance of understanding the intersectionality and multidimensional nature of the Black identities in America. However, we are bound together as a Black community through the unity of Blackness in the diversity of our experiences.
Charity Gates, Digital Content Director and Contributing Writer