Sociologists at Work

The Sociologists at Work feature exposes students to the importance and application of social science research.

Mary Pattillo-McCoy

Privilege and Peril in Middle-Class Black Families

Concerned about how the combination of race and social class affects family life, sociologist Mary Pattillo-McCoy (1999) spent three and a half years in a middle-class black Chicago neighborhood she called “Groveland.” She interviewed residents of all ages, including children. The only people she wasn’t able to interview were the young adults who had gone off to college. As a black middle-class woman herself, Pattillo-McCoy quickly developed an affinity with the people she studied. She even had friends in common with some of her interviewees.

In many respects, the Groveland families were just like families in any other middle-class neighborhood. Parents saw their children’s development into self-sufficient adults as their primary family goal. And they had the financial and social resources to help achieve this goal. Most of them had the wherewithal to pay for private schools, sports equipment, dance lessons, and other enriching activities for their children. Groveland children had access to technology and other resources that their counterparts in poor black neighborhoods did not.

Pattillo-McCoy also found that the Groveland middle-class families had to deal with problems markedly different from those of their white counterparts. For one thing, she found that the neighborhoods where many urban, middle-class African Americans live are likely to be adjacent to poor neighborhoods. In contrast, white middle-class neighborhoods are typically geographically separated from poor areas. In Chicago, for example, 79% of middle-class blacks were likely to be living within a few blocks of a neighborhood where at least one third of the residents are poor; only 36% of white middle-class Chicago dwellers lived so close to a poor neighborhood (Pattillo-McCoy, 1999).

Thus, Groveland parents had to spend a lot of time trying to protect their children from the negative influences found in the nearby poor, inner-city areas. In doing so, they faced some challenges other middle-class parents were unlikely to face:

Groveland parents . . . set limits on where their children can travel. They choose activities—church youth groups, magnet schools or accelerated programs in the local school, and the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts—to increase the likelihood that their children will learn positive values and associate with youth from similar families. Still, many parents are working long hours to maintain their middle-class incomes. They cannot be with their children at all times. On their way to the grocery store or to school or to music lessons, Groveland’s youth pass other young people whose parents are not as strict, who stay outside later, who have joined the local gang, or who earn enough money being a lookout at a drug house to buy new gym shoes. They also meet these peers in school and at the park. . . . For some teenagers, the fast life looks much more exciting than what their parents have to offer them, and they are drawn to it. The simple fact of living in a neighborhood where not all families have sufficient resources to direct their children away from deviance makes it difficult for parents to ensure positive outcomes for their children and their neighborhood. (Pattillo-McCoy, 1999, pp. 211–212)

Pattillo-McCoy found that, in many other respects as well, black middle-class families face social realities that are quite different from those faced by white middle-class families. Still, her research also shows that most families within a particular social class face many of the same opportunities and barriers.