Ever wonder why real estate investors are so rich? Because they know two secrets: First, don’t pay for a property; exchange it with something you own already.

What screams “I’m upper class”?

Black/Latino Upper Class is different

My upbringing wasn’t quite the Huxtables, I’m an only child and my mother married..a lot but there was more money in her circles than her brother and sisters so I had a very similar life of expectations, resources and positive reinforcement and very little corporal punishment. It’s more of what you don’t do or what your doing/strategies are replaced by.

Standards & Practices

When I started to answer this, I was initially thinking about manners and things and I was just going to shoot off an answer then I started thinking deeply about what my experience has been dealing with Black and Latino people, coming from where I do, and from where some of them do. It;’s markedly different but has been so generally for at least 1–3 generations metastasizing into the current ones so that some things seem natural and other Black and Latino folk seem not less than or just poorer than me…but different. Here’s something weird—-they point it out before I do. For years I didn’t completely understand that I’d been privileged in a higher class, didn’t grow up in poverty, will probably never be poor.

My great grandparents, on my mother’s side were not Black, entirely. While I hate the disgusting concept of divisional racialized disillusioning, my great grandfather was full Narragansett Indian and my great grandmother was only 1/8 Black. My grandmother looked like a light skinned Black woman because of her father’s skin tone, not because she was Black. She grew up Upper Class in Providence, Rhode Island. Some of the signals, that I wasn’t completely cognizant of what she was relaying were that on her 16th birthday, she got a grand piano as a surprise gift. She and her bestie—-Shirley Bolden—-were coming home from school and when they turned the corner saw the piano being hoisted by workmen several stories up to the parlor in the brownstone that she lived with her six brothers, parents and sister.

Another Upper Class signal was that of 6 children the girls were encouraged to go to school all the way through high school so she graduated in 1928, unusual then. Owning the brownstone, the piano gift, her extremely patrician manners (one has supper Monday through Saturdays and dinner on Sundays; the table was always set, she spoke a very proper English and read prodigiously (five books a week) until she died) were all signals she was relating to me but were lost in the Blackness-culture lens I lumped her into as a child/teen.

Even more interestingly, my grandmother practiced the “paper bag” test on my family members. her preference for my mother and I having to do with lighter skin tone. Though my grandfather was really dark skin, she admonished her children, especially her darker daughter and her children to not breed with other dark people. As a teenager I remember my grandmother lamenting my two cousins, Renee and David and what would their lives be like, that they had no real futures, lowered expectations because of their extremely dark skin tones. Now, here’s a further kicker—-all the ones she pointed out who were “too dark to succeed” didn’t advance educationally, financially, etc. beyond high school, lower Middle Class.

While now I can see that my grandmother’s judgment was a mess and half, she was also relaying a truth about America, race, Black people and prosperity. There is a racial theory that darker people face harsher discrimination and racism because of it and I’ve watched this play out when I was aware of what I was looking at. Conversely I’ve had co-workers, darker, at a non-profit point out that when myself and a social worker were hired the African Executive Director was acting out his “light” fetish….which I then saw play out in his preferential treatment towards the worst assistants who were corrupt, drug addicts, sexual predators—-but lighter in skin tone.

This colorism had several generational effects:

Education

My mother went to college after her older sister, who did so for a job training told her about it, my mother went to a BA and beyond, therefore it was never a question of IF I would go to college but WHEN. Though I left high school (in favor of my GED because I would’ve had to do another half semester after walking graduation due to one year spent at a high school in New Jersey and the rest in NY) it was never a question of whether I would complete high school. If I had known about a GED years before, I would’ve left high school by 16.

My parents actually met while they were both attending neighboring colleges.

This seems “normal” but not among Black people. Unfortunately, Middle to Upper class standards and practices and therefore effects are not as common in Black (and Latino) households, or as bluntly recognized. Therefore I’m unusual to the statistical breakdown of African Americans by class.

  • 40% in Generational Poverty (they will never “change” or evolve past a household limit of $18k to $36k a year for a family of four);
  • then there’s Situational Poverty (fluctuating due to school, divorce, child support issues but with eventually move to the next level);
  • then there’s Middle/Upper Class for Black/Latino People—30% to 25%, respectively. This is the Middle Class and Higher levels who have incomes over $36k a year, college level educations, careers and will replicate this into their children with effort or ease, to millionaires.
  • (There’s also a micro 10th of a percentage marked as the Transcendent Class within Black/Latinos where you have your Michael Jordan’s, Oprah Winfrey’s Spike Lee’s, Jennifer Lopez, Slim Peru, Ricky Martin, Robert F. Smith, Reginald & Loida Lewis, Robert Johnson, Sheila Johnson, etc.) .

Communities, Clubs, Colleges, Associations and Children Associations

There’s Boule, Jack & Jill (for children), HBCUs, the Black families that live yearly on Martha’s Vineyard and/or vacation there. There’s a whole other world of Black people which I got to experience slivers of—-—-also 10 of the wealthiest neighborhoods for African Americans:

There is a lot of discretion to Black wealth as a group/community or we also tend to integrate within other communities. Therefore we don’t stand out, we blend, fold in.

Secret Money

When my mother created wealth, we’d been vacationing monthly at a timeshare in Pennsylvania from NY. We liked it and began house hunting up there and were immediately, based upon my mother’s bank account, directed to the secure/gated community where celebrities and the Upper Class live. Because I’d grown up going to country clubs and such it wasn’t a lot, or extra, to me, to have a home in a secure community where you could walk to your on-site country club but when I brought home classmates from college, my mother had initial discussions with me about not talking about money at school, preparing schoolmates who visited, not telling them my passcodes to get past the front gate armed guards. You never talked about specifics—-cash, annuities, trusts, lawyers, etc..

Furnishings/Lodgings

My mother also furnished the house from all over the world, some of the more extravagant pieces including a white leather couch from Italy that was $5000 and a specially cut smoked glass dining room table.

At 9 I remember we lived in a fully carpeted 3 bedroom duplex in a high rise that overlooked the ocean, again with expensive furnishings—-my mother had a good eye for decoration but it was definitely more than my relative’s apartments/homes.

I’ve had a king sized bed since I was 9 (the first one was round!) and my own bedroom since….forever.

Clothing

You shop for things that work for you. My mother was short, 5′2, so she had a seamstress work on a lot of the skirt/pants suits she bought to accommodate her and it was always a given that I would wear expensive but understated suits and have them done over by an atelier before wearing them. I had my first white tuxedo at 16 for a film premiere my mother produced at Lincoln Center. The one juvenile fashion concession she allowed me was I got to have a red bow tie, cummerbund, and red leather shoes.

I was admonished to sparingly wear/buy synthetic fabrics (the joke was they are the Ugly Sisters: Polly & Esther, and their vicious cousin, Rayon.) It has been an experience in my adulthood buying suits because I grew up being taken to a tailor by my stepfather, the chef, and fitted for suits because that’s all he wore. He and my mother also had matching mink coats for the winter. Up until a few years ago, I can’t remember my mother not having a mink or fur coat.

My mother and stepfather, husband # 5—-a ne’er do well, Mike, that she bought for companionship—- routinely had big beautiful cars that they could (and sometimes couldn’t) afford. Later my mother bought herself a brand new car off the showroom floor, for cash, a mistake yes, even the salesman said so, but she said she wanted the experience, having worked all of her life to just drop cash on what she wanted. Flat out.

Food/Restaurants

My mother could cook. One of my stepfather’s, Terry, was a professional chef. They rarely did cook though preferring high end restaurants.

One time he blew my mind when I said I wanted Chinese food for lunch and he went into the kitchen and from scratch made shrimp fried rice. Shrimp fried rice! He would routinely bring home dozens of steaks—-no, steaks—-porterhouse 2–3 inch thick.

He would bring home 10–20 a week and put them in the freezer with bags of shrimp and lobster and when I got home from school, I would defrost one and grill it up and have it with a salad. I was 12.

It never dawned on me, in the beautiful duplex, my toes on wall to wall carpeting, that my parents combined salaries propelled us into the Upper Class.

However, When I would go to my cousins, I was forbidden by my parents from eating:

  1. Chitlins

2. Spam

3. Hog maws, Pigs feet, Pigs ears, Head cheese, tripe

4. Kool Aid

5. Powdered Milk, Government Cheese

Going to my cousins was like an Adventure in Poverty Land because there were so many things I had to excuse myself from or ask what it was…and then excuse myself from.

I deeply offended my uncle’s wife when I visited them with my young cousins for the summer, watched their kids get cereal with powdered milk and politely went into the refrigerator and got the real thing. I calmly explained later that I wasn’t allowed to drink or eat “unreal food”.

Interestingly enough, my mother was a bit of a Francophile from studying French in college so she adored :

Cervelle de veau au beurre noir: Sautéed calf’s brain with brown butter, lemon, and capers, served with mashed potatoes, carrots, and baby bok choy. You use the old-school French cooking methods of Auguste Escoffier. It was my mother’s favorite. My mother raved about going to French restaurants when she was a teenager with friends and went on to informally study French in college—-as a child I remember books, music, movies in French around the house, constantly. I took it in high school and have an ear for it and it read it better than I speak it because of her interests.

And further interestingly enough, my grandmother liked neck bones, having discovered them living in Harlem when she married my grandfather.

But my grandmother would have her maid, Agnes, prepare them like once a month. So maybe a couple of times a year now I actually make them with collard greens as a homage, comfort food, but insanely I combine it, elevate it, in a blond roux recipe that I got from Emeril Legasse.

I can’t remember not going to restaurants and ordering from large menus. My mother not only broke the divorce news to me but let me choose “sides” at Bobby Van’s near Wall Street—-I remember it was big, huge leather seats, the menu as big as me, I was 11. We’d converted to Islam with my biological father, Robert and my mother turned to the waiter and said she was having spare ribs, what would I be having? The message was implied. I had the ribs.

My other stepfather, Jesse, told me over dinner, at a beautiful place in New Jersey, of seafood, that I should be grateful that I had a mother who let me order from the menu. I was 15. My mother and I both looked at him. I think that was when we both realized he was poor and would always be poor. She then gave me her rule on relationships: Always fuck up, never fuck down.

Relationships

Always fuck up, never fuck down.

I’m not sure there’s much else to say there.

Some of these standards are yes, the same as they would be in White Upper Class but because the majority of Black/Latino people are not Upper Class, you stand out when you layer these in, a few dozen soft rules and expectations. Manners, etiquette, knowing what things are, traveling to different places; a professor I worked for in Buffalo, said that it was obvious when she first saw me. sophomore year, that I was from “a dollar extra”.

I was planning on going on a cruise with a guy and we were looking at the web page on the phone and I said oh the penthouse suite was something like $1500 for 8 days. And he was like—-oh, you’re like that?

I guess he was looking in steerage?

That was when I realized despite his education, he’d come from poverty and had a poverty mindset—-that and other things. He mentioned once didn’t I remember what it was like growing up, hanging out on the stoop, everyone drinking beers?

I was like—-ummm, no. We had a terrace. Or a porch.

As Black Upper Class, we enjoy and know about all of the same things there’s just more omission of the things that Black people normalize or others expect were a part of my upbringing.

I went with a student Thanksgiving a few years ago to visit his aunt in the projects in East Harlem. It was exactly like it had been described in a textbook I was using for a social/educational project. 10-foot high concrete walls/ceilings, dark elevators, pissy stairwells, broken mailboxes, loud music.

I was like WOW, this is the projects!

Then I realized how that sounded in my head. Then I had to really think about it—-I had been in the projects a decade before that to a party. I’ve never lived in the projects—-maybe my cousins have, ok, some definitely have, but I don’t know if I’d ever been there for an extended period of time.

Money/Welfare/Housing Court

I’ve always had money. Or money was coming in a few days. I’ve always worked, had savings, stocks, a small business. I can’t imagine just having ONE job and ONE paycheck.

Ok, the figure of a family of four living on $18k a year? Or $36k a year?

What the holy fuck????!!!

My bare, cut to the bone, minimum I’m going to school full time and life will suck on this budget for the year, the minimum salary is $40-50k. I can scrape by on that. I’m single, no kids yet, no legal spouse (just squishy slam buddies 🙂 !! ).

Ok, funny Welfare stories—-wow, are there such things?

Anywho in 2009 the non-profit I was working for laid off like half the staff. I knew it was coming because I knew someone in HR so I immediately take the package offered, it was April 2nd, I was going to quit and start at Columbia University June 1st. So now I’m sitting at home staring at the wall, the professor I was going to start working with postpones and won’t be in residence until August—-so now I also have the whole summer off.

My mother calls from her home in Charlotte, having researched this mass country laying offs, and says that if I go to the NY Social Services office, I can get this whole package from the Stimulus Act, as a displaced worker.

Am I really displaced? I was sitting at home day-trading online, taking long meandering walks, sleeping late, reading, perfecting a roast pork recipe, watching cable. I mean, I’m starting Columbia in a few months…

“Shut up! Go to the Welfare office,” she shouts.

I finally go in late July. They tell me all these things I can get but I’m like I’ll start back to work in a few weeks, I’m good. They force Food Stamps on me. IF I come back and fill out another set of forms. I walk back—-50 blocks, a couple of weeks later (it was good summer exercise), and because of the whole Stimulus Package, I get $350 in Food Stamps. I went to Gristedes and bought lobsters and t-bone steaks for Labor Day. I started work the next week.

A few months later, it comes out that the apartment I’ve been subletting for two years is part of an elaborate Social Services resident scam. My mother, again prolific, on the internet and survival, tells me that I have to go into court “But you can’t act like you have any sense. You’re going to have to nigger it up the first time you appear. Yell, curse, be confused, demand help. If you go in calm, they’ll kick you out.”

I do so.

Sure enough, they bend over backward to not displace me, accommodate me, and the subsequent appearances the once vicious building attorney is crushed by the judge.

It seems that there was a precedence of not kicking out poor people from this scam and they were assisted. If you were educated, of a higher class, you were kicked out, first, the assumption being you could relocate faster. The building lawyer actually said to me that as a student-teacher I wouldn’t “understand” all the legal stuff in Housing Court.

I (having been a financial analyst and securities litigation paralegal for over a decade prior with multiple degrees) nodded politely.

I often nod politely when I haven’t spoken at length or presented my resume when people from a lower class (or White) racialize me due to skin color.

Some of this also illustrates how I’m lumped in with the poor, underclass based upon race, often when it doesn’t apply. Ironically as long as I don’t open my mouth, a poverty-based mentality, education level, social class level is immediately projected/thrust upon me.

Here’s a bonus that occurs in Upper Class/Racial identity.

I speak with the language and voice of the Master.

I have a friend who suggests that within the Black/Latino consciousness, there’s often a little White man who controls, admonishes, oppresses people of color, who rests inside of their head. Hegemony.

We’ve further posited and experimented with the idea, particularly when I casually speak to attendants, in stores, to cashiers, city employees of color, that their attention and bearing will change. It does. My proper English and clear, concise grammar is associated with the “Master” and those who don’t consider themselves or oppress themselves or kneel to the little White man in their heads, often mitigate themselves to it.

You’re thinking that doesn’t happen. From public to schools, to adults and children, to even jail, to police, to professionals of color. Depending on their social upbringing, if you sound and present levels higher, quite a few people will capitulate because that is the hegemonic training. Trippy, huh?

It also works to threaten some Black and Latino people. Sometimes I’m just strolling through life being handsome and happy and there are those who assume that because I am, or where I am from historically, in my home training, parental upbringing, that I’m less concerned and active in social justice, activism, that I can go hide back in privilege and money, lots of stuff.

Social class is very messy when you layer in race. Some of the animosity in person or online is called Class Spite because no one is ready to accept that my parents worked hard, I do, and most importantly they taught me to stop working hard and start working smart.

What that has meant is that when I wanted more money/allowance, my mother helped me create a business and had me sign a contract with her for $5 for start-up money. At 14 she gave me a Tax ID Number for my birthday and then by 22 she was advising me how to co-opt a college club’s Presidency so that I could experiment with the SUNY system’s money and contacts. Ironically, created the aptitude of networking, from doing this one of the offshoots was that 7 months after I was done at SUNY undergrad I applied for a job with a commercial real estate firm and I was able to get on the phone with the President and VP of the university and have them call/email recommendations for me because they’d pulled me onto a student committee years previous. The job started at $46k, which is a lot for a Black man now and that was over 10 years ago and I was 26.

My parents having entrepreneurial businesses, contacts, etc. taught me how to actualize Access/Opportunity—-which is really one of the main barriers in work/income for Black and Latino people in America and fuels most of the Racial Wealth Gap. To that point, the Gap, I’ve only tangentially experienced it though I can say and see now that my mother’s attempts to replicate her parents’ 30+ year marriage by marrying men with the goal of longevity and not the co-goal of social/financial increase for the family always (except for Terry, the chef, I think they were both ambitious, socially and financially.)

But the only other increasing social class/socio-economic force was my biological father, Robert—-I remember him constantly using his American Express card—-I was 10 years old—-which is how I came to understand and have them explain the difference between a bank/debit card and credit card to me so early so that I had Mastercard/Visa credit cards, a credit line, and bank card by 18 while making $1000 a week in retail.

And they also explicitly taught me to hold and perceive myself differently than how people who are “down to earth”, which I’ve never understood. I also don’t understand Class Spite when people say they want more money—-wanting to be the thing you’re spiteful about. Odd.

How has this affected/effected me now that I have an educated lens to understand the comparative differences?

I feel different. Sadly, I can feel racially, race, (though I see, know, believe and mock it as a social construct) socially—-like when I’m at work-school (Columbia) and I’m asked to do something because I “present well”. Now yes, some of that is training, elocution, I dress well enough. I wear contacts and glasses but I also speak a near-perfect grammatical English, unless I’m playing around with people or trying to be less formal. Therefore, and this is important, people, pointedly White people, treat me better. They often speak to me with closer to parity, a parallel psyche, across a plane rather than down to me and then trust me to represent them well.

Myself and another upper-class Black man were chosen to do the presentations to the Fulbright Scholars (judges, lawyers, business people, politicians) about, ironically, the state of education and poverty in America. But the choosing of us was very deliberate to both subliminally illustrate the fact of possible achievement of minorities who are standing there as doctoral candidates presenting/teaching and also to sort of encourage that we definitely know what and where we speak because we straddle two worlds—-though on campus we’re going to be circumspect about it.

So you say, okay, that’s a one-off and has to do with teaching and ability.

And then he and I are sent as part of an educational partnership outreach to the Latino GED/TASC program to teach classes, pull them into the fold and then my class is opened to Phoenix House remanded young people and when they won’t come 30 blocks, I’m released/tasked and paid to go them. A lot of that and it happens to me more and more—-I’m like a Black education consulting ambassador who speaks understands two worlds so I’m often sent to elementary schools, middle schools, high schools with huge problems and issues—-but there’s a comfort and confidence that I can work stuff out.

In my lived life, every day Kyle, human concerns, I notice a benefit of teh doubt based upon my social class presentation. I also notice poverty more in minorities and I notice how White people ignore it because I too can access ignoring it, just not as easily. I notice a self consciousness in my own successes and an inability to talk and share with all Black and Latino who I am, what I’m doing, what I’m creating because I first have to evaluate their social class as to whether they’ll accept, be interested or threatened by my accomplishments, resume, CV, tastes, etc..

I often have to be thoughtful to how I speak or advise peers, adults, not in a teaching setting because I know all of the structural issues, social cues, hidden rules of social class, modalities, manners, corporate markers and mores, that they may not. So I can’t say to everyone who is job hunting I can give you a recommendation, go talk to Bob such and such at such and such because one, I know how my professional reputation is built and therefore attached to the candidate and two, more glaringly sometimes I can evaluate the candidate as ambitious but unschooled in the social class mores and values they would need, that I might possess but never recognized as be explicitly taught, that would be insulting or too extensive for me to relay. I often give books…but too many minorities don’t read. SO I give books like a stone in a well and I listen for water at the bottom. I hear it 50%/50%.

Does this mean I’m more comfortable with one, White people or two, people who are Middle Class or higher more than I am with poor people?

Yes, because poverty contains dysfunctional mentalities and structural choices to obviate the pain of poverty. Because I don’t suffer from the pain of poverty, I’m not always looking for those pain obviators (alcohol,unsafe sex, drugs, dysfunctional relationships, children I can’t afford to validate manhood, etc.)I also, from a different class, have a longer range vision of myself, consequences, etc..

Here’s how that’s played out in 2 ways:

Unsafe Sex

I’ve been offered a lot of sex, I’ve been offered a lot of sex that might be from what we would consider “poor people”. I’m more thoughtful and resourced so I’ve had condoms since I was a child and understood them and had a frank sexual education from my parents. AND I think of sex, recreational, that might even with protection involve risk as an impediment not to just me, or to possibly my ability to take care of my parents but also to my coming children and grandchildren.

I don’t fuck raw or bareback because my children will need me a Black man to be not simply mentally sane but as physically strong/healthy for as long as possible to mentor them. I look at my body, knowing all of teh other health risks I have to be conscious of, as also a vessel that must be viable for legacying my DNA, the next generations.

Drugs/Addiction

I used to joke that I’ve never done drugs because one day I might want to be a senator (but I did opt for get appointed to my local Community Board, not only for civic interests and sense of responsibility but also because it was a networking and bonus to my CV AND as a further incentive for COlumbia to accept me, which they did notice and the Borough President and Mayor invited me to be the rep on teh Board and on COlumbia Board—-creation all kinds of conflict of interests but I chose to go for that non-paying appointment because I understood it’s broader value and access.)

My drug reticence was from family addictions I’ve seen and the impediments it’s cost them. To be starkly aware that there are only so many impediments I can overcome after being designated Black and sexuality non-hetero, in this world is something I’ve had conscious, deliberate, planning strategic discussions with my parents and mentors about.

But that abstinence has also booned my Work/Income ability in that I piss clean like a cat and that’s given me entree into law firms, financial firms security firms where I saw that urine testing, even just for marijuana becoming a way to not just eliminate those who partake but pointedly so many who partake, who are minorities. To that end, just clean piss because of social class enforcement to be able to move has meant I tend to earn a lot more money and I’m legally considered a non-liability in sensitive jobs/projects.

In Conclusion

Wealth and class occur over time to live a good, fulfilling life and usually has the effect of giving to others (consider the company you may work for is owned by a person or a family or started by one-—their wealth of ability and resources has provided a system that is available for an exchange medium with you.) Poverty makes people more desperate and dangerous than having more because when you have extra you don’t want to risk it over foolishness or simple greed.

A lot of things I was on the edge of are in this book. Our Kind Of People. It’s a great to read to see how people, including the 7 richest Black families in America (that you never hear about publicly) operated to maintain wealth and dignity in spite of slavery, Jim Crow, Civil Rights—-when they were above, apart from, or isolated away from those oppressive systems. Not all of us grew up in or were oppressed the same.

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