February 16, 2004

Lacy traces origins of middle class 'blackness'

By Michael Terrazas

Take two middle class, black families: One lives in Riverdale, a predominantly black suburb of Washington located in Maryland's Prince Georges County; and the other lives in Lakeview, a predominantly white suburb just across the Potomac in Virginia's Fairfax County. How do the children of these families, living in significantly different social environments, come to develop a racial identity, and how do their parents feel about the ways in which they do it?

These were the questions Karyn Lacy addressed in her Feb. 11 MARIAL Center colloquium, "Growing Up Around Blacks: The Role of Black Spaces in Identity." Two dozen people packed into the MARIAL conference room on the Briarcliff Campus to hear Lacy describe the attitudes of middle class blacks (MCBs) toward how their children develop their own "blackness."

"These issues raise provocative questions about the assimilation of MCBs into mainstream society," said Lacy, assistant professor of sociology and a MARIAL fellow, adding that many African Americans live in a state of "racial dualism" as they travel back and forth between predominantly white work spaces and predominantly black social spaces.

Building on the theory of "segmented assimilation" posited by sociologists Alejandro Portes and Min Zhou, Lacy offered her own model—"strategic assimilation"—to explain the practices of and attitudes toward socialization for MCB children, developed through a qualitative study of 30 families living in Riverdale and Lakeview.

Lacy conducted in-depth interviews with the families and found that parents living in mostly white Lakeview were more likely to enroll their children in black social organizations like Jack & Jill than were families in Riverdale, where parents were more content to let their children's predominantly black neighborhood serve as their primary socialization environment.

She also uncovered significant disconnects in attitudes toward racial identity between the two groups, something Lacy said is virtually nonexistent in sociological literature that treats MCBs as one homogenous population. The truth, at least as indicated by Lacy's research, seems to indicate that blacks raised in white neighborhoods are viewed differently by their MCB peers than those raised in black neighborhoods.

Lacy quoted one research subject who said blacks raised in a white world lack some elusive quality of "blackness"; "'They're just missing something,'" the man said, according to Lacy.

"Both groups believe that black identity is sutured through interaction in the black social world," she said. "There was a concern [among MCBs in Lakeview] that their children won't be seen as 'black enough' by other blacks. Lakeview parents encourage their kids to embrace their black identities not just for socialization purposes but also to prepare them for when they encounter racism."

And this racism, Lacy continued, is strongly perceived to exist in the "real world," as her subjects described it, meaning predominantly white, mainstream society. To further prepare their children, parents in both Lakeview and Riverdale encouraged and even insisted they attend predominantly white colleges and universities--though neither group supported their children's joining white fraternities or sororities, or entering into interracial marriages.

Lacy, just returned from a yearlong Russell Sage Foundation fellowship in New York, is finishing a book on strategic assimilation. Her lecture was the first in the MARIAL Center's spring colloquium series. On Wednesday, March 3, from 4-6 p.m., University of Florida sociology Professor Connie Shehan will discuss "Doing Gender Before God: Stress and Coping Among Clergy Wives and Clergywomen."