Is Jay-Z Right About the Middle Class?


In the past few weeks, much of the publicity surrounding “business man” Jay-Z has revealed him to be ungrateful, arrogant, and out of touch. His new album, Magna Carta Holy Grail, was given mediocre reviews, largely due to its narcissistic focus on Jay’s personal problems with fame. His new HBO performance art special, Picasso Baby, was an interesting concept, but amounted to little more than a self-affirming, overlong music video. Jay-Z also argued publicly with Harry Belafonte, an 86-year-old civil rights activist and a trailblazer for black artists, over what rich, powerful celebrities owe to society. When he was asked what he’d given back to the black community, Jay-Z haughtily deemed his own presence “charity”.

Lost in all this negative press is a comment that Hova made on Real Time With Bill Maher last Friday. When asked to speak on crime and racial profiling by police, Jay-Z had this to say: 

I don’t really want to scare America, but the real problem is there’s no middle class, right, so the gap between the haves and the have-nots is getting wider and wider. Lemme just finish this point, cause I do want to scare 'em a little bit. It’s gonna be a problem that no amount of police can solve. Because once you have that sort of oppression, and that gap is widening, it’s inevitable that something’s going to happen. Period.

Now, Shawn Carter is obviously no Elizabeth Warren, but his statement reflects a growing practice among liberal elites who are afraid to speak out against racial injustice. Instead of directly addressing the question by discussing New York City’s stop and frisk policies, or the woeful state of our educational system, Jay-Z instead chose to focus on income inequality.

Jay-Z isn’t the first famous black personality to steer attention away from politically sensitive issues like race, to the entirely uncontroversial issue of "saving the middle class." I once attended a Q&A with Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, New Jersey, who, like Jay-Z, was asked about his thoughts on mass incarceration. He answered by touting the importance of charter schools and reviving Newark’s middle class. Mayor Booker’s response towed the Democratic Party line. Similarly, despite being the first non-white commander-in-chief, President Barack Obama has said precious little on race or the prison-industrial complex during his first five and half years in office. Instead, in his 2011 State of the Union address, the President called economic fairness “the defining issue of our time.”

In short, it appears that Misters Carter, Booker, and Obama believe that giving most Americans higher wages would fix our social ills. Are they right? Would redistributing wealth stop police abuses of power? If we had a larger middle class, would housing and employment discrimination end? Would our nation’s senseless war on drugs be stopped? Would a woman’s right to choose no longer be assaulted? Would America’s $1.2 trillion in student loan debt become manageable for the 13% of college grads who have already defaulted? Would every child receive an excellent education and equal opportunity for success?

To varying degrees, I believe the answer to all of these questions to be yes. According to the World Health Organization, economic growth sometimes, but not always, corresponds with socially equitable developments in health care and education. The key words are "sometimes" and "corresponds." America’s economy grew at an unprecedented rate from 1980 to 2008, and there is no denying that the nation has become more progressive on many social issues, like marriage equality. Yet racism and sexism didn’t disappear as America became wealthier. They merely shifted shape and form.  

Due to the war on drugs, blacks and Latinos continue to be treated as second-class citizens under a new Jim Crow regime. Women still only earn $0.77 for every dollar a man makes. States across the nation continue to impose increasingly onerous restrictions on family planning and women’s health services. Colleges are becoming more racially polarized and unaffordable every year. These events were happening before the recession and continue today. Growing America’s middle class will do little to reverse them.

While I doubt that addressing income inequality would fix social injustices, fighting for a larger middle class seems like a useful way to rally liberals. More often than not, progressives are far too factionalized to be effective. Every Liberal has pet agendas that he or she believes in, and they at times can interfere with other reformist goals. This factionalism prevents those on the left from forming cohesive political movements, like the Tea Party, that stand for simple ideals and use their power and size to impact politics. By focusing on one issue, economic fairness, liberals could create their own Tea Party and use it to gain political power. Once liberals gain control of Congress, other progressive issues, from women’s rights to civil rights, could be addressed.

I doubt Jay-Z considered any of this when he spoke about the eroding middle class last Friday. In fact, his belief that his mere existence helps correct for America’s racial injustices indicates he has no clue what reality is like for the 99%. However, his statements do mirror a new strategy among the liberal elite, that focuses attention away from difficult topics, and toward ones we can all agree on, like income inequality. Time will tell whether this tactic is effective or not. Until then, I think we can all agree that Kanye West is no longer the most pompous rapper alive.